by Anna Waring
As executive director of Foundation for a College Education (FCE), one of the college access organizations mentioned in a March 7 article, "Minority Palo Alto graduates reflect on the good and the bad," I would like to explain our mission with your readers.
Currently, more than half of the approximately 70 high school students FCE works with each year attend school in the Palo Alto Unified School District through the Voluntary Transfer Program (also known as the Tinsley program). Because of our long history of working with students who attend schools in Palo Alto, I think I can lend some additional insight into the students' experiences covered in the article.
The mission of the FCE is to increase the number of students of color who graduate from a four-year college or university. Our involvement with students begins in ninth grade and continues until they complete their four-year degree. Our motto is "high expectations lead to high achievement," and our approach has shown great success. Eighty-five percent of our students graduate from college in five years, compared to the national average of about 50 percent. More significantly, FCE's college completion statistics are more than three times the national average for low income or students of color.
The foundation was created in 1995 to help students from East Palo Alto achieve their dream of attaining a college degree. Through our comprehensive programs, students and parents learn to navigate the complex journey to and through higher education. We ensure that FCE high school students are enrolled in at least four college-preparatory courses each year, that they understand the a-g course requirements, and that they engage in extracurricular activities. In addition, we take students on college tours, host college representatives at our offices, offer SAT prep classes and provide extensive guidance to our students as they apply to college. But, even more importantly, we provide a community that takes their hopes and dreams seriously and provides them with the support they need to achieve them.
Our early parents believed they had done the right thing by enrolling their students in Palo Alto schools, yet the chance of attaining admission to a four-year college was not significantly improved for having had their children in one of the best public school systems in the state. How could that be? And what should they and other parents know to ensure that this would not happen in the future? They turned to FCE to help provide the answers and to help them learn how to be advocates for their children.
It is in the context of our work with students and families who attend PAUSD schools that I make the following observations.
* As the students in the report indicate, for the most part, they are very appreciative of the quality of the education they receive in Palo Alto. FCE students go to a variety of colleges from CSUs, UCs and public and private colleges throughout the country, and they feel well-prepared academically for college. The vast majority of our students graduate within four (64 percent) or five (85 percent) years. We, and they, understand that their strong academic preparation in elementary and secondary school contributes to their college success.
* Too many, though not all, of our students report teachers and counselors who underestimate their potential and often provide incorrect information to them. Frequently, our students are told to drop tough classes because they are not needed for graduation. (That is why FCE supported aligning PAUSD's graduation requirements with UC admission requirements.) Some are also told because they speak Spanish at home they need not take a foreign language. Our students and their parents often do not understand why teachers and counselors would give advice that is undermining their dreams and aspirations. Fortunately, through our curriculum, both students and parents have the knowledge and the confidence to advocate for themselves.
* We know that our parents love their children and care for them. However, since the vast majority of students in our program are the first in their families to enroll in and graduate from college, their families are lacking the prior knowledge and social, human or economic capital that comes from having people in one's family who have attended college. FCE provides most of the same offerings that for-profit educational consultants provide for families with more economic means.
* We see no problems with providing support for students and families. I think of my very talented staff and volunteers as trusted guides on a challenging journey. No one finds it unusual to hire a Sherpa to help on a trek in Nepal or a coach to help an athlete improve his or her performance. The college admissions process is daunting; seeking and expecting help along the way is smart, not an indication of a student's lack of preparation. Some may refer to this help as hand-holding; however, I don't see holding someone's hand as a problem but rather as a sign of caring and affection. None of us have achieved anything in our lives without a helping hand, so we at FCE offer our hands freely to young people and their families who request help. We also instill in our students and families the need to offer a hand to others.
Finally, I am deeply honored to do the work I do. I am fortunate every day to work with young people who want to improve their lives and the lives of others in their families. FCE graduates (there are now 69) are teachers, engineers, social workers, graduate students and even an elected official. American society is better because these young people are educated and contributing in positive and meaningful ways to their community. But I am aware that FCE needs to exist because public education, even in a district like PAUSD, fails too many students of color by underestimating their potential and undercutting their dreams. That is a shame for the individual students affected but also for the larger community.