Three times a week last year, 45 University of California, Berkeley students piled into a bus and headed a few minutes north to Washington Elementary School in Point Richmond. For a few hours after school, the university students tutored almost a third of the entire school in math.
The results were nothing short of remarkable. Not only did test scores rise significantly, but also the students - most of them minorities - met role models they could relate to. "It helped our kids to see Hispanic and black students coming from Cal," says principal Kaye Burnside. "The kids said, 'Maybe I could do this one day.' "
University of California administrators hope they do.
In the aftermath of Proposition 209 - the ballot initiative passed in November that rules out any programs based on race, gender, or ethnicity - California is searching for a way to keep minority enrollment at its public universities from disintegrating.
Already UC-Berkeley's law school has announced that it will have only one black in next year's class - and he deferred his admission from the previous year. So as affirmative action programs go under the microscope nationwide, many states are watching to see how California will handle its growing problem - whether there is a politically acceptable and effective way to ensure diversity on college campuses without preferences.
Proof in the partnerships
Perhaps the most promising hope lies in partnerships like the one between Washington Elementary and UC-Berkeley, many educators say. Two weeks ago the UC Board of Regents decided to vastly expand such minority outreach programs, doubling current spending to $120 million yearly.
In addition to existing efforts focused on aiding individual students, the nine university campuses will also forge partnerships with entire school systems, targeting 50 of the state's worst-performing high schools, all with overwhelmingly minority student bodies. The aim is to at least double the number of UC-eligible students in five years by narrowing the still-large gap between the academic performance of white and Asian students and African-Americans and Latinos.
"Kids need to be in a challenging academic program right from the start," says Margaret Heisel, director of outreach for the UC system. "By third grade, things begin to be sorted out."
The proposal is the result of a task force set up two years ago when the UC regents decided to end the affirmative-action admissions program. That decision was given greater force in November when California voters passed Prop. 209.
Although a drop in minority students was expected, university officials were shocked to find that the entering classes of its law and medical schools will be almost entirely white and Asian. At Berkeley, for example, 14 black students were offered admission under the new guidelines, and all have declined.
A similar dramatic drop has taken place at the University of Texas graduate schools, which eliminated affirmative action programs as the result of a court decision.
The Texas Legislature recently passed the "10 Percent Solution" - a proposal supported by President Clinton. The law would require the UT system to admit the top 10 percent of the graduates of each Texas high school.
A similar proposal has been aired in the California Legislature. Under California state guidelines, the UC system aims to admit the top 12.5 percent of all of the state's high school graduates, but state Sen. Teresa Hughes proposes to take the top 12.5 percent from each school instead.
Critics say such proposals ignore the underlying problems of the educational system and will do more damage than good by admitting students who are not academically prepared to universities.
Inner-city and rural schools have significantly fewer resources than more affluent suburban systems, educators say. Most minority youngsters are still educated separately from whites and Asians, concentrated in the schools that offer the least preparation for university admissions tests and fewer academically oriented courses.
According to the UC task-force report, the top quintile of California's almost 800 high schools, as measured by average SAT scores, has only 17 percent minority enrollment. In contrast, the bottom fifth is 79 percent minority. Nationwide, more than two-thirds of African-American and Latino students attend predominately minority schools, reports the Washington-based Education Trust.
This shows up clearly in admissions to the UC system. The top public schools, located in largely white and Asian-populated suburban neighborhoods, send as many as 40 percent of their graduates to UC. In contrast, inner-city schools send as little as 1 percent to UC universities.
That vast educational disparity was somewhat hidden behind the veil of affirmative action.
"Affirmative-action programs have helped individual students," says Penny Edgert of the California Postsecondary Education Commission. "They have not solved the systematic problem that continues to exist."
By involving the nation's universities in the K-12 system, educational reformers hope to bring a variety of new resources to the aid of schools. Aside from tutoring programs, universities offer teacher training, curriculum development, and assistance in tracking progress, says Katie Haycock, director of Education Trust.
Outreach programs, however, do not offer any quick fix to the diminishing opportunities for minority students, critics say. The proposed spending is still far too little to deal with the deep problems in the school system.
And even its backers agree it will be many years before it will have any significant effect on the level of minority students at California universities.
"The logical way to do it would have been to keep affirmative action in place and to begin to do the heavy lifting," says Ms. Haycock. "As schools improve, you could take away affirmative action."