Schools program chips away at achievement gap

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Logo

Like many high school seniors, Alvara Alvarado will have to suffer the anxiety of waiting until spring for the (hopefully) fat envelopes addressed from universities to arrive in his mailbox. 

For many of the students who attend Santa Monica and Malibu high schools, those letters and the four years of higher education they signify have been on the horizon since they first enrolled in pre-school. 

That’s not the case for Alvarado, who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador in 2005. Before coming to the United States, Alvarado had never used a computer, nor had he experienced the Internet. 

Now, he wants to go to Cal Poly in Pomona, Calif. to study software engineering. Alvarado is one success story from Young Collegians, a collaborative program between the Santa Monica- Malibu Unified School District and Santa Monica College that takes two dozen low-income and minority youth and exposes them early to rigorous college classes. The roughly 25 people in the cohort of Young Collegians were selected as freshmen to participate in a three-year program that involves sacrificing their summers to earn college credits and get a taste for higher education. 

The program is one of many at SMMUSD that attempt to address the long-standing achievement gap between minority and low-income students and their white and Asian counterparts on many measures of academic success. 

That gap has been the target of ongoing efforts, most recently a comprehensive plan put forward by Terry Deloria, assistant superintendent of Educational Services. 

Young Collegians takes students having difficulty in their freshman year of high school, usually with a C average, and supports them through SMC classes by providing advice, books and some transportation to school and other Young Collegians events. 

Those include visits to local university campuses and the chance to speak with people in professional fields to inspire them to stick to their educational goals. 

Students enter Young Collegians without the benefit of a family member who has previously gone to college, often without much of an idea of what they want to pursue after high school. 

Some, like Alvarado, a senior at Malibu High School, have even less experience with the wider world of American education. 

Those in the program are applying to top-notch schools with sights set on professional careers, like Chris Garcia, a senior in Malibu who plans to take his experience in three-dimensional art and translate it into a career in architecture. 

“I wouldn’t be where I am [without the Young Collegians program],” Garcia said. 

He knew he wanted to go to college. His mother, who works as a housekeeper, made it clear from the get-go that she wanted him to get the kind of education that would let him choose a different career path than her own, Garcia said. 

Other kids at school want to go to college because their parents did, or it’s always been expected of them, Garcia said. 

“We want to go to college because we know how tough it is to do manual labor,” he said. 

Young Collegians took that desire and gave it focus, helping its students negotiate the complicated world of college applications, financial aid and other intricacies that seem second nature to those who have waded into those depths before. 

It helps bring down barriers that many people don’t consider, said Rosa Serratore, secondary math coordinator with Education Services at the district. 

Those barriers include the cost of Young Collegians itself, which is entirely borne by the district and community college. 

Books for a computer course focused on tools in the Microsoft Office Suite cost roughly $100 a piece, Serratore said, and classes cost $46 per unit. 

That’s almost twice as much as just two years ago as the community college system struggled to get through the prolonged recession, increased demand for courses and dragging California’s budget crisis. 

Without support from the schools, students in Young Collegians wouldn’t be able to afford to attend the program. 

Things have been tight recently, said Wade Stevenson, a senior at Samohi. 

His family has had to come together to support two relatives who have fallen on hard times, making resources scarce even for something like Young Collegians. 

Garcia can relate—he lives in Oxnard, Calif. and travels two hours by bus to get to SMC for classes during the summer. Gas money to get to Malibu and the $3 in bus fare adds up when it’s every day, he said. 

“The fact that it was free made it possible,” Garcia said. 

Most importantly, Young Collegians works. 

According to information released by the district, the Young Collegians group that graduated last year had an average grade point average of 2.26 out of 4 in eighth grade, before they were invited to the program. 

That increased to 2.45 by the time they left, significantly better than the 2.15 average GPA recorded for students invited to Young Collegians who choose not to join the program. 

High school students across the country will soon find out where they will spend the next four years of their lives. A few months after that, they will walk across the stage and into their futures. 

Now, the Young Collegians have a vision for where that might take them. 

“This opened me up to new things,” Garcia said. “It gave me a heads up for what’s to come.” 

A previous version of this story appeared in the Santa Monica Daily Press.