Calif. school demands, and delivers, more

Program prepares youths from poverty, minorities for demands of college

May 04, 2004|By Karen Brandon | Karen Brandon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SAN DIEGO - Life in a hardscrabble neighborhood just north of the Mexican border convinced Jesse Lopez that college was beyond his grasp. Though he had good grades, he said, "I thought going to college was impossible for me."

His parents, once migrant workers, toiled in the fields from such an early age that his father never set foot in an elementary school and his mother stayed only through fourth grade. His older brother and sister graduated from high school, but life - jobs, marriages, babies - interfered with their going to college.

But now the soft-spoken 17-year-old, who manages to study and sleep despite the deafening squeal of the trolley just beyond his bedroom window, is poised to scale the barrier that once seemed insurmountable. Lopez plans to attend one of the world's best universities, Stanford.

What changed Lopez's thinking from "I'll never get to college" to "When I go to college" was the Preuss School, a public charter school run by the University of California, San Diego, as a national model for the post-affirmative action era.

It is an intensive college-preparatory school for low-income students in grades six-12, most of them minorities and all of them required to prove they would be the first in their families to graduate from college.

This spring's high-stakes college admission season for the its first graduating class has given the school powerful evidence that it is achieving its ambitious aims. Lopez, one of many students who commuted two hours each way from home to attend the school, is only one example.

About two-thirds of the first graduating class gained admission to the University of California system, including its most prestigious Berkeley campus. Students have been accepted at Dartmouth College, New York University, Spelman College and Claremont McKenna College.

All but five of the 55 students in the class won admission to four-year institutions, and those five are eligible to attend California's public universities if they complete certain courses and maintain a certain grade point average at a state community college.

Cecil Lytle, the UCSD provost who was the driving force behind the creation of Preuss, fears that as preliminary word of the school's success spreads, it might elicit "a Stand and Deliver effect," a reference to the movie about math teacher Jaime Escalante and his East Los Angeles students, whose unexpected successes on calculus exams initially led to accusations of cheating.

"It will be interesting to see the community reaction," said Lytle, an African-American who grew up in Harlem. "Will people say, `We don't believe it'?"

Preuss (rhymes with choice) promises its 750 students the kind of education that will allow them to succeed in a college admissions process that makes no concessions for race or ethnicity. It also promises to set an example for schools struggling to improve the education of poor, minority students.

Demographic trends make the mission especially crucial. This year, for the first time, as many Latinos and African-Americans as whites will graduate from California's public high schools. At the same time, California no longer has tools that aided minorities in the past, having dismantled affirmative action and implemented budget cuts that have restricted the number of admissions to its public university system.

The demographic changes at hand in California signal trends that are expected to emerge throughout the country. The proportion of white students in public schools is expected to decline sharply nationwide. And the growth in the proportion of minorities, Hispanics most prominently, and in the number of students from poor families underscores what is seen as an increasingly urgent need to improve their academic progress.

One word characterizes Preuss: more. The school year is nearly a month longer. The school day is an hour longer. Classes are intense, scheduled in every-other-day blocks that run for an hour and 42 minutes, rather than the typical 55 minutes. Some students return for Saturday-morning sessions.

One senior, David Iaea, who is headed to New York University, says with a nod toward the brutal schedule, "College will be a breeze after Preuss."

Another senior, Eden Hagos, who will attend the University of California, Santa Barbara, so she can remain close to her parents and six younger siblings, said friends in her neighborhood think Preuss sounds too hard. "They tell me, `I would never go to school there. You'd never have a life,'" she said.

More is expected of everyone connected with Preuss. Parents must "volunteer" at the school 15 hours per year. School starts late on Fridays so teachers can hold two-hour development sessions before classes begin.

The idea of college is everywhere at the school, housed in a new $14 million facility on UCSD's campus. University students serve as tutors, other university faculty and staff as mentors. University internships for Preuss students are common.

Discussion of what it takes to get to college is a daily ritual that extends to minutiae such as what type of snack to bring while taking the SAT.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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