Imagine a student who works hard at college, but never advances to earn a degree. In California, it can be a kind of purgatory reserved for students whose English proficiency doesn’t meet a certain bar. And it’s a familiar tale in Pescadero, too, where students become the first in their family to graduate from high school and enroll in community college. Then, they don’t score well on critical placement tests. Students are placed into remedial English and math classes, sometimes for years, before they have a chance to earn credit for an AA degree or for transfer to a four year school—even to take the classes they care about most.
What happens next is hardly a surprise. “They get discouraged. They may just drift off,” says Suzanne Abel, Academic Director for Puente. “ And then, economic realities set in.” Meaning that students have to get a job to help support their families. And college falls off the radar.
It’s a national problem. Two recent studies from Columbia University’s Teachers College found that many students who get stuck in remedial classes don’t need to be there. The result: less than a quarter of those who start in remedial classes go on to earn two-year degrees or transfer to four-year colleges.
California has one of the nation’s largest learning proficiency gaps between whites and Latinos, and recent numbers suggest the Latino edicational gap is growing , not shrinking. And a new trove of data shows that students of color across the U.S. have access to fewer advanced classes and are disciplined more harshly than their white counterparts.
Abel joined Puente’s staff in October 2011 with the goal of getting more local students into vocational schools and colleges– and helping them emerge with their diplomas. A longtime Puente volunteer tutor/mentor, she recently retired from a position with the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University, where she also worked with first generation college students as a volunteer pre-major advisor.
Struggling from the start
Roughly 20 students graduate from Pescadero High School each year. In a good year, a handful of them enter a four-year college. A dozen others will enroll in a local community college. But earning that diploma is a different story.
According to college reports, students at Cañada College may spend up to six years, on average, to earn a two-year Associate’s degree—if they complete a degree at all. A few do manage to transfer to a four-year school, but it can be an uphill battle.
Abel’s long-term vision is to work with the La Honda Pescadero Unified School District teachers and administrators as well as her Puente colleagues from the community to help strengthen a college-aspiring culture among Latino and Anglo rural students – and their parents. “Too many of the kids have checked out by middle school, they’re failing by high school; we can all do better,” she says.
To help students dream big, Puente held the first-ever Latino Career Night at Pescadero High School in March. More than 90 students and family members packed the gymnasium and heard from a variety of Latinos from different fields. The speakers included a lawyer, social workers, a police officer, a medical school student, a psychologist and a radio personality.
Subsequent events supported by the Half Moon Bay Library, Pescadero High School, and Cal Humanities, have brought Santa Clara University professor and author Francisco Jiménez, and author Matt de la Peña, to the high school; both authors’ personal stories inspired a robust response to Puente’s three college visits over spring break.
Pescadero is a linguistically isolated community, so kids don’t have as much chance to practice English with native speakers outside of school or at home. The Pescadero schools are majority Latino and becoming more so as some non-Latino families choose to send their children elsewhere. Some students are new to the country and haven’t caught up by middle school.
Cristina Salgado struggled all through school after coming to Pescadero from Mexico as a 10-year-old. Today she’s 19 and in her second year at Cañada College. She’s still in remedial English and math classes. “It’s hard for me in college because it’s like I’m starting from the beginning,” says Salgado.
College has been tough in other ways. Salgado doesn’t own a car, which means she has to take classes at the same time as the others in her carpool. She works part-time at Puente to support herself and her family, so schoolwork is an extra challenge.
A cultural shift
Salgado’s family is pushing her to graduate, but some Latino families may not understand what it takes for their child to succeed in college. “It can be perceived as challenging family values,” Abel explains. “In Latino families, the kids are expected to stay close to home. They need to contribute economically to the household. Some families are in real poverty, so the idea of sending their children off somewhere to pursue a goal of future earning potential in this difficult economy is a stretch.” In Mexico, graduating from high school can be a major achievement since many rural communities of origin don’t have a high school, Abel acknowledges.
“Latino families bring many assets to this country, including these strong family values, courage, and a tremendous work ethic. Latino youth also grow up with bilingual skills and bicultural knowledge that are increasingly vital to our society. One of my goals is to encourage more students to build those into truly marketable skills while staying in school and pursuing vocational or college education,” she says.
Puente’s youth represent a microcosm of the kinds of education issues that the entire country is grappling with. There are no silver bullets. But Pescadero is a small enough community that school and Puente staff can get to know every child – and be able to help shape change over time.
“It’s one of the reasons I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and get into this,” she says.
To support Puente’s efforts to further student achievement, contact Suzanne Abel at (650) 879-1691 x149 or firstname.lastname@example.org.