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School Puts Mexican-Americans on the Road to Success

Tough love and hard work is the prescription at San Jose's Downtown College Prep — and it's getting results.

by
Joanne Jacobs

Bio

June 28, 2008 - 12:30 am

“Ride the carrot salad,” said the ninth grader in the fall of 2000. The phrase on the reading test was “ride the carousel.” The boy, a Mexican immigrant, had enrolled at Downtown College Prep, a brand-new San Jose charter high school. The founders’ dream: recruit Mexican-American underachievers, work their butts off, and prepare them to earn college degrees. The reality: teachers talked of making T-shirts reading, “Downtown College Purgatory: Ride the Carrot Salad.” But they were too tired.

I wrote a book about the school’s struggles, Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds. (I wanted to call the book Ride the Carrot Salad, but the publisher said it would confuse bookstore clerks. I should have held out: cookbooks get a lot better placement than education books.)

Ninth graders entered DCP with fifth-grade reading and math skills, on average. Most had earned Ds and Fs in middle school, where they’d avoided the epithet “schoolboy” or “schoolgirl” by doing little work. Many weren’t fluent in English; a few spoke no English at all. “We wanted Hispanic students who were failing in school but weren’t in jail,” said Greg Lippman, the co-founder and principal.

Students hated the school at first. They hated the uniforms, the eight-hour day, the homework, and the calls home to their parents if they didn’t do the homework. Nearly every student I talked to wanted to quit but was talked into staying a little longer, usually by their mother. After a few months or a few semesters, they started to catch on.

Of 102 students at the opening fiesta, only 54 graduated from high school in four years. Some transferred because the work was too hard; some left because their parents lost their jobs and moved back to Mexico or to the Central Valley. Several repeated ninth grade. A few were expelled.

All the ‘04 graduates went on to four-year colleges. To date, 75 percent of DCP graduates are working toward a four-year degree, a very high rate for low-income, minority students — or for any students. Most will take five or six years to finish, especially those at public universities.

Twelve graduates from the class of ‘04, the charter school’s first graduating class, earned their college degrees in ‘08. At a ceremony at San Jose’s Tech Museum last week, college graduates were called up to the podium with their families, the parents who’d forced them to stay at DCP, the siblings who now see college as a realistic goal.

As the ‘04 commencement speaker, Magdalena Villalvazo had talked about doubting that any college would want her, about trying to persuade her mother to let her quit. “Slowly, our fears became our strengths,” she said. A business graduate from Dominican University, Magdalena is working at a bank, where she’ll train to be an investment banker. I asked her what was hard about college. “Everything!” she said. But becoming a college student was “exhilarating.”

Veronica Lugo Perez’s admissions essay started, “Pulled by my mother’s dreams, I walked barefoot across the border from Mexico. I was six years old.” Her mother has a first-grade education and works as a janitor and seamstress. When she started DCP, Veronica decided she wanted to make honor roll and she did, every semester. She graduated in Spanish from Santa Clara University. Now she’s decided to earn a doctorate and be a Spanish professor.

Erika Rico, who came from Mexico without a word of English in middle school, earned a math degree at Mount Holyoke. She’s been hired by a space sciences company, which will pay for her graduate education.

I helped Yessica Solorio with a college form when she was a senior. She was struggling with English spelling and grammar. One question asked if she had work experience. She was working a five-hour dinner shift as a waitress three days a week plus 16 hours on the weekends at a furniture store. I said, “Thirty-one hours is a lot.” Yessica said she liked to work. She’d been very sick as a child, forced to rely on others. With better medical care in the U.S., her health had improved and she could enjoy the pleasure of doing things for herself. Some of her earnings helped support the family — her mother was out of work — and the rest went into her college fund. That work ethic paid off for her at Cal State Monterey Bay, where she earned a degree in kinesiology.

Gloria Medina gave a speech about her turnaround: She was a rebellious, unmotivated student until her sophomore year. “I simply got tired of failing,” she said. She thanked her tutor, the college counselor and her mother. She started crying when she tried to talk about her mother and couldn’t go on. I told her later that we’d all gotten the gist of it.

A UC-Santa Cruz psychology graduate, Gloria plans to get a master’s in social work at San Jose State. She’s also being considered for a job at DCP-Alviso, a new middle-high school that will open in the fall.

Juan Guttierez earned a psychology degree at Monterey Bay. He’s going to work at a restaurant — the tips are excellent — for a year or two, then return to college to earn a master’s degree in psychology so he can be a school psychologist. That kid who read “ride the carrot salad” eight years ago, that was Juan.

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