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College Head Start Provides a Leg Up

May 22, 2003|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

When Hector Beltran arrived at John H. Francis Polytechnic High School four years ago, he was an A student hoping someday to enroll at a UC campus, with UCLA looming "like a dream."

But Beltran's ambitions were tempered by the limits of his Sun Valley high school, where most students come from families without college-educated parents and few go on to prestigious colleges.

He thought his prospects were even worse because of Proposition 209, a 1996 ballot measure banning affirmative action in public hiring and college admissions in California.

This year, as Beltran, 17, nears graduation, he has given up on his earlier dream of attending UCLA -- not because it proved impossible, but because it was too modest.

He has been accepted to 11 schools, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Caltech, Stanford and Princeton.

He'll attend MIT, where he plans to study electrical engineering or computer science and room with Poly classmate Esteban Felix.

Beltran credits his broadened horizons to Early Start, a partnership between Poly High and nearby Valley College begun in the wake of Proposition 209's passage.

The program combines high school and college course work to prepare students for the most competitive colleges. Most participants are minorities, and many of them are low-income.

This year, 18 of the 28 participants were admitted to UCLA, more than double the number of Poly seniors typically admitted in the years before 2000, when the first Early Start students graduated, school officials say.

In the last two years, Early Start students have also moved beyond the program's initial goal of gaining admission to UCLA and UC Berkeley, the University of California system's most selective campuses. Several current seniors were accepted to elite private schools, including Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Princeton and Columbia.

The results are remarkable from a school like Poly, which is 88% Latino and has an Academic Performance Index rank of 1, the lowest score on the 10-point scoring system used by the state to evaluate schools. Most parents of students at the school are not high school graduates, and 83% of students participate in free or reduced-price lunch programs.

With the legality of race-based affirmative action to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this year, educators are showing more interest in programs such as Early Start, which can help colleges achieve a diverse student body without explicitly using race in admissions.

Recruiting for Early Start begins in ninth grade, when interested students are tested. Most score at levels placing them in pre-algebra and remedial English courses, which they take after school or during the summer at Valley College.

If by junior year they are eligible for college-level English and math, the students enter Early Start. About 30 students qualify each year.

Race is not a factor in their selection, but most are minorities, reflecting Poly's enrollment.

Students take a total of 13 Valley College classes in their junior and senior years of high school, for which they receive both high school and college credit. All courses at the college are required; they include English, history, economics and art history.

Yasmin Delahoussaye, vice president of student services at Valley College, began the program in 1997 to boost dwindling enrollment of underrepresented minorities at UCLA and UC Berkeley in the wake of Proposition 209.

Aware that college admissions officers give great weight to high school students who perform strongly in community college courses, she sought to prepare Poly students for UCLA admission by enrolling them part time at Valley College.

Although she supports affirmative action, Delahoussaye believes programs such as Early Start are one way of giving minority students the chance to attend competitive colleges in a world without race-conscious admissions. "These kids are not given any preferences," she said.

Frank Bullock, Poly's college counselor, said Early Start is beneficial for students who have high grades but often score in the 1200 range on the SAT, which may be too low for admission to the most selective colleges.

"We have ninth-grade students who come to us with straight A's and read at the fourth-grade level," said Patricia Flenner, who coordinates the Early Start program at Poly.

Through the Valley College program, Flenner said those same students are able to get their skills up to the level needed for demanding college work.

Beltran said the program raised his expectations. As he took classes with community college students he found he "usually outperformed them." He also saw older students in Early Start routinely going to UCLA and UC Berkeley, which made him wonder if he could aim even higher.

"Getting into a place like Berkeley was a normal thing," he said. "Then, when I was in 11th grade, people got into MIT and I started thinking about it."

Though he has gotten nothing but A's in high school, Beltran scored 1310 on the SAT, below the average of several of the schools to which he was accepted. He believes his record of straight A's in the 15 community college classes he has taken helped him erase any doubts about his ability to compete at the highest academic levels.

"In my applications, that's the thing that stood out," he said.

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