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Setting Students on a Course Toward College

In a first for the area, 190 Valley seniors have finished Project GRAD, which encourages youths to pursue higher education.

June 25, 2003|Stephanie Stassel | Times Staff Writer

Bulmaro Huante was a good student, but admittedly not someone likely to go to college. That changed four years ago when he made a commitment that altered the course of his life.

A new organization in town called Project GRAD -- Graduation Really Achieves Dreams -- was making its pitch to incoming ninth-graders at San Fernando High School: Complete seven college-prep classes, attend two weeklong workshops, pass Algebra 2 with at least a C and graduate with a 2.5 GPA, and you'll get up to $6,000 for college. Huante signed up without hesitation.

Looking back, he's glad he did.

When he graduates on Friday, he will wear a special medallion identifying him as one of 190 Project GRAD scholarship recipients from San Fernando High, the first group of local students to complete the program. Not only will he attend UC Santa Barbara, where he will study political science, but he will be well prepared.

"Before, I really had no path to follow during my high school years," said Huante, 18, the first person in his family to go to college. "The biggest thing I got from Project GRAD was the encouragement to go to college."

The program aims to increase the number of students who attend college -- and succeed there. It offers reading and math help for elementary schoolchildren, algebra tutoring in middle school and classes in study skills for high school students.

Parents also attend workshops on such subjects as raising emotionally healthy children and completing financial aid forms.

"The idea is to come in with extra services and support so the families understand more about college. The mystery of college is taken away," said Cheryl Mabey, executive director of the North Hollywood-based office.

Jose L. Rodriguez, San Fernando High principal, said that Project GRAD has influenced more students to take the college-prep classes that will allow them to apply to a UC campus. A 1999 survey found that only 14% of San Fernando seniors had taken such classes. Rodriguez said 49% of this year's nearly 700 graduates had completed them.

"The ultimate success will be to see how many of these kids complete the four-year university," he said.

The program grew out of a scholarship started by Tenneco Corp. in 1988 to help students at a low-performing high school in Houston. The wider program was launched in 1993 and has expanded to 10 urban school districts in seven states.

It came to Los Angeles four years ago, first helping 15 elementary, middle and high schools in the northeast San Fernando Valley. The heavily Latino San Fernando High is the first Los Angeles-area school to have graduating seniors complete the program. The project is also offered at Discovery Charter Preparatory High School, a new school in Pacoima. Expansion to other parts of Los Angeles is a few years away, officials said.

After a recruiting effort, 461 San Fernando High students signed up. A total of 380 are graduating from San Fernando and of those, 190 met the requirements to earn the $6,000 scholarship. (As an incentive to stay in college, students will receive $1,000 for school expenses during their first and second years and $2,000 during their third and fourth years.)

Foundations, companies and the U.S. Department of Education help fund the Los Angeles program's $9.6-million annual operating expenses.

In addition, the organization estimates it will take $6 million to provide scholarships to eligible local children during the next 12 years. So far, more than $1 million has been raised, coming in large part from the S. Mark Taper, the California Community and the Eisner foundations.

According to a 1998 UCLA study of California students, Latinos ranked lowest among minority groups examined in terms of graduating from high school, continuing on to college and earning a degree.

"The challenge is simply keeping the students in school," said Walter R. Allen, a UCLA sociology professor who worked on the study. "What happens with the Latino population is that even when you retain them, they disproportionately go to community colleges, which often have a low transfer rate to four-year colleges."

Project GRAD officials said they purposely steered the students toward four-year institutions to increase the chances that they will obtain a bachelor's degree. Of the 190 students who received a Project GRAD scholarship, 37% will attend a Cal State school, 21% will go to a UC campus, 14% will attend a private university and 26% will go to a community college.

Choosing where to go to college was a major decision for San Fernando High senior Sara Delgadillo. The youngest of six, she will be the first in her family to attend a four-year university. (A sister who is two years older is attending Valley College, a two-year college.) Although the 3.4-GPA student was accepted to UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, Berkeley and Woodbury University in Burbank, she decided to go to Syracuse University in New York.

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