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Is he helping students into science careers? Do the math

Retired teacher Paul J. Riordan has formed a program to excite low-income students about college and technical jobs.

January 02, 2007|Yvonne Villarreal | Times Staff Writer

Before her sophomore year in high school, Gloria Alday never dreamed of going away to college. Her traditional Mexican father didn't want her to leave the family home.

But a two-year mentorship program in Santa Ana inspired her to academic greatness, and despite her father's disapproval, she was accepted by Yale, UC Berkeley, New York University and the University of Michigan.

Four years later, Alday, 21, is scheduled to graduate from Yale in May, an achievement she credits largely to the Achievement Institute of Scientific Studies. The two-year program is geared to excite students about careers that require math and science skills.

"This program has been a very deep inspiration for me," Alday said.

Paul J. Riordan, 75, who taught for 35 years in the Santa Ana Unified School District, said he grew tired of people writing off Latinos as "dumb." So he founded his nonprofit organization to prove their academic potential, and it has since expanded to include any low-income student.

"These kids are so uniquely different. They each have a story," Riordan said. "But they are all alike in that they have so much against them. They have true grit because they fight through the system despite their shortcomings."

Riordan held firmly to his walker as he shuffled along the carpet at a local restaurant during the group's latest meeting, two days after Christmas. After adjusting his large glasses, he opened his arms wide.

"There's my kiddies!" Riordan said as they approached for a hug or a handshake. "You kids are so damn bright, you scare me!"

Riordan's idea for creating the program came in 1990 as he prepared for retirement. "I didn't want to hang around the house or play golf all day," Riordan said. "This is my way of giving back."

But it wasn't until 2001 that he launched his nonprofit organization with seed money coming from his savings. Since then, businesses have contributed to the program.

When Riordan recruited his first batch of "little chickies," as he calls them, he first had to come up with some requirements.

Riordan, known as "El Jefe" (the boss) by his students, had envisioned the program for those who were "poor and bright," but that was only a starting point.

Other requirements include enrollment in a Santa Ana Unified school, a minimum 3.5 grade-point average; a letter of recommendation from a science or math teacher; the commitment to attend 50 seminars put on by Riordan's institute during the summer, Christmas and Easter school breaks; approval from parents; and eligibility for a federal free-lunch program.

"That's it. No exceptions," Riordan said. "I'm a bottom-liner. I don't stray from the rules."

This year four students each from five Santa Ana high schools will be selected.

"We hope to expand to Anaheim soon," Riordan said.

"I'm getting old; there is only so much I can do. I have set the foundation and I can only hope my dream is carried on by others."

The students are given $800 a year to help pay for test fees, college application fees and other school-related expenditures; a laptop computer; SAT/ACT preparation materials; a graphics calculator; science magazine; and a blue windbreaker jacket with the institute's Academic Scholar insignia, which must be worn at the nonprofit's functions.

"We have to put on our jackets before Paul comes," said Claudia Leal, 17, during the group's meeting last week. "We have to wear them everywhere."

Despite the less-than-fashionable jacket, the students are grateful to be in the program -- with many giving up other activities to keep up.

"It's hard sometimes," said Nada Soeun, 17, from Century High in Santa Ana. "Some kids think we're nerds. Some are just jealous. But it's worth it. It gives us hope to see what careers we can get into if we just try."

During the summer, the students meet at Delhi Community Center in Santa Ana, where they listen to industry speakers and attend how-to workshops.

They are also expected to write college-level science papers and prepare and make PowerPoint presentations.

"It's pretty intimidating being in this program because you're surrounded by all these smart people, when before you were considered the smartest in your class," said Sokha Pin, 17, also from Century High. "But the competitiveness just makes me work harder."

The students also take field trips to industry sites -- places like Medtronics, UC Irvine's lab facilities, Trimedyne Inc. -- to see how they can translate their interests into lasting careers.

"There was never a program like this at my age," said Sheri Werick, a volunteer at the institute. "These kids are high achievers. It's been my pleasure to offer my experience."

Since its inception, Riordan's students have been accepted to UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley, Yale, Columbia University and New York University, among others.

"When you get a college degree, you earn your rights," Riordan said. "It's the greatest pleasure in my life to help these kids get those rights, although it's the reason I am bald and limp. But I'm a milkman. I can only deliver the student to the front door.... It is up to them to open it and see their possibilities."

As his students said their goodbyes to enjoy the last of their winter break, Riordan's face lighted up as each gave him a hug or handshake.

He sat chuckling and shaking his head.

"When they win their Nobel prizes, I'll be up in heaven looking down on them," he said. "And I'll smile because they'll be the leaders I knew they could be."

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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