School Churns Out College-Bound Grads in East Palo Alto

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EAST PALO ALTO, Ca. -- Alejandra Guzman, a senior at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, is dressed in her finest attire, anticipating her name being called out at her high school graduation last Thursday night. It is a particularly special day for her, as it will be the first time anyone in her family will cross the stage to receive a high school diploma.

"My brothers didn't go to college and they both dropped out [of high school]," said Guzman. "I always thought that I was going to finish high school and go work at Safeway or something."

Instead, the 18-year-old will be headed to an Ivy League college in the fall.

"I don't think it even hit me that I was going to go to college until first semester this year," said Guzman, who plans to attend Brown University. "All my peers and teachers are here to support me through this process to go to college. It's just amazing."

Like Guzman, 37 other seniors in the graduating class have been admitted to four-year colleges.

Eastside is a bright spot in an otherwise depressing state of education in East Palo Alto. In 2009, drop out rates for students there were estimated to be between 60 and 73 percent, reported the San Jose Mercury News.

In sharp contrast, 80 percent of Eastside alumni are currently enrolled in four-year colleges or have earned their bachelor's degree.

Eastside principal Chris Bischof founded the school in 1996 after teaching in the Ravenswood City School District, where he noticed that many of his students were not being pushed to excel to their maximum capacity.

East Palo Alto's only public high school, Ravenswood High had been closed since 1976, forcing students in the district to travel to different counties to attend high school. This put them at a disadvantage as East Palo Alto students often were tracked into lower-achieving classes.

"For a number of reasons, students were generally not performing well and there was a need for a solution to create education opportunities at the high school level in the community," said Bischof.

Ninety-eight percent of all Eastside students are the first in their families to attend college, or first-generation college students. This year the school was composed of 64 percent Latinos, 32 percent African American and 4 percent Pacific Islanders.

The school has grown to include 22 classrooms, two science laboratories, a dormitory and an arts center. The expansion is the result of generous donations from a variety of individuals and foundations, and a few corporations.

Eastside budgets $5 million annually to cover the annual tuition of $17,000 for each of its 280 students. In order to get students on equal footing, the school has extended school days from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and offers resource programs for students who are further behind academically.

The infusion of resource programs made a big difference for senior Roshana Smith, who says she became interested in going to college after coming to the high school. She now plans to study psychology at Mt. Holyoke. "I really look up to Chris [Bischof]," said Smith. "He had a dream and he went for that. It shows that anyone can do anything."

Bischof says the school has expanded its academic goals to help Eastside graduates succeed in college. "Now, our goal is not only to get them into college, but to also get them through college," he said.

The school's expanded mission is due in part to statistics that show dismal graduation rates among first-generation college students, with only 11 percent graduating from college within six years. The Pell Institute reports in a 2008 study that low-income, first-generation students were nearly four times more likely to leave higher education after the first year than students who had neither of those risk factors.

To that end, the school is now building an alumni system to help support students as they navigate through college. Later, this may extend to the work world with preparation in job readiness skills and internship resources.

Eastside launched an engineering and computer science program last year, part of an expanded math and sciences initiative to help prepare students in technical fields where minorities have been historically underrepresented.

Senior Juan Jimenez, who plans to study electrical engineering at Stanford University, says the computer science classes he took sparked an interest in science. "The level of depth and logic that you need to complete and solve a problem was definitely something that was new for me," said Jimenez, adding that Eastside has given him an understanding of what an education has to offer and what he wants out of it.

Jimenez's story is an example of how Eastside is reshaping the educational expectations of the East Palo Alto community, and building a college-going culture.

"Many students haven't always had the most positive association with going to school, and doing well with school," said Bischof. "We try to create an environment where they feel good about being here, well-supported and well-connected to the social community. It helps them to be more engaged academically."