How one school helps lift Latinos to a college education

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In conversation, Louis LaVenture makes the kind of unflinching, eye-to-eye contact you might expect of a starting defensive end.

Yet the Tennyson High School football standout is also given to reflection. As he wrote in a school essay last fall: "I sometimes imagine myself in a world different from the one I actually live in."

What he imagined is becoming reality for Louis, who has walked the walk that so many educators, politicians, and parents have come to acknowledge as vital to a new century of American prosperity.

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Louis is Latino. And with aggressive help and guidance from his school, he is headed for college this fall, instead of the other dead-end options he admits were equally likely destinations when he enrolled at Tennyson 3-1/2 years ago.

He is no isolated example. This school, 40 percent Latino, most from tough neighborhoods where drugs and gangs are common, is having extraordinary success in motivating and preparing Latinos for college, a central endeavor in the nation's push to revitalize its public schools.

Indeed, experts say few goals are as clear or as important as bringing harmony to three powerful trends marking the close of the 1990s:

*Latinos are the nation's fastest growing sizable minority.

*In the emerging "new" economy, education is more important than ever.

*By most measures, Latinos as a group are doing poorly in school, often the worst among the nation's minorities.

Speaking of Latino underachievement, Kati Haycock of the Education Trust Inc. in Washington says, "There is no more important challenge facing American education than ... this one."

Tennyson High is into its fourth year of several aggressive programs aimed at boosting the on-to-college rate, and there are signs aplenty it is working. Its ingredients are common goals, bridge-building from junior high, tutoring, mentoring, outreach to parents, and teacher dedication.

Tennyson's results

Because high school lasts four years, the evidence of Tennyson's gains is not yet conclusive. It amounts to early indicators of a long and complicated effort. But as indicators, they're impressive, analysts agree.

For instance, three years ago, 65 of the school's 1,600 students took the PSAT, a warm-up for the main SAT necessary for admission to most four-year colleges. This year, 265 took the PSAT.

In addition, sophomore students in the program who took an English-proficiency exam commonly given to freshmen in the California State University system achieved an average score equal to that of the first-year college students.

Overall, the main goal of Tennyson's most ambitious reform program is to have 80 percent of the 300 students in the program college-ready by the end of this year. Tennyson reform coordinator Steve Neill predicts, "We're going to be darn close to that."

"Tennyson is doing a lot of the foundation work that we've never thought about doing in our high schools," says Susie Friday, a high school support provider for the University of California Teaching and Learning Alliance who is working with Tennyson. In particular, this high school is teaching teens "how to be successful in class and to be conscious of what they're doing so they can be successful beyond Tennyson."

Nationally, the education of Latinos lags seriously behind other groups. Of every 100 Latino kindergartners, for example, only 31 will complete some college, compared with 62 whites, according to the Education Trust. High school graduation rates nationally are 15 percentage points lower for Latinos than African-Americans. And while the high school completion rate has been improving for African-Americans in recent years, it has shown virtually no progress for Latinos.

Language difficulties explain some of the discrepancy. But Ms. Haycock says statistics consistently show that poorly trained teachers and weak curriculum are the predominant causes for Latino underachievement.

And that is where Tennyson has concentrated its efforts. Its so-called Seamless Transition Program starts by making students aware of the courses, grades, and tests they'll need for college, a process that begins with a one-week "expectations" session the summer before high school even begins. Students in the program, which is voluntary, also take a college-preparatory course their freshman year.

In addition to the transition program, another project, called Puente, focuses on building a support group for Latinos. Students in the program take an intensive reading and writing class for two years and stay together as a group for both years. Also, Tennyson has an active Latino organization that encourages student feedback and seeks to build bridges between the school and the students' families.

Amid the programs, there is also a noticeable dose of personal dedication on the part of some teachers. Puente counselor Senda Rios is often on the phone with parents, double-teaming students as they traverse the often rocky high school years.

Getting to college

Louis, for instance, came to high school with a group of friends who have mostly dropped out or been transferred to a continuing-education school for poor performers. But Puente forged a relationship with Louis's sometimes frustrated parents, and together they helped the student stay on track. Now, everyone is confident Louis's college applications will be successful. In money terms, a college degree is increasingly important to better wages.

A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that for workers in this state, the income benefit to a college degree was substantial, and rising. In 1969, a worker with a bachelor's degree earned 50 percent more than someone who only completed high school. In 1997, the income advantage widened to 70 percent.

For many of the Latinos at Tennyson, going to college is a pioneering task. They come from immigrant families that have used mobility and hard work, rather than education, as the formula for getting ahead.

As a whole, Latinos are as anxious to go to college as other groups, according to surveys of beginning high school students. But something often breaks down along the way, says Haycock. Typically, neither the family nor the school is ensuring that Latinos get the right courses, learn the right things, and take the necessary exams to be college-ready.

Tennyson's programs heavily emphasize making students aware of their college readiness. But for some, its programs go beyond college preparedness to reshaping motivation.

Angela Villasana started Tennyson determined to "be the first person in my family to go to college." And there seems little doubt that she will be. But thanks to the self-esteem, ethnic pride, and sense of family that Puente provided, Angela's motivation has changed.

"My freshman year, I wanted to please everybody else," she says. "Then, one of the things you learn in Puente is that you don't have to do it, go to college, for everyone else. Now, I do it for myself."

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