Santa Barbara High School senior Kimberly Rojas had always assumed that attending a four-year university straight out of high school was out of her league.
But this fall, she received a letter from a high school counselor that was unexpected: “Congratulations!!” it read, in both English and Spanish. “Because of your hard work and good grades, you are eligible to apply to the college or university of your dreams!!”
Despite not knowing a word of English when she arrived in Santa Barbara four years ago, the native of Bolivia has achieved a 3.4 grade-point average. But as the daughter of a single mother of two who struggles to make ends meet as a housekeeper, Kimberly hadn’t started applying to four-year colleges.
“I didn’t think I was capable,” she said. “I’m insecure.”
She’s not alone.
At a high school where more than half of the 2,300 students are Latino, just two students with Spanish surnames from the school’s graduating class of 2005 started attending a University of California school this fall, according to documents provided by the school. (Four others were accepted but didn’t attend.) Most of the 36 other students from that class attending one of the UC system’s 10 schools are white.
Appalled by the low number, two Santa Barbara High administrators began an unprecedented push to shepherd more low-income students — the vast majority of them Latino — through the often confounding process of applying to a four-year school.
This fall, they sent the letter of congratulations to about 55 students with grade-point averages of 3.0 or higher who had slipped through the cracks. For whatever reason, few of the students had taken their SAT tests, visited colleges or initiated the application process.
“Some were daunted by the process,” said Assistant Principal David Hodges, one of the two administrators who combed through the grade book to find the 55 students.
The administrators’ finding shows that the oft-mentioned achievement gap between Latino students and the typically more affluent white students extends beyond grades and test scores. Many of the Latino students are the first in their families to qualify for college. As a result, the parental pressure to apply isn’t always as intense, said Mr. Hodges, who prefers to discuss the gap in terms of class, not race.
“They needed somebody nagging them,” he said. “Middle-class parents will ask, ‘Have you written your essay? Have you gone through the application process?’ ”
The idea for the new program came from school counselor Susan Snyder, whose Santa Barbara High School business card includes the phrase “Hablo Espanol.” This summer, while taking a class at UC San Diego, where the master’s degree holder was earning an additional counseling certificate, she read about the abysmal proportion of so-called underrepresented students in California — mainly black and Latino students — enrolled in four-year universities.
“I’m white, but was definitely a poor kid,” she said.
“Somehow I made it to college. Certain (students) need more support. It’s our duty as counselors to recognize that. . . . It’s my passion.”
The project — which happened so organically that it still doesn’t have a name — caught kids in the nick of time.
It started in September, when Ms. Snyder began handing out the letters. The deadline for applying to colleges is Nov. 30.
Ms. Snyder said her letters surprised most students.
“Most of them were like, ‘Are you sure you have the right person?’ ” she said.
Many hadn’t even thought about the SAT test, and the deadline for taking it was less than a month away. Ms. Snyder knew she had to pull some strings.
She sought, and received, free after-school SAT prep classes from private tutoring company Princeton Review.
She was granted permission to charge the district’s credit card for many of the students’ $90 SAT entry fees, ringing up a $1,000 total. (The SAT waives the fee for students who receive subsidized school lunches, but some who didn’t qualify still said they couldn’t afford it.)
The students took the test on Nov. 5.
No matter how well they performed, it was an important step, because taking the test keeps a student’s options open. In the Cal State system, students need not take the SAT if they graduated with a GPA of at least 3.0. But in the UC system, which will bump up its current 2.8 GPA minimum to 3.0 in fall of 2007, students must take the SAT. (The lower the GPA, the higher the score needs to be.) UC candidates also must write an essay.
In addition, Ms. Snyder has been taking groups of students on school tours — a hallmark of middle-class existence that has yet to be etched into the rite-of-passage routines of many low-income families. Groups have gone to Cal State Northridge, UCSB and Cal State Channel Islands.
Across the UC system, more and more Latino students are getting admitted, despite the board of regents’ ban on affirmative action in 1995, which went into effect for undergraduates in the fall of 1998.
