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Against the Odds Is How They Have Prevailed

October 24, 2003|Rebecca Trounson, Stuart Silverstein and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

BERKELEY — Bounced from foster care to the homes of assorted relatives, Damon Witts of East Oakland learned early on to believe in himself. With his father dead and his mother out of the picture, there was no one else to rely on.

During his senior year of high school, he lived on his own, paying the bills with a part-time job and money from public assistance.

When applying for college, he was confident. He had strong grades, was a student leader and "I took advantage of every opportunity and resource I had."

His SAT score was low: 980 on an exam where 1600 is perfect. But he didn't worry about it. No one else seemed worried either -- not his counselors or teachers. And sure enough, he was admitted to UC Berkeley's freshman class this fall. He won enough in scholarships to all but pay his way.

In recent days, however, Witts and other students here with SAT scores below the campus norm have found themselves at the uncomfortable nexus of a statewide debate about admissions at the University of California, particularly at UC Berkeley, its oldest and generally most selective campus.

Two weeks ago, the head of UC's governing board, John J. Moores, jolted the system by issuing a report showing that nearly 400 students with modest SAT scores were admitted to the campus in 2002, even as more than 3,000 with extremely high scores were turned away.

Moores publicly criticized Berkeley's decision to admit the low-scoring students, saying others should have been accepted instead. This week, UCLA, which rivals UC Berkeley for competitiveness, reported an admissions pattern similar to UC Berkeley's.

At the heart of the debate is the university's 2-year-old admissions policy, known as comprehensive review, which places less emphasis on tests and grades and more on such factors as leadership, socioeconomic factors and personal achievement.

One UC regent, Ward Connerly, has suggested that the approach has become a back-door route to getting around a state ban on affirmative action.

UC and Berkeley officials strongly deny that, saying that each student was accepted on the basis of academic achievement or exceptional talent, and many did well despite poor high schools, family poverty or other personal hardship.

Of the 386 students admitted that year with SAT scores between 600 and 1000, 56% attended public high schools considered to be low-performing, with few resources, according to data released to The Times this week by UC Berkeley admissions officials. Nearly 24% are from single-parent families. About 59% have annual family incomes below $35,400. And for nearly 78%, neither parent is a four-year college graduate.

The vast majority of the students with SAT scores below 1000 who were admitted at Berkeley in the last two years were Latino, Asian or black. According an analysis of UC figures for fall admissions, the Berkeley campus admitted 760 applicants with low SAT scores. Latinos accounted for 48% of the group, Asians 25% and blacks, 18%. Whites were 5% of the total.

Officials have declined to release the names of the students at the center of the debate, citing privacy concerns.

But on Thursday, a handful of freshmen outside a campus tutoring center told their stories, arguing that their low SAT scores are the least important part of who they are.

Damon Witts

"I don't think my potential or my ability should be undermined by my SAT score," Witts said Thursday morning as he sat in the breeze outside the Student Learning Center. He and the others interviewed had just completed an extra math class, which is taught alongside their pre-calculus lecture class and is aimed at giving them extra help.

But Witts, who was student body president at his high school, also said the first few weeks have been tough for him, both personally and academically, on a campus where the average SAT is above 1300.

He has rarely felt so alone as he did during orientation, he said, amid the bustle of other students arriving with their families who helped them move in.

"Watching everybody else, I kind of felt like I lost some motivation," he said.

But after nearly two months at school, he's finding his way, making friends, feeling more comfortable and gaining ground in his classes.

"I'm still struggling on my writing, but math is good and science is OK," he said. He spends a number of hours each week at the learning center, which until the early 1990s was open only to minority students but now welcomes all students.

Moores "doesn't know me," Witts said. "He doesn't know what it's like to try to educate yourself at a mediocre high school when you're also dealing with all this stuff at home."

"I know what I can do, and I belong here."

Camellia Pham

Like Witts, Camellia Pham says she was optimistic that she would be admitted by UC Berkeley, despite scoring only 960 on the SAT.

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