Partnerships Put Emphasis on Preparation

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Second of two parts

Twelve-year-old Marisol Hernandez is an early riser. She awakes at 6 a.m. every Saturday to prepare for her weekly mathematics academy. The extra class, the Compton, Calif., 7th grader says, is going to help her become the governor of California someday.

The University of California, Irvine, officials who run the academy have a more modest goal.

Prompted by a state ban on affirmative action in admissions policies at public institutions, they started the weekend math groups last fall to give more minority students, like Marisol, the skills they need to get into top colleges at the same rates as their white and Asian-American peers.

"If we're going to reach an equilibrium, we need some strong, unequivocal methods with spine in them," said Juan Francisco Lara, the assistant vice chancellor for enrollment services at UC Irvine. "We can't take the position that we have a lot of time and could raise the level for all [students]."

Such concern is sure to intensify following news last week that three University of California campuses--Irvine, San Diego, and Davis--reported declines of up to 45 percent in the number of black and Hispanic students admitted as freshmen for next fall. The UC system's most selective campuses, Los Angeles and Berkeley, will release their admissions figures early next month.

The developments are being watched closely in other states where officials also are trying to raise minority participation in higher education. And while Texas is the only other state with an outright ban on race-related preferences in admissions, such programs are under attack in states including Arizona, Ohio, and Washington. ("Colleges Retool Outreach Efforts As Affirmative Action Changes," March 18, 1998.)

But not everyone believes outreach can compensate for the loss of affirmative action programs that for two decades have helped reverse a legacy of racial discrimination in higher education.

"I'm very encouraged by the efforts people are making that will boost kids' SAT scores," said Reginald Wilson, a senior scholar at the American Council on Education in Washington. "But I'm concerned the effort is not universal. I'm concerned about the masses of kids."

Affirmative action critics, however, argue that preferences failed to help those ''masses'' of minority students.

"It allowed us to walk away from an enormous amount of people who were not even finishing high school," said Jennifer L. Nelson, the executive director of the Sacramento-based American Civil Rights Institute, which opposes affirmative action. "If more pressure is now being applied to improve schools, then we benefit a larger number of kids."

'Rankle the Establishment'

UC Irvine's outreach programs do not try to reach the masses of low-income students that Mr. Wilson talks about. But the university is targeting the often-overlooked minority and disadvantaged students who show the most potential to change some alarming statistics, Mr. Lara said.

In 1996, just 3.8 percent of Hispanic and 2.8 percent of black high school graduates in California met the basic grade point average and SAT requirements for admission to the University of California system. By comparison, 12.7 percent of whites and 30 percent of Asian-Americans met the standards.

"We must track a talent pool in a way that rankles the education establishment," Mr. Lara said, referring to the opposition by many educators to the idea of singling out the most promising students for extra help. "But with an utmost urgency."

California campuses have long offered outreach to minority students. But the rules began to change in 1995 when the university's board of regents voted to phase in an end to racial preferences in admissions. State voters followed in 1996 by passing Proposition 209, a constitutional ban on public spending for race-based programs, including race-targeted academic-enrichment activities. The revised policy took effect this academic year in UC graduate school admissions, and will be in place for those applying for undergraduate admission for the 1998-99 academic year.

The psychic impact of the shift is reflected in the students waiting for spring acceptance letters, said Esther Hugo, the coordinator for multicultural concerns at the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Washington.

"I publish a list showing my kids where last year's students went to college," said Ms. Hugo, who is also a college counselor at Westchester Senior High School in Los Angeles. The 2,100-student school has an 85 percent minority enrollment and is in a middle-class section of the city. "But they say, 'That was with affirmative action. Now, we're out of luck.'"

Mr. Lara said that his university wants to address such attitudes with its Partnership to Accelerate College Eligibility, or PACE. By working with schools that traditionally send few students to the UC system and targeting average, but promising, low-income students with focused academic enrichment, the university hopes by the end of the school year to:

  • Double the number of elementary school students reading at grade level in the five schools where 70 university students tutor.
  • Add at least one class of algebra to each of the four middle schools in the PACE Saturday math academies; and
  • Boost SAT scores by 100 points for high school students enrolled in test-taking workshops sponsored by the university.

The results, so far, are mixed. The first 113 students to attend six four-hour SAT tutorials raised their scores by an average of 73.3 points. But nearly 40 percent of them raised their scores by at least 100 points.

Early To Rise

More important may be the way in which PACE is changing the academic landscape in its K-12 partner schools.

But each of the four schools--which send a total of 480 students to the Saturday math academies--have promised to add at least one new 8th grade algebra class. One school will offer algebra to 8th graders for the first time beginning next fall. The additions are crucial if students are to be prepared well enough to eventually meet the course requirements for UC admission.

The academies run from 8 a.m. to noon. Participation is by invitation only, and the students must have a minimum GPA of 3.2. Parents also attend workshops on parenting and homework skills.

"At first, teachers didn't buy in to it and said the students hate math and don't do their regular math work," said Moises Torres, the assistant director of UC Irvine's Center for Educational Partnerships. "But the program tells students they're smart enough to be taken seriously at a university, and that's what weighs most on them."

