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Reprinted from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 010, 2011

Getting freshmen on track: How local high schools prepare ninth-graders for college

By J.M. Brown

Flor Perez, a 1995 Santa Cruz High graduate, sits inside the library of her alma mater with her 15-year-old son Alex as the two plot his path to college.

As part of a preparedness course for ninth-graders and their families, the Perezes match high school course offerings with entry requirements for four-year universities. They want to make sure Alex knows the right classes to take now to get into college after earning his diploma.

Flor wished there had been a similar program when she was growing up. Now in her 30s and expecting her third child, she’s majoring in health science and nursing at San Jose State University while raising Alex and his younger brother.

“We had to see a counselor and make our own appointment,” she said of her time in high school. “This workshop actually includes the parents. It allows us to make sure our kids are on track.”

Pat Cavataio, a former instructor at San Jose State for 12 years, has hosted the Personal Planning Workshops for freshmen and their families at Santa Cruz High for 10 years. As a part-time counseling tech, Cavataio gives dozens of the 90-minute classes each year, helping students and their families chart a college-bound plan.

This year, Santa Cruz City Schools began replicating the workshop at its other high schools and is stepping up other higher education readiness programs. While ninth grade is the first opportunity most students have to begin planning in earnest for college, preparing — or not preparing — often begins much earlier depending on a family’s financial capability and other potential barriers.

“In some families, it’s just a given that kids know they are going to college,” said Kris Munro, the district’s assistant superintendent for education services. “My kids are 6 and 8, and they know they are going to college. But if you haven’t experienced college or people aren’t talking about it, it’s foreign.”

Educators say stumbling blocks present themselves as early as aspirations of college start bubbling to the surface.

If parents can’t afford college or didn’t go to college themselves, or if families are undocumented or face other hurdles, young people can take themselves out of the running before the race even begins.

But educators are working to make sure that, by the ninth grade at the latest, when students are usually 14 or 15, students and their families are learning about their options and how to overcome obstacles.

GETTING READY

In addition to expanding the ninth-grade workshop, Santa Cruz City Schools has taken other steps to increase college readiness. This year, the district joined a new partnership with other K-12 school districts, Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz to reduce barriers between moving from high school to the community college and on to a four-year school, if that’s the path a student wants to pursue.

The district has expanded a program called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, which started at Santa Cruz High and now has classes in the district’s other two high schools and two middle schools. The class helps first-generation college-bound students and their parents learn how to navigate the school system and prepare for college by focusing on study skills and content-specific literacy training.

The district also intends to offer the PSAT test during school hours, not just on the weekend, to encourage greater participation in the test, the results of which colleges use to generate letters of interest. And the district offers college awareness nights that lay out what needs to happen in middle school to set students on the right path toward college.

The district is also reviewing its graduation requirements to ensure they are rigorous enough, whether students intend to go to college or enter the workforce. The district argues that kids need to be ready regardless. “We want them to leave our school with as many choices for their future as possible,” Munro said. “If kids get locked out of the track in ninth grade, if they don’t choose courses wisely, they can’t decide as juniors, ‘Oh wait, I want to be college-bound.’”

FRESHMEN WORKSHOP

In the freshmen workshops, which nearly all Santa Cruz High freshmen complete, instructor Cavataio encourages students to start down the four-year track, getting all the prerequisites they need early, even if they plan to pursue a two-year school, vocational program or immediate career.

“Anytime you do pre-planning, it’s obviously going to help,” he said. “Giving them all that information is a really great way to enhance the chances that they will consider a four-year college. At least they are aware of the expectations, the finite stuff they have to do.”

During the workshop, he explains in detail the math, science and other courses needed for college, and how honors courses give students a leg up on earning a higher grade-point average. He walks parents and students through how to register for the maze of college entrance exams.

He said students often start the workshop overwhelmed.

“They think, how do I complete these four-year plans, but by the time they leave, they have a smile on their face,” he said. “Here they have this plan they can utilize, a flexible plan.”

Alex Perez said the workshop helped him strategize.

“It opened my eyes to see what I was going to try and pursue,” he said.

His mother, Flor, said it’s clear some of her fellow college students at San Jose State didn’t get similar help.

“The new kids that are just straight out of high school are lost, they don’t understand the system,” she said. “They didn’t get this kind of counseling. If there is a lack of guidance, you could be taking classes you don’t need or be wasting time.”

‘DEGREE IS REALLY A MUST’

Abdel Ali-Manasrah, a 14-year-old Watsonville High freshmen, knew early on that going to college was not optional. He had to go, but financial and academic planning would be key.

“We talked about college ever since he was really young,” his mother, May Alrshaidat, said. “That was our target — to go through school, do really well and go to university.”

Abdel’s father, Mahmoud, works in a restaurant and May, who earned her associate’s of arts degree in math from Cabrillo College after graduating from Watsonville High, works inside the home. They already have started talking to their younger sons, 6-year-old Mohammad and 3-year-old Ahmad, about the importance of college.

May said a degree is “really a must.”

“It’s not like in the old days when you could work and make good money,” she said. “If you don’t have a certificate or degree, it’s really hard to make it. Everything is getting more expensive.”

Abdel wants to go to UC Santa Cruz to study engineering so he can create video games for Sony. The family is glad he chose a school close by so he can live at home rather than encumber the cost of living on campus.

“It saves money if he can live with us and just go to school every day,” he said.

It’s hard to say what the full cost of a UC education will be by the time he’s ready to go. Tuition has increased 56 percent in the past two years — from $7,788 in 2009 to $12,192 this year — and could go up again if lawmakers once again cut state funding for UC.

Abdel has saved all his Christmas money for his college and is applying for financial aid. The family has some savings, but not enough to cover all the costs.

May said when Abdel is older he will be allowed to work in the summer to pay for school, but she wants him to stop when classes are in session so he can focus on his studies.

In the meantime, Abdel works with his counselor to ensure the courses he takes during the next three years prepare him for college. The school has a variety of programs designed to make sure students know their options for higher education, including helping parents and students prepare four-year plans and hosting college night events with representatives from UC, California State University and Cabrillo College.

Watsonville and Pajaro Valley high schools also participate in the Early Academic Outreach Program, UC’s largest academic preparation program. It helps students complete UC and CSU eligibility requirements and guides them through the application and financial aid processes.

School staff recruits students starting in the 9th grade, and once in the program, they must maintain a 2.0 grade-point average in their freshman year and increase it to a 2.5 by the end of their junior year. Students who participate in the program are 71 percent likely to complete courses required for admission requirements, compared to 35 percent of students who don’t, the district reports.

‘AN INTERGENERATIONAL PROJECT’

Catherine Cooper, a psychology professor at UCSC, directs the Bridging Multiple Worlds Alliance, which was created to help students from low-income, immigrant or historically underrepresented communities find their way to college.

She said families often view college as an “intergenerational project,” based on whether parents and grandparents went to college or expect their offspring to do so. If a conversation about college doesn’t start early, students may decide on their own that they can’t afford it or make the cut academically.

By ninth grade, “If that’s the first time you’re sitting down with your kid (to discuss college), it’s certainly not too late,” Cooper said.

But it’s probably better to do it earlier because, Cooper said, “Children form their own aspirations very early. That’s why pre-college programs are so crucial — because that’s where families who have not had the experience of college learn.”

Flor Perez was the first generation in her family to graduate from college. Her freshman son Alex hopes to be the second, but he plans to enter the military to help pay for it.

“I want to got to college to follow my mom’s footsteps,” he said, “to show I can also do it and she is a big role model in my life.”