For Poorer Students, Little Guidance on Path to College
Nonprofit groups try to fill-in for parents and missing counselors.
By Jacqueline García, EGP Staff Writer
High school seniors across the country are reviewing college acceptance letters and financial aid packages to meet the May deadline to inform colleges if they will attend their institution in the fall.
But for many students in low-income communities, the choice comes down to going to a community college or getting a job because they failed to complete the requirements to attend a four-year university or college, or lack the financial resources to attend.
The documentary “First Generation” was recently screened for Los Angeles area students. The film follows the lives of four low-income students —an inner-city African American athlete, a white waitress from a small town, a Samoan warrior dancer, and the Hispanic daughter of migrant farm workers — for three of their high school years. The film looks at the obstacles the students face as they try to make it to graduation, earn a high school diploma and break the cycle of poverty for their families by being the first in their family to get a college degree.
Students who saw the movie said the stories are striking similar to their own experiences.
The documentary points out that low-income students are more likely to attend a community college than a 4-year university. In California, only 21 percent of those who attend community colleges will transfer to a 4-year university or college.
Sixteen-year-old Cynthia Eranas attends Roosevelt High School in L.A.’s mostly Latino eastside and told EGP the documentary hit close to home.
As the first in her family to graduate from high school, she says the pressure to succeed weighs heavy on her shoulders.
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“My family [is] looking up to me and saying, ‘you are going to be the one changing the family’s future,’” Eranas told EGP. At the same time, she said, there are many people who think just because she goes to school in a poorer neighborhood “she is not going to make it.”
Overcrowded schools and overcrowded homes complicate the problem even more, Eranas told EGP. She said there are 7 people living in her family’s one-bedroom apartment, making it hard to study. Because both her parents work full-time, the 10th grader said she’s on her own when it comes to finding out information for school and college. “I feel like I’m the parent taking charge,” she said. “Instead of us asking our parents, our parents are asking us” what has to be done, she said.
The nonprofit InnerCity Struggle has for years advocated for reforms at local schools and was instrumental in the movement to require all students in the Los Angeles Unified School District to complete the so-called A-G curriculum, a set of courses needed to gain acceptance to a California four-year public university or college.
The group’s director, Maria Brenes, told EGP that the requirement doesn’t guarantee students will complete the classes. There are not enough counselors to provide academic guidance to students, she said.
According to Brenes, the counselor to student ratio in low-income eastside schools is stunning: 333 to 1 at Roosevelt; 493 to 1 at Garfield and 325 to 1 at Mendez High School.
“The [school] district has to do more to provide for these students,” she said, adding the ratio should be 100 students per counselor.
LAUSD’s own data shows that only 33 percent of all eastside graduates passed the A-G courses with a C or better, Brenes told EGP.
The data shows that 40% of the students who attend Roosevelt High School do not graduate, she said. The story is about the same at Mendez High; the school’s website put the 2012-2913 graduation rate at 61%.
“For many years ,students didn’t know and didn’t understand the urgency of college,” said Brenes. A lack of information about the A-G requirements, applications deadlines, fee waivers, financial aid and SAT tests has left many students unprepared, limiting their choices.
Hoping to turn things around, organizations like InnerCity Struggle work outside the schools to help students get ready for college, Brenes said. “Our goal is to increase the graduation rate.”
Programs such as United Students at Garfield, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Wilson High School, help students organize to ensure that all students graduate and attend college.
The group currently works with about 500 students. “About 150 students receive individual support form the organization,” Brenes explained. Every month they meet directly with one of the group’s three advisors who check the student’s academic progress. The advisors provide support and information to the students, including those that are undocumented, during the college application process, Brenes said.
When students “pay attention” it is more likely they will look for opportunities. That was the case for recent MIT graduate Madeline Salazar, 22, who said the documentary really showed the problems low-income students face getting information; problems she said could be addressed through more outreach. MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, is one of the country’s most prestigious universities; acceptance is very selective.
“I was a product of one of these nonprofit organizations that came to our community and inspired students to meet deadlines,” the Boyle Heights resident told EGP. Her advisor guided her through the college application and financial aid process, making sure she did not miss any deadlines.
“My family was earning under $40,000 a year. I was a low-income student at Roosevelt but I paid attention to the advise from the organizations,” she said, adding she now has a good paying job at aerospace giant Boeing Corp.
Brenes said this is why it is very important Local Control Funding Formula revenue reaches low-income eastside schools. LAUSD recently released its funding priorities and about 20 eastside high, middle and elementary schools are among the 175 schools the school district says will be targeted for added funding.
Earlier this month, University of California President Janet Napolitano sent a letter to about 5,000 low-income California students who received high scores on their practice college admissions tests. “Your performance on the PSAT places you among the top students in California. It is truly impressive that you are preparing yourself so well for college,” her letter stated. She also encouraged the students to consider applying for admission to a UC school.
Napolitano said her objective is to challenge low-income students by inviting them to take the Advancement Placement (AP) courses that will help increase their chances of gaining admission at highly selective universities.
Eranas hopes change is coming to students at Roosevelt High School: “Give us something to do and we will show you we have the potential,” she told EGP.
“Students are the future and it is important to talk about the gaps,” said Brenes. After all, the number one goal for students and parents is college, she said.
The documentary First Generation was produced and directed by filmmakers husband and wife Adam and Jaye Fenderson and is showing all over the nation, sponsored by Wells Fargo. For more information visit www.firstgenerationfilm.com to show it at your school.
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April 17, 2014 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.