School & District Management

Making Dreams of College Come True

By Bess Keller — May 09, 2001 9 min read

Alan H. Rowe had been opening doors to the nation’s historically black colleges and universities for Sacramento-area young people for more than a decade when the Elk Grove school district “discovered” him. It was a matter of luck, but also a matter of timing.

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An administrator for the district, which includes a few Sacramento neighborhoods and acres of suburbs beyond, wanted help for his nephew two years ago and called Mr. Rowe. The next thing the volunteer college consultant knew, he had a $30,000 contract with the Elk Grove district to expand work he had been doing for the love of it.

“What impressed me about Elk Grove from being on a school board myself,” said the former member of the Grant Joint Union High School District board in Sacramento, “is that Elk Grove didn’t just say we work with all kids, it did something about that.”

Across the country, as Mr. Rowe knows well, black students are less likely to go to college than non-Hispanic white and Asian-American students. Gaps in college attendance also occur for Hispanic students, for boys, and for students from poor families.

David W. Gordon, the superintendent of the Elk Grove district, is deeply concerned about the differences, especially as they show up in the percentage of students the 48,000-student district sends to college each year. Studying the district’s standardized-test scores, talking with teachers and principals, he came to a conclusion soon after he took over the schools here six years ago: More kids should be going to college.

“The curriculum we had at the schools should have been producing better performance,” he said. “There was a need to raise students’ expectations for themselves, and the community’s expectations for their children.”

Since then, that notion has been explicitly endorsed by the school board and translated into an ambitious goal—a 10 percent increase in the district’s four-year college-going rate over a one-year period. That goal and the idea it represents have in turn prompted actions big and small across the district, including the decision to give a contract to Mr. Rowe, who last year delivered scores of acceptances and thousands of dollars in scholarships, mostly to schools rarely thought of by California students.

Although officials do not yet have districtwide college-going statistics by subgroup, Elk Grove appears to be headed in the right direction. In 1997, 14.8 percent of its graduates enrolled in four-year California public universities, compared with 16.5 percent enrollment statewide. By 1999, the latest year for which figures are available, the district’s rate was up to 22.1 percent, while the comparable state figure had barely risen, to 16.8 percent.

Roughly mirroring California’s population, about 38 percent of the Elk Grove students are non- Hispanic whites, 23 percent are Asian-American, 19 percent are African- American, and 18 percent are Latino. More than 37 percent come from poor families.

The message that students drastically limit their futures without higher education starts at the top with Mr. Gordon, a former deputy superintendent for the California Department of Education.

“The low-skilled jobs won’t cut it in the years to come, I tell parents,” he said. “Your children will need more skills than you have, even if you are a college graduate.”

Getting the Word Out

The superintendent’s speech to service clubs and anyone else who will listen includes a list of what the district is doing to help students plan for higher education, and district handbooks for parents give prominence to planning for college.

At the high schools, the message contains marching orders for principals, said Michael Hanson, an associate superintendent in Elk Grove who until recently was a high school principal in the district.

“We were supposed to find and address those kids ... who didn’t have a home understanding of what a four-year college degree could mean to them,” Mr. Hanson said, “and set the cultural norm that you don’t hide from your future.”

To get students ready for college, principals have welcomed nationally known programs such as Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, an elective college-preparatory class for minority students who are not living up to their potential, and Math, Engineering, Science Achievement, or MESA, which encourages minority students, in particular, to pursue careers in those fields.

In boosting the number of college-bound students, the district has natural allies in nearby institutions of higher education, and in the past few years has formed or strengthened partnerships with all three levels of California’s public higher education system.

Cosumnes River Community College, with which the district has had a close working relationship for years, this year for the first time has a full- time outreach counselor who visits each high school every week. California State University-Sacramento and the University of California, Davis, have also each assigned a counselor to make regular visits to the district’s high schools.

Cal State-Sacramento and the community college make on-the-spot admissions decisions, which reduces the frustration of the process and often encourages students in their work.

“I want them to know they are not just a number,” said Jocelyn Chavez, the outreach counselor for Cal State- Sacramento.

More and more, though, education leaders say effort at the high school and even the middle school level is not enough to help the most disadvantaged students.

