WHITTIER — At noon, Bertha Figueroa's office at Pioneer High School is bustling.
Students hurry in and out during their lunch hour, picking up paper work for their college entrance exams. Some occasionally stop for advice on how to fill out financial aid forms. Others meet with tutors to brush up on their math or English skills.
For nearly nine years Figueroa, director of the Horizons program, has been helping students prepare for college. Recently, Pioneer--along with Whittier and Bell high schools--was among 21 California high schools recognized by the state Department of Education because it exceeds the state average for the number of black and Latino students it places in California's state universities.
According to Terry Emmett, a consultant with the Office of Special Programs, between 10% and 11% of the graduating black and Latino students in California enroll in the state university system.
At Pioneer and Bell high schools, 12.4% of the graduating blacks and Latinos went on to state universities in 1988. At Whittier High School, 16.8% enrolled in a state university.
Emmett said all the high schools, which were honored in November at a conference in Pomona, have a dropout rate of less than 30% and a minority enrollment of more than 50%.
Officials at the three Southeast-area high schools said although they were recognized by the state for the number of black and Latino students they send to universities, they vigorously encourage all students with acceptable grades to go to college.
For example, Figueroa said Pioneer High School, located in southwest Whittier, makes a computer list of all students with a 2.3 grade-point average or higher. Then she "summons" them to her office, where her staff gives the students a list of the deadlines for the college entrance examinations and paper work for financial aid.
"We provide that little push that tells them that we want them to get these things done," Figueroa said. "Some of these students have no role models at home. No cousins or aunts who have been to college and who can talk to them about the paper work. So we fill that gap."
Figueroa said she encourages students to take the harder, college preparatory classes. Horizons provides tutoring if the students need assistance.
"We want students to feel that they can take the risk," Figueroa said. "They can take the more academic courses because there will be help available.
"If we could get the students interested in school, we can get them to feel good about themselves. Then we can get them to perform academically and go on to college. It is all linked together."
If students need financial help, the program will pay for their achievement tests or application fees.
Occasionally, Figueroa or her assistant, Ric Alvarado, meets with students in the classroom, explaining how to complete complicated financial aid forms.
"If you don't squeak, you don't get the grease," Alvarado recently told seniors in an English class.
"We think the majority of the students by nature are procrastinators," Figueroa said. "They don't always do things on their own, especially things that are extra. And college applications have become very confusing and very technical. This year it costs $45 to apply to a state school. Plus, when you go to fill out your application for financial aid, it's just as bad as a tax report."
Staff members sometimes take students to visit university campuses.
Antonio Garcia, a 1986 graduate of Pioneer High School, said the Horizons program was instrumental in his decision to attend Stanford University, where he is a senior studying sociology.
"They went out of their way to help me and push me in the right direction," Garcia said. "They were always very informative and sensitive to my needs and confusions. I was a little intimidated at first when I was accepted to Stanford. My immediate decision was to stay in L.A. So they took me up to see the school so I could look at every aspect before deciding."
At Bell High School, each year about 150 students spend a week on one of several California university campuses through the school's Golden Eagle Academic Partnership Program. The students live in dorms and study a wide range of subjects from French to mathematics and science.
The program gives students a better picture of college life than they could get from a typical visit to a college campus. The students, mostly 11th- and 12th-graders, are selected by teachers on the basis of their academic promise.
"The program provides the students with important college survival techniques," said Manuel Parra, co-director of the Golden Eagle program, which was named after the school mascot. "We want to bombard these kids with many different experiences. It builds their confidence and improves their chances of staying in college."