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A Longer Road to Acceptance

At campuses with large minority enrollments, such as Dorsey High, Prop. 209 has turned senior year into a frustrating wait-and-see exercise for college hopefuls.

April 01, 1998|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every day, 17-year-old Dezaree Sherman sifts through her mail, hoping that somewhere in UCLA's admissions office, someone looking for a diamond in the rough took the time to carefully read her personal essay.

The gifted Dorsey High School senior's life has suffered some difficult twists and turns over the last few years--circumstances she feels help explain her weakened grades and SAT scores.

In the past, a strong recommendation and a well-written personal essay helped boost many minority students like Sherman into the UC system. But this year--the first year of Proposition 209's ban on affirmative action in California government institutions--is different. Sherman's race no longer can be taken into account by admissions officers.

She and a handful of Dorsey's primarily black and Latino students, who came of age in a world of affirmative action, have spent the past several weeks in limbo, waiting anxiously for word on whether they got into their first choices--UCLA or Berkeley, in most cases.

Sherman has already been accepted by several other colleges farther from home, but UCLA, which will notify her of its decision later this week, is her first pick.

"I spent hours writing and rewriting that essay," she said.

To sit in Dorsey's career and college center this winter and spring has been to watch the new rules of Proposition 209 trickle down to the grass roots. Of the school's 300 graduating seniors, about two dozen have applied to UC campuses. Dorsey's college counselor, Gloria Taylor, says as many as 20 seniors have been admitted in a year; she is anticipating far fewer when the 1998-99 academic year begins.

Those students on the margin of eligibility for California public colleges--students whose acceptance might have hinged on their race--are now grappling to find ways to become more competitive.

Students at the southwest Los Angeles campus, which has the most concentrated African American enrollment of any Los Angeles Unified School District high school, still receive a degree of preference from UCLA because they come from what has historically been a relatively low-performing school. But a student's race can no longer be factored into the admissions equation.

"Dezaree is definitely a child who with a good essay would have been accepted in UCLA under affirmative action," said Taylor.

Arthur Orozco was another example of a student Taylor said would have made the UC cut last year. Instead, he was rejected by UC San Diego despite a 3.6 GPA and a 1090 SAT score.

Orozco, who is still awaiting word from Berkeley, said he will pass on the lesson of Proposition 209 to his younger siblings.

"I'm going to warn my brother and sister that much more is expected of them," said Orozco, whose father is a mechanic and whose mother operates a video game store. "It's my responsibility to teach them the tricks of the system."

Dezaree Sherman's life started to crumble around the same time the rules of the college admissions game changed.

So the soft-spoken girl, who at times seems painfully shy, put much of her faith in an essay to UCLA detailing her hopes for the future and explaining some of the hardships of her past.

She would be the first in her family to attend college, she wrote. She planned to study medicine in order to make a difference in her community--a place of "aging apartments, modest single-family homes and schools in need of much repair and resources." She'd already begun making a difference by collecting and distributing food for the poor, she told admissions officials.

She told them, too, about how her mother and father had separated, how her older sister left home after having a baby, and how she missed time in school after being injured in a car accident. She told them how she juggles schoolwork and outside activities with the need to help her mother financially, and to care for her newborn niece.

"I have the ability to perform exceptionally well in school, but I have not been able to realize this potential because of my economic and educational background," she wrote. "College is all about giving me choices."

Her life experiences have given her strength, she wrote. "I am a woman in process and my strong personal integrity and desire for success through a few challenges will propel me forward into the 21st century."

Battle Lines Are Clearer Than Ever

To proponents of affirmative action, Sherman's letter is an example of why Proposition 209 is a moral outrage, robbing minorities of a level playing field.

"How are you going to compare me with someone who went to prep school?" asked another Dorsey student, Ischimina McCullom, whose father died when she was young and who plans to be the first of her mother's three children to go to college. "I'm less advantaged. They have a mother and father, they can practice for the SATs, afford workshops. Compare me with someone in my situation."

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