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How one school helps lift Latinos to a college education

By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 1999


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

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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.

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."