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Understanding Where Our Students Come From

One of the benefits of working in a year-long cohort program is that the students develop a confidence not just within themselves, but with each other, and with me. By the time we start spring Semester, my Puente students know that I believe in them and that they believe in each other.  It is because we have this foundation that I can start by presenting them with some very unsettling data about student success in California.

One of the first things we look at is this chart which is the result of amazing research by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and ACCESS (IDEA):
One of the first things we do together is translate this data into sentences, like so:

  • For every 100 Latin@ 9th graders in California, 87 make it to the 10th grade, 77 make it to the 11th grade, 68 make it to the 12th grade, and 57 graduate.
  • Only 16 graduate “A-G grads,” meaning they have completed the required courses to be eligible for enrollment at a California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC).
  • Of those 100 Latin@ 9th graders, only 15 make it to a community college in that first year after graduating high school, 6 went to a CSU, and 2 started their freshmen year at a U.C.

Inevitably, this raises a lot of great questions from students: What happened to the 43% of 9th graders who didn’t graduate high school? Where did they go and why? Why are so many students graduating who are not “college-ready”? How does this compare to the rates for white students, Asian students, and African American students?

Some of that data is available at the UCLA IDEA website here. We wade through a lot of it together. We read an entire report called “Separate and Unequal: 50 Years After Brown.” Students get to look up their own high schools College Opportunity Ration (COR) at this interactive website.

The COR is a three-digit number that conveys a lot of information. UCLA IDEA describes it as “a 3-number figure that reports how many students graduate and how many pass the A-G courses required for admission to CSU and UC compared to each 100 students enrolled as 9th graders four years before…We report the COR for all students and for African American, Latino, and American Indian students, who are underrepresented in California’s colleges.”

Take an example: 100:60:16

The first number (100) is all the 9th graders at this school. The second number (60) is the percent of students that graduated, or number per 100. The third number (16) is the number who graduated and passed the A-G courses required for admission to a CSU and UC.

That example was for the entire student body at  John Muir High School in Pasadena.

The COR for underrepresented students at Muir is 100:32:9

If you teach in or around Pasadena, you won’t be shocked.  I’m not shocked, but my students are. They bring in their COR’s after looking them up for homework. The highest I ever saw was a school with a 100:100: 72. The lowest was 100:8:1.

Each semester, the majority of students in my Puente class, which serves mostly Latin@ students, report COR’s under 100:60:20 for the entire student body of their high school.

What this makes clear to the students is that first, there is a huge problem in our schools and second, they are already defying the odds just by enrolling at PCC.

There are many things to investigate and analyze after this early examination of data and reports, but this lesson frames our work together all semester-long and has changed the way that I relate with my students and to my profession.

It wasn’t until I first started studying this information that I realized how precious our students are. It’s easy to see how special some of the high-achieving students are with their masterful essays and leadership positions on campus. Those students are hard to miss. However, the majority of community college students are not here because they were at the top of their graduating class.

It takes just one semester of talking with students to realize that many of our students are here because they are struggling somehow–academically, financially, socially. Whether they are the first in their family to come to college, or returning after raising college-educated children of their own, they are here to do important, life changing work.

For most of my Latin@ students, and many others, the road to PCC was not an easy one. They represent the best and most committed of their peer groups in high school; they are the ones who made it.

For those of us who come from middle-class backgrounds, for whom a college education was a given, this is easy to overlook: these students have already had to overcome a long list of challenges just to make it to class. Those challenges may include a lack of family support, immigration problems, substance abuse, physical or emotional abuse, unreliable housing, food insecurity, and even things that seem mundane, like child-care or bus route issues. These are huge challenges which many students have to overcome just to sit before us.

When these students drop out, it’s not to go backpack across Europe, or to work at the family business. When they drop out, it means that their family will not gain the financial security possible with a college education. When they drop out, it postpones a family’s first college graduation. When they drop out, it often closes the door of the American Dream to them, if not permanently, for a long while.

I don’t know how to ensure that all my students stay in class, let alone graduate. I know that I have gone out on a limb for students only to have them drop a class or their program of study for what seems like a silly reason to me. But I also know that to forget the significance and weight of each student’s decision to come to class each day (or night) is to lose sight of the prize we are all fighting for.

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1 Comment

  1. NValdezJimenez says:

    Thank you so much for this article! As a Puente counselor, I’ve struggled in the past with how to make this type of data accessible and meaningful to my students. Now I have some wonderful ideas about how to bring this into my classroom in a manner that will hopefully inspire and enrage my students to continue to pursue their education with purpose.

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