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Program Puts Latino Pupils on Fast Track Toward College

OUR SCHOOLS: Innovative Educational Programs. First in a series.

February 08, 1990|MARY ANN SWISSLER | Swissler is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer.

High school freshman Scarlet Garcia says she wants to be a screenwriter. Monica Esparza wants to someday join the district attorney's office as a prosecutor. Nancy Martin Del Campo, Leilani Morales and Edward Brizo think computers look good.

These youths are among a group of 62 students at Abraham Lincoln High School who are on a fast track toward college. Their high expectations are part of a contract between the hand-picked students, their parents and various teachers, counselors and administrators at Lincoln High and nearby Cal State Los Angeles.

The pilot program, dubbed UPP (for University Preparatory Program), began in September, and another group of students is expected to join in it next year. Program administrators are hopeful that it can put a dent in the chronically high dropout rates among Latino youth and increase the number of students entering college.

Alberto Pimentel, a program coordinator, said, "I look at this program and I say, 'We're doing something special and yet we're not.' In a sense what we're trying to do is make sure our students receive a basic, solid, core education so that they can matriculate in any university they want."

The problems with other outreach programs are glaring to Pimentel, the UPP liaison between Lincoln and Cal State.

"Most of the outreach programs I see are very large but without any depth," he said. The focus on the students has to be thorough, in essence mentoring them every step of the way, he said.

Lincoln student participants, who attend classes together as a group, receive UPP "report cards" every other week as they juggle the school day, daily after-school tutoring sessions, the required two hours of homework a night and two Saturdays of activities a month.

At home, chores rarely disappear, they said. Still, during an impromptu interview, a small group of students reflected only enthusiasm for homework and their teachers.

"If you want to study, you find the time," says Leilani.

"We want to have good things in the future . . . to support our families," said Maribel Arreola.

Sylvia Stella, Lincoln vice principal for instruction, said she and the teachers involved are pleased with the progress of the program. Other high schools are looking at UPP as a model they might want to adopt if the Lincoln program is successful.

Last year, when Pimentel was teaching at Lincoln, he and other science teachers sought a way to bolster the science program. They asked the assistance of Cal State, which agreed to help set up a program as a way of attracting more minority students into its science programs.

"If the students stick through the four years of the program," Stella said, Cal State L.A. has committed to giving them a "free ride . . . free tuition and books."

"We recognize that some of the successful students may be drawn and receive scholarships from other universities," Stella said. And many students may choose to go into fields other than science or math, she added.

Cal State Los Angeles' William A. Taylor, vice president of academic affairs/planning and resources, is enthusiastic about the program and acknowledges, "We have not been as successful as we would like to have been" in previous outreach efforts.

According to a recent study by the Los Angeles Unified School District, in the fall of 1987, 19.2% of all students who graduated the previous June went into either the California State University system or University of California system. But for Latinos, that figure was only 9.2%, Taylor said.

Los Angeles Board of Education member Leticia Quezada said that because UPP has the full commitment of both Lincoln High and Cal State Los Angeles, "you can pretty well assure the program will be successful and reach its goals."

During the UPP selection process, "We intentionally did not go after the A student," Pimentel said. "Our feeling was that the higher level students were going to make it anyway. They will get enough strokes along the way."

In selecting students from feeder junior high schools, the admissions committee also looked at the candidates' attendance records. Then, an initial letter was sent to parents, followed by a phone call to the students.

The students had to have that "inner desire" and time to participate, Pimentel said.

The UPP essentially serves as a four-year, all-encompassing mentor program. The university provides access to its science and computer labs, tutoring by Cal State L.A. students and professors, career guidance and counseling, and classes in study skills. Help will also come in the form of summer employment and summer enrichment activities.

In return, students are bound by the signed agreement stating that they will be dismissed after three unexcused absences per semester or the first time around for use of tobacco, alcohol or drugs. They will be placed on probation if their cumulative grade-point average falls below the minimum of 2.0.

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