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Education Opinion

7 Heismans and that picture from UCLA

By LeaderTalk Contributor — December 20, 2008 5 min read
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It’s not a great picture. At least artistically speaking. There are eight of our students and only Brandon even looked at the camera. The lighting, such as it is, is purely accidental. If you didn’t know the subject you would click past it and move on.

But we can’t. We know the subject. And we know how they came to be sitting in the courtyard there in the shadows of those majestic buildings. For us there is tremendous symbolism in that picture from UCLA.

So let me ask you, as an educator, when did you first know you were going to college?

As the youngest of three wayward boys, I was the first in my family to even graduate from high school, let alone go to college—or get a degree. When I was the age of the students in the picture, I could not have predicted a doctorate. Or running a school. Or reading the blogs of colleagues on Saturday morning. I went to college by accident and only to play football. For many of you I know the story is the same. Our students have their stories too. And for most, the journey to a university campus is too often one of pure luck, or providence, or childhood fantasy, or accident.

Unless we put them in the picture.

We took all sixty of our 8th graders to Los Angeles last Spring and spent three days touring colleges and universities there. We went to Cal State LA, UC Irvine, Long Beach State University, UCLA, and of course, the University of Southern California. We stayed in a hotel in Santa Monica and I have ever been so proud of a group of students—or so inspired.

As close as we were to Hollywood and Universal Studios and Knotts Berry Farm and Disneyland-- we didn’t see any of those places. Our only side trip was to the Museum of Tolerance. The real attraction-- the power-- was in spending time on those campuses; feeling the energy, shopping in the bookstores, walking through classrooms… and seeing so many college students who looked just like our kids. 57 of our 60 students are Latino. 2 are African American. We are a low income, Title I school. Every one of those students knew how unlikely it was for them to be sitting on the wall at UCLA on a Spring afternoon when they would otherwise be back at school struggling through their algebra.

It is getting harder and harder for families to send their children to college. It is getting harder to finish, too. In fact, the US is 15th out of 29 nations in college completion rates-- just ahead of Mexico and Turkey. Moreover, Latinos like the students from our school that we call El MIlagro are least represented on our college campuses. Even though they are the fastest growing ethnic group in the US, they make up only 11% of college enrollment. This of course explains why only 12 percent of Latinos age 25 and older have received a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 30.5 percent of non-Latino White students.

Despite such odds, there is still is a well-lit path to college if we are willing to show our students where it is. In fact, when we piled off the buses by the bookstore at USC, we were greeted by a Pre-med student who was hand picked to be our campus tour guide. He knew our students and the challenges they faced. He was one of our alumni, a past graduate of El Milagro with a little brother now in our 7th grade. (Just one more surprise — one more piece of diligent and intentional planning by our counselors Ryan and Marisol!) He wasn’t a regular tour guide and to tell you the truth he didn’t know the campus all that well. He pretty much knew where his classrooms were and the bookstore and the library. But that too was telling. He was not there to play. He knew the sacrifices that others had to make so that he could attend this extraordinary institution; to live his dream and some day return to serve his community as a doctor.

He did know where the athletic department was though-- where all 7 of the Heisman Trophies are displayed. There was the one from Mike Garrett and Charles White and Marcus Allen and Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer and Reggie Bush and yes, OJ’s is there too. We passed by and looked at each one and kids like Fernando knew exactly what that trophy represented and what it means to have so many in one room.

The next day, just before lunch, Ryan and Marisol lead their daily groups in the main courtyard at UCLA. The tours were structured so our students had some time to reflect. In the groups they could ask questions and share pictures and write in their travel journals. The group sessions challenged them to share their dreams and their personal epiphanies.

“So what have you learned in your visit today?”

“As you sit here on these steps and look around this campus, what do you think you have to do right now—in preparation to go to school here?”

“What image has created the most powerful impression on you so far?’

They all shared and listened.

“It’s not just the goals we set for ourselves,” Maria said. “We have to stay close to each other and surround ourselves with people who have the same goals that we have.”

“High school seems different to me right,” Miguel said. “I think if I want to go to UCLA, I need to start preparing today. I need to approach school in a whole different way. I need to get serious…because I can do this.”

Fernando was still thinking about those Heisman Trophies he saw the day before on the other side of town. Everybody knows that Fernando is a great football player. He has unlimited potential. As an athlete. He started to articulate what the past three days had meant to him and how no one in his family had even set foot on a college campus like this before. Something clicked, sitting there in the hallowed air of UCLA. “Those Heisman Trophies were sick,” Fernando said. “But I know, I can’t count on football to get me to college.”

Fernando and his classmates finally figured out why we wanted to load them on to buses and spend three days looking at universities when they were only in the 8th grade.

He looked at Ryan and Marisol and tried to say thank you but he just put his head in his hands and started to sob. He wasn’t alone. For Fernando and all of his classmates from El Milagro, the road to college will not be an easy one. And for some it will be improbable.

But then… there they are sitting in the courtyard in that picture from UCLA.

P.S. On June 20, 2011, I will be posting an announcement on my blog declaring where each of these 60 students are going to college. I can’t wait. In the meantime, this Spring, we are taking 60 more students to UCLA.

(Cross posted on El Milagro Weblog.)

Kevin Riley

[cross-posted at the old LeaderTalk blog (including comments)]

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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