For Christian Garcia, the most immediate hurdle to his goal of becoming a recording engineer is the intermediate algebra he's been laboring over all day in a Long Beach City College student center.
Grasping the complex equations will allow him to pass the class and move on to the higher-level math courses he needs to transfer to a four-year university. It's hard work for Garcia, but his grades this semester have steadily improved with the tutoring and other help he's received at the campus center.
"I got a really low grade on the first test," Garcia, 20, said. "I wasn't feeling good and I was really frustrated. But now I'm hoping to get at least a B in the class. Without the help I'm getting here, I'd have no chance."
The center is part of a program called the Long Beach College Promise, an unusual collaboration involving the Long Beach Unified School District and Cal State Long Beach that is tackling the barriers that prevent many students from succeeding in college.
A report released last week showed that 70% of students seeking degrees at California's community colleges either did not attain them or didn't transfer to four-year universities wtihin six years. The Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Cal State Sacramento found that most of those students eventually dropped out.
Against that backdrop, the Long Beach initiative is being hailed as a national model. Now in its third year, it is intended to provide a seamless, coordinated system of information, intervention and academic preparation from kindergarten to graduate school.
The program received national attention at an education summit in Washington last week.
"We're looking at communities that are trying to step up and push new reforms, ideas and innovations," said Juan Sepulveda, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, which hosted the event. "Long Beach has been successful with their seamless education partnership. This is something that every community is dealing with."
Many features of the Long Beach program are still relatively new, and it is still too early for comprehensive data on outcomes. It will take at least another year, for example, to determine the rate of City College transfers to four-year campuses. But early results appear promising.
For example, a research department at Long Beach City College found that students who got extra math and English help at campus centers were 41% more likely to pass their classes and 31% more likely to return the next semester. In Long Beach Unified, the number of high school graduates enrolled in higher education rose from 68% in 2007 to 74% in 2009, with half of them attending Long Beach City College or Cal State Long Beach, the district said.
More than 52% of students in Long Beach Unified are Latino, and the program is seen as key to improving college attendance and graduation for them and other under-served minorities.
"We're not saying that Long Beach has the one model that will work for everyone, but it is proving that educational institutions have to work together," said Long Beach City College President Eloy O. Oakley.
"Many college presidents like to bash public schools as if we are not a part of them," said Cal State Long Beach President F. King Alexander. "Pointing fingers at bad results doesn't do anybody any good. You have to get together and find a solution."
At Long Beach Unified, the program begins with parents: They are provided with information about the classes their children should be taking to put them on the road to college. Additionally, fourth-graders spend a day at Long Beach City College and fifth-graders do the same at Cal State Long Beach.
The district offers counseling and mentoring and pays for all sophomores to take the PSAT exam to gauge their readiness for college-level Advanced Placement classes.
Cal State University also administers Early Assessment Program tests for all juniors in the state to determine readiness for college-level math and English. The test is voluntary statewide, but all Long Beach students are required to take the English language part.
"We discovered a lot of students who were ready or close to ready but didn't consider themselves college potential, and we want to eliminate those preconceptions," said district spokesman Chris Eftychiou.
The program promises local students a tuition-free semester at the two-year college — more than 500 are taking advantage this fall — and priority admission to Cal State Long Beach.
Long Beach City College established four "success centers" for math, writing, reading and other subjects to help students through some of the harder spots in class.
Research has shown that many students enter college needing remedial skills, and many drop out if they can't master basic college-level math and English. This fall, more than 22,000 City College students are in classes in which participation at the centers is required.
Garcia used the center to supplement an English course last year and wrote an essay for the class suggesting that the extra help be mandatory. Many of his classmates who didn't take advantage of the center failed and have left school, he said.
Oakley, who grew up in Los Angeles and attended Golden West College and UC Irvine, rejects the idea that some students are not college material.
"That statement drives me nuts because I was one of those students who somebody would have said doesn't belong in college," he said. "There's not a student in the world who can't survive in college. Not all might choose to go, but all should have the opportunity."