Never Too Early

For that reason, the University of California, Davis, is beginning to extend its outreach to the earlier grades, including at Elk Grove’s John Reith Elementary School.

On a recent rainy day, a class of 4th graders sat intently at their tables wearing their white “Reservation for College” T-shirts, all eyes front. After hours of work on teacher Eric Mallory’s part, they were using the school’s new videoconferencing equipment to interview two representatives of Harvard University across the country in Cambridge, Mass.

“What kind of classes do you have at Harvard for drama and acting?” asked one 4th grader, who lives with a foster family. “What it is like living in the dorms?” inquired another, whose parents immigrated here from Vietnam.

The students soak up the answers, though none of them had heard of Harvard before the previous day, when Mr. Mallory took them to the university’s Web site and explained that a university was something like Disneyland.

Cynthia C. De Luz, the principal of John Reith Elementary, says the program for grades 4-6, now in a pilot phase, aims to give students the motivation and the background that will prime them to take advantage of the practical help for getting into college that the district’s high schools will offer them later. It includes three parent meetings a year, and the teachers involved learn more about the district’s expectations for middle and high school.

“The financing is the biggest hurdle the kids face,” Ms. De Luz said. “So we had a financial adviser for the district talk about paying for college.”

Two local financial institutions sponsor college-savings plans for parents, and the talk about finances continues in meetings for middle and high school parents.

The idea is for students to arrive in high school with the clear aim of continuing their education, academic and financial preparations in place.

It’s a tall order, and many students will still need strong support in high school to step through college gates.

With that in mind, Elk Grove officials are aiming to improve the counseling departments at the district’s five comprehensive high schools. Heading the effort will be Ralph Robles, who served as the career and college counselor for six years at the district’s Laguna Creek High School until he was appointed to the new post of head counselor for the district last fall.

A man with a gentle manner and seemingly endless goodwill, Mr. Robles says he has learned in his 16-year counseling career that students often need help on their own timetables.

“Often, it’s taken them quite some time to work up the nerve to start with, [so] you get one shot,” he said. “If you don’t follow through, you’ve lost them.”

That’s one reason Mr. Robles would like to see more of the five high schools move toward the arrangement he helped to design at Laguna Creek. There, five counselors took on 30 to 50 more students apiece to free one counselor to staff the college-and-career center—a space filled with planning resources and equipped with phone lines and Internet-connected computers.

All of the high schools have such centers, but only two boast a full-time counselor in addition to a paraprofessional. For a number of students, the rooms become the nerve center for college admissions.

“Last year, I started going to the career center every day,” said Lisa Calvillo, a senior at Valley High School, who has been accepted to California State University-Los Angeles. “The people at school, the counselors, the career-center ladies—these are the ones I talk to. My parents—they don’t know what the process is.”

Each of the high schools has found a way to weave college and career planning into the school year, but Mr. Robles says the arrangement at Laguna Creek has particular strengths.

That school assigns every student to an “advocacy” class, something like the old- fashioned homeroom, only the teacher stays with the same group of about 30 students through all four years.

With the help of the career and college counselor, teachers work with students on making sure they meet college- entrance requirements, identifying possible careers, and writing their college essays. Counselors work with the same advocacy classes and their teachers until those students have graduated, helping to build a team around each student.

“The model is a very good model, and it is not typical,” said Ann S. Coles, the senior vice president of the Boston-based Educational Resources Institute and the director of the Pathways to College Network, a new national initiative. Most districts offer at least some programs to improve the college- going rate, Ms. Coles said, but even better is a systematic and sustained approach to counseling—"every kid, every week, every year.”

Equally encouraging, she said, are reports from Elk Grove students that classroom teachers in their high schools are often their biggest boosters when it comes to plans for college. “You need teachers constantly talking to students about what they want to and how they can do it,” she said.

Mr. Gordon, the superintendent, agrees that teachers, administrators, community members, and colleges and universities are all needed.

“It’s really the combination of the collaboration and the focus,” he said, “that will expand opportunities for our kids to get into college.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2001 edition of Education Week as Making Dreams of College Come True

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