School Puts Mexican-Americans on the Road to Success

"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.