High school students defy expectations through Stanford College Prep experience

While most of their peers don't graduate from high school, Stanford College Prep participants have their sights set on not only a high school diploma but also a college degree. The Haas Center program brings undergraduates, postgraduate instructors and dedicated staff together to provide 45 students at East Palo Alto Academy High School with tutoring, mentorship and the tools they need to be admitted to – and to succeed in – college.

Courtesy of Stanford College Prep Sonia Jimenez speaking to students

Stanford graduate student Sonia Jimenez, left, an alumna of SCP and Stanford New Schools East Palo Alto Academy, spoke to this year's students about her experiences in the program and in college.

Not many high school students can boast that they've already lived in a Stanford University residence hall for three weeks by the time they reach their sophomore year. Or that they have their own Stanford undergraduate mentor devoted to helping them navigate the complex world of college applications.

But for teens participating in Stanford College Prep (SCP) it's all part of their high school experience.

Similar in mission to East Palo Alto Stanford Academy, which helps seventh- and eighth-graders prepare for high school, Stanford College Prep (SCP) aims to get students in the ninth to 12th grades eligible for and accepted to college, through school-year tutoring and workshops and a summer residential program at Stanford.

"It's about getting them to that next step," said SCP Director Edgar Chavez. "We work with these kids in their teens, and we get to see them really grow in three or four summers."

SCP began in 1981 as Stanford's branch of Upward Bound, a federally funded college preparatory program with branches at dozens of universities, each providing academic support and mentoring for rural, low-income or first-generation high school students.

In 2008, Stanford Upward Bound became Stanford College Prep, relying on grants and donations through the Haas Center for Public Service instead of federal funding. Last summer the program began limiting its service to students at East Palo Alto Academy High School (instead of multiple local high schools). These changes allowed SCP to exercise more freedom with its curriculum, utilize different methods for assessing the program's success and develop a more intimate relationship with one school, according to Damali Robertson, Haas Center external relations coordinator, writing in the Haas Center's summer 2008 newsletter.

However, this summer SCP also welcomed five students from BUILD, another local college prep program.

Guidance from ninth through 12th grades

For ninth and 10th graders, SCP provides tutoring with volunteer Stanford undergrads on Saturdays at East Palo Alto Academy; 11th and 12th graders receive tutoring and one-on-one mentoring with a Stanford undergrad to guide them through the college application process. All grade levels are expected to participate in the three-week summer residential program (Sunday-Friday) at Stanford.

During the residential program, students take classes in English, math and a specialized "major" taught by postgraduate instructors. In addition, Stanford undergraduate Education and Youth Development fellows teach elective classes and serve as resident advisers in the dorm with their students.

Throughout the summer residency, students also tour colleges throughout Northern California and participate in recreational activities.

Chavez said he has inherited statistics from the previous director that put SCP at a 90 to 95 percent high school graduation rate, with 85 percent of participants going on to college. In contrast, East Palo Alto has a high school dropout rate of approximately 70 percent, according to the Haas Center.

SCP typically has an enrollment of 45, with 15 openings each year. Since switching to focus only on students at East Palo Alto Academy, the program accepts most students who apply.

Chavez, who began as program director this year and graduated from Stanford in 2009 with a degree in comparative studies in race and ethnicity, said SCP aims to get its students eligible for college not only through academic support but by helping them discover an interest that will encourage them to stick with their education.

"Part of the mission is to help them discover a passion or something that they care about, because that's really what we think is going to drive them to complete their college education," Chavez said.

Chavez and SCP Program Coordinator Ivan Jimenez, who earned his bachelor's degree in history and political science in 2010, devote much of their time during the school year to tracking their students' progress in school and making sure they keep up with college admission requirements. However, they said they also want students to learn how to manage their education on their own.

"I had a parent ask one time, 'How do I expect your program to advocate for my child?'" Chavez said. "We've been trying to change the language around. I can hold your child's hand every day and go to the office and make sure he's doing his homework, but that's not going to help him in the long run. So how can we help your child learn how to do that on his own to be able to get to college? We try to check in with them but we want them to go and check for their grades, check what their test scores are, and it takes a lot of training and pushing them and challenging them to do that."

Independence is also an important factor in the residential program. For many students, it's their first time away from home and getting a taste of what college life is really like.

'The roommate experience is huge.'

"They have their own room key, and their meal card, and if they lose it they have to pay for it," Jimenez said. "They're responsible to be up at certain times. We don't go around waking them up in the morning. The roommate experience is huge. Even though most of them are from the same school, they haven't had these close interactions to get to know another person's style, and compromise."

Sarah Quartey, a Stanford sophomore majoring in urban studies, is teaching a Language and Social Change elective class and acting as a resident adviser as one of SCP's five summer fellows. She said she's enjoyed making connections with students in the dorm and watching them learn in the classroom.

"They surprise me every day," Quartey said. "They bring in things [to lessons] from their own lives I would never have thought of."

Caroline Jackson, who just graduated from Stanford with joint law and master's degrees in education policy, is teaching a major course called Law and Policy this summer. She agreed that the SCP students demonstrate enthusiasm and initiative when participating in debates in class.

"I've been really surprised that the students who are traditionally underperforming or uncooperative can actually engage very well with this class," Jackson said. "When they find something they want to argue for, they can argue for it extremely well. I love seeing that."

Jimenez said the fellows and staff are positive role models for the high school students, demonstrating that success is possible despite the challenges against them.

"Sometimes it's the first time they get to meet a student of color who goes to college," Jimenez said. "Even if they're not the same ethnic background, hearing that other students have similar struggles and they've overcome them, it really encourages them. For some of them it makes them actually believe that it is something that's accessible to them."

Indeed, Chavez said he and the staff develop close bonds with the students and their families, often fielding calls at night and on the weekend. Many current SCP students said the staff is what makes SCP meaningful to them.

"The staff is awesome," said SCP sophomore Evelyn Payan, adding good-naturedly, "I get to argue with Edgar and Ivan."

"Everyone treats you like family," said senior Sandy Lopez. "Now I know Stanford isn't my only option. There are many options, and I can do whatever I want to do if I use my strength."

However, it can be difficult convincing students that colleges like Stanford are within their reach, Chavez said.

"A lot of these kids have family members that work in the dining halls, parents who are janitors," he said. "This also adds to another dimension of how they experience life at Stanford. It makes it very challenging for us to help them understand that this is a place for you to study as well, not just for your parents to work. You have potential to be here as well as in college."

In addition, Jackson said, since SCP students are not often brought up with any expectations of what college will be like, the program creates a unique community of students and staff who understand exactly what they're going through.

"I think these kinds of programs are important not only for preparing them for what to expect but also when they're there and they're encountering things that no one else seems to think is a problem, they have a community of people to reach out to so they can compare experiences and stories and stick with it," Jackson said. "It's extremely stressful for students who were not prepared for college since the time they were born to go through that experience."

Ultimately, seeing their students improve and reach their goals is what has kept volunteers, fellows, instructors and permanent staff returning to SCP year after year. Both Chavez and Jimenez participated in college prep programs similar to SCP as high school students and worked as undergrads at SCP themselves. They have seen firsthand the profound effect such programs can have on young people's lives.

"These programs work," Chavez said. "Something happens, things are just put into place that allows kids to break away from their routine at home, from school and that environment and see themselves outside of that, which I think is really special. I wish more people had a chance to see and experience it."

Robin Migdol is an intern for Stanford University Communications.