That was evident on a recent Saturday morning at the 853-student Ralph Bunche Middle School in the Compton district, a financially troubled, 26,000-student system in Los Angeles County that is now being run by the state.

Outside, palm branches and other debris lie spattered across the school grounds, residue from the savage winds and rains of an El Ni¤o storm. Inside, calm pervades the three classrooms where 79 students work on math, reading, and writing skills.

Marisol Hernandez is like most students here in having to get up at the crack of dawn to make class on time--something that 16 of the school's 95 original participants failed to do. As a result, the latecomers were cut from the program.

But Marisol, the bubbly, articulate daughter of two first-generation immigrants from Mexico, said the classes are worth it, even on Saturday while her friends are watching cartoons or playing.

"When I'm in my regular class, the teacher tells me I'm doing 8th grade work," the 7th grader said. "He's always surprised and asks me how I know everything."

Guaranteed Entrance

State lawmakers elsewhere also are trying more-innovative strategies for reaching young minority students.

In 1996, a federal appellate court barred consideration of race in admissions and financial-aid decisions at public colleges in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi--the three states in the court's jurisdiction.

Last year, in response, the Texas legislature passed a law requiring that state's public universities automatically admit the top 10 percent of high school graduating classes beginning in fall 1998.

California and Georgia are considering similar plans.

It's too early to say how the Texas law is going to affect fall admission numbers there, especially at the state's most selective campuses. So far, 4,323 students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes have applied for admission to the University of Texas at Austin next fall. That is not much of a change from the 3,498 and 4,724 top-10-percent students admitted in 1997 and 1996, respectively.

Bruce Walker, the director of admissions for the university, said that word of the program may not have reached the people who need it.

"There have been workshops and newspaper articles on this, but I've found that there are counselors and families who don't know about this. It's amazing," he said recently. "There's not an absolute communications strategy."

On the front line of college preparation, however, Rashunda Endsley, a senior at the 1,400-student Ross Sterling High School in Houston, gave the program a passing grade: "If you graduate in the top 5 [percent] to 10 percent, you should automatically get into college because you've worked hard and motivated yourself."

There is a danger, though. Some students may obtain their higher GPAs and class rankings by actually working less.

"I had one concerned parent call to complain that a counselor told her son to take Mickey Mouse courses to get into the top 10 percent," said Democratic state Rep. Irma Rangel, who sponsored the legislation.

"If any teacher or counselor is giving grades to students so they get into the top 10 percent, I hope they're fired," she added.

California lawmakers are considering automatic admission for students who finish anywhere from the top 4 percent to 12 percent of their high school classes. Keith Widaman, who sits on a panel that develops admissions policy for the University of California, said that such a policy would make an impact that few people have recognized.

About one-third of the state's school districts send few, if any, students to the UC system, the more selective of California's two public university systems. And those districts tend to have large low-income and minority enrollments--exactly the populations most underrepresented in the system.

"It's a method of outreach," Mr. Widaman said of the automatic-admissions idea. "It puts us into those schools by saying, 'We'd like to extend the offer to you.'"

No Panacea

California and Texas are by no means the only states designing higher education efforts for underprivileged young people. In Florida, for example, the College Reach-Out Program, or crop, monitored by the state education department, links 13 regional consortia of universities and community colleges with 7,200 low-income high school and middle school students. Participating institutions sponsor a variety of outreach efforts, including after-school tutorials, college- and career-exploration workshops, SAT-preparation courses, and campus-visit programs.

A survey of Florida's graduating class of 1996 found that 92 percent of the 558 high school seniors served by CROP completed high school, compared with 78 percent of a random sample of Florida students. Of those CROP graduates, 51 percent enrolled in a Florida postsecondary institution, while only 43 percent of those in the random sample pursued similar paths.

Such success stories notwithstanding, though, policymakers may want to consider another option before jumping on the intervention bandwagon, according to observers who say that some efforts are suffocating under their own weight.

A report last year to the University of California board of regents' Outreach Task Force found 800 outreach and intervention programs statewide involving K-12 schools and the university system.

"The sheer number of programs was bewildering, and little of the evaluation data were presented in written reports," according to the document, which was released in January 1997 by Policy Analysis for California Education, a university-based think tank.

The report said the situation was much the same in other states, and that it underscored a need for more information on what works to help policymakers set priorities for programs and spending policies.

In their own report produced in July, the UC task force recommended a $60.5 million outreach budget to include $18.5 million for teacher development in high-level subjects that UC applicants are expected to study, and $8 million for outreach efforts.

But even as California and Texas race to enhance their outreach efforts, some critics wonder whether even the best programs can replace affirmative action.

James B. Stewart, Pennsylvania State University's outgoing vice provost for educational equity, is widely credited for designing outreach and academic-intervention strategies that have raised minority enrollment dramatically at Penn State system since he took the job in 1990.

When 7,721 minority students enrolled in Penn State last fall, it was the first time that minority enrollment in the system passed 10 percent of the total student population, which is now about 72,000.

Still, Mr. Stewart, who will return to the faculty this spring, said it is too soon to end polices that allow universities including Penn State to give special consideration to minority students.

"We're at least a couple of generations away," he said."Without wholesale investment in primary and secondary education, including access to technology, none of the types of [outreach] measures are going to have the impact necessary to create equal opportunities."

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