Carlos Contreras never did like school. His grades were "bombers." The classroom was the place he longed to escape.
"I used to ditch school all the time," said Contreras, a student at Sylmar High School.
But the exuberant 17-year-old senior has recently turned his grades around. He is now pulling A's instead of the F's and C's of his junior year. He has missed only two days of school this year. No longer headed for failure at high school, Contreras is planning a college career and considering a major in engineering.
For 16-year-old Kari Wellington, grades have never been a problem. But she, also, was having difficulty at school. Wellington was a loner. Shy and unsure of herself, she barely spoke to other students. She was confused about herself and her studies lacked direction.
"I didn't know where I wanted to be," said Wellington, a junior at Kennedy High School in Granada Hills.
But Wellington, too, has changed. No longer shy, she has an extrovert's sense of humor. She has developed a sense of purpose, and plans to study child psychology when she goes to college.
She laughed. "I feel funny saying that," Wellington said. "My friends would think it was weird."
Wellington and Contreras are two of the 70 students who attend a highly successful but relatively little-known academic enrichment program based at California State University, Northridge. The federally funded program, one of 398 similar programs on campuses across the country, is called Upward Bound.
All 398 Upward Bound programs are run separately and each has its own flavor. All, however, are geared to the same objective: to provide low-income high school students whose parents have never been to college the kind of academic support systems that "the academic elite" of any high school would enjoy.
"The goal of Upward Bound programs is placement in college," said Carlos Chavez, Upward Bound program director at Occidental College.
Ninety-five percent of Upward Bound students reach that goal, according to Chavez. Although no formal studies have been conducted recently to track Upward Bound students, they usually earn B averages.
Upward Bound was founded in 1965 because of the civil rights movement, at about the same time as the Educational Opportunity Programs for minority students, Chavez said. But the Northridge program wasn't begun until 1979.
The programs are financed by independent contracts with the federal government, according to Chavez. The CSUN program has an annual budget of $200,000.
Of the students who join the program at Northridge, 95% stay with it until they graduate from high school, according to Gordon Recht, acting program director for most of the past year. (The acting director now, Renee Mendez-Vasquez, returned recently after a year on maternity leave.)
Of those who stay, almost all go on to college.
Actual numbers, however, are small compared to the population of students in the San Fernando Valley, the area served by the Northridge program.
"There are thousands of students out there," Recht said. "And so many of them could benefit from this program."
As it is, the program is limited to just 15 students from each of five high schools--Sylmar, Kennedy, Canoga Park, San Fernando and Monroe. These are schools where high concentrations of minority students have led to high dropout rates. A 1985 report from the California Post-Secondary Education Commission showed that while the overall dropout rate in California high schools for that year was 24%, black and Latino students dropped out at a rate of 33%.
Furthermore, the commission said, "it is evident that far fewer black and Hispanic students enroll in college preparatory courses in California high schools than do white or Asian students."
In San Fernando, a largely Latino community, a 1983 United Way profile showed that 72% of the adult population never graduated from high school, and fewer than 6% had earned a college degree.
Spots in Demand
Fifteen students drawn from grades 10 through 12 in a high school of 2,000 students is not a large number, and demand for places generally far outstrips the supply, said Recht.
This means that prospective Upward Bound students must undergo extensive screening to gain admission to the program.
The two criteria for admission--either low income or first generation to enter college--are generally strictly enforced. The income requirement is based on a sliding scale. Mendez-Vasquez said that, in exceptional cases, the program director has the authority to waive the requirements.
Students are recommended for the program by teachers and screened by high school counselors.
"It's a real subtle thing we're looking for," said Steve Kleinberg, counselor at Monroe High School. Grades are never a factor. They may be low, as in Contreras' case, or high like Wellington's. But there must be "something that shows potential," Kleinberg said. The choice is difficult and subjective, he said.