The change caused a quick dip in the proportion of Latino freshman students across the UC system, from 14 percent to 13 percent. (The drops were most pronounced at UC Berkeley and UCLA, where admission offers were cut by up to 50 percent.)
But since then, the systemwide proportion has steadily climbed to 17 percent this fall. At UCSB, it has risen in that time from 14 percent to 21 percent.
At Santa Barbara High, the Latino population seems less squeamish about attending the 23-school Cal State system. This fall, seven 2005 graduates with Spanish surnames started attending various Cal State schools.
The Santa Barbara High administrators say Cal State is a fine system, but they want to reverse the widespread assumption among low-income students that the slightly more prestigious UC system is out of reach.
Apparently others do, too. After Ms. Snyder delivered — by hand — all the letters of encouragement, the project began taking on a life of its own. When an enrollment official at UCSB caught wind of it, he invited the group to tour the campus.
On Monday, a UC Irvine admissions officer drove to Santa Barbara High, where he critiqued 31 essays.
All the while, other Latino students have begun to beat down the doors of the counselors.
“The word is spreading,” Mr. Hodges said. “They are feeling there’s someone that’s going to help them. It’s powerful.”
The administrators say they are encouraging students to apply now and worry about money later.
Many low-income families tend to shun the UC system because of its significantly higher cost than, say, the Cal State system or the virtually free Santa Barbara City College. What they don’t know, administrators say, is how to access scholarships, or that the more expensive schools offer more in financial aid.
Despite the administrators’ successful search for low-income students with good grades, it’s clear that the school — like countless others across the state — has a long way to go to make a dent in the stubborn achievement gap.
Of this year’s 273 Latino seniors, just 71 have a GPA of 3.0 or higher, Ms. Snyder said. (She didn’t give letters to some because they had already applied to colleges.)
Victor Zu|ñ|iga is among the students with the higher GPA who hadn’t applied.
Like his girlfriend Kimberly, Victor had assumed he was not a candidate for the UC system.
A Mexico City citizen through seventh grade, Victor had planned on getting into the UC system by first completing two years at Santa Barbara City College.
“A lot of my friends just go to City College and stay there,” said Victor, whose non-English-speaking parents work as a house painter and house cleaner.
The City College route to UCSB has been a common path for local students, but stiffer admission requirements are making it more difficult.
UCSB has long allowed local students into the system after two years at Santa Barbara City College and earning a grade point average of 2.4 — a high C. But this fall, the minimum GPA for the City College plan rose to 2.6. By next fall, it will climb to 2.8.
To be sure, the City College route still may prove the most viable for some students. But Kimberly, for one, said it’s nice to know she has other options.
“(The letter) made me feel like I’m capable,” she said.
While she plans to apply to UCLA, the school of her dreams is UCSB.
It’s close to home “and close to the beach,” she said. She wants to study business administration.
A petite girl with black-painted fingernails and a small voice, Kimberly at first comes across as shy. But when she tells her story, her drive shines through the demure exterior.
When she first arrived from Bolivia and started attending class at Santa Barbara Junior High, she was miserable. After three months, “I couldn’t understand anything,” she said. “I was desperate to go back.”
Her mother urged her to try another month. If things didn’t get better, they would return to South America. Kimberly sought out an English tutor, who worked with her during brief spells of spare time: lunch, after school, before class. That month, she started feeling better.
Through her high school years, Kimberly’s mom prohibited her from getting a job to help make ends meet.
“I had to spend 100 percent on my studies,” she said. “That’s why I want to get all A’s and B’s.”
She says she wishes her GPA were 3.6, not 3.4.
“Right now I have two C’s in my grades, and I don’t like them,” she said.
In September, when Kimberly and four other students were pulled out of a Spanish literature class to receive the letter, she thought she was in trouble.
“I was so scared; I was like, ‘What did I do now?’ ” she said. When she looked at the letter, “I was so happy, so excited.”
She couldn’t wait to tell her mother.
“When I got home, I didn’t even say hi,” she said. She showed her mom the letter.
“She was so happy.”