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Meet the A-List

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Alliance College-Ready Public Schools is a charter management organization (CMO) that has opened and currently operates 16 schools throughout Los Angeles. There are 11 high schools and 4 middle schools located in some of L.A.'s poorest ranked in the school district, including the neighborhoods that make up South Central, Pico-Union, Mid-City and downtown -- the heart of the city's manufacturing and shipping corridor, the urban core.

What is remarkable about Alliance schools is not simply that they exist, it's that given all of the disadvantages of running a school in an urban center -- under a freeway or in a converted public storage facility -- they thrive. It's that way with the students too -- they don't just survive high school, they thrive. They go to college.

So, what makes this possible? How is it that a charter school in the middle of downtown Los Angeles is able to out-API, all other schools in its district? API, by the way, is a test score - and if you're following the education conversation, you're used to speaking in acronyms - that stands for Academic Performance Index and is issued by the CDE (California Department of Education).

So how is it that five alliance schools have API scores that rank them in the top 16 high schools in the LAUSD? (Do I have to spell it out?)

If I were writing for the LAT, the headline would be, "Academic Success Found Under Freeway! It's the Autonomy, Stupid." They do it with autonomy. Each school has control over its own budget, each principal has hiring and firing authority, each teacher is guaranteed a small class-size so they will not drown in over 30 students per classroom. And thusly, each student is prepared for college.

It is my great pleasure to introduce a series of Alliance profiles called the A-List. I'd like you to meet four outstanding students who embody our goal of matriculating well-rounded, college-ready students prepared to realize their dreams of academic success. What all of these students have in common, beside the support of the Alliance, is acceptance to some of the top colleges in the U.S. With the help of strong financial support in the form of full, four-year scholarships to the colleges of their choice, these students represent those who set the bar high for themselves and attained their goal.

Two of the four students here profiled are the Alliance's first admittances to Yale and Harvard, two are Gates Millennium Scholars, and one is a POSSE Foundation Scholarship winner. Both the Gates Foundation and POSSE provide full scholarships to the four-year college of their choice, as well additional networking and post-graduate support. We at the Alliance are very proud of their accomplishments and know you will be too.

2010-05-28-number1.jpgOfelia Carrillo, Age 18

Will graduate from Marc and Eva Stern Math and Science High School (MASS).

Will attend Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts this fall as a Gates Millennium Scholar.

In many ways, Ofelia represents the best of what educators hope for -- she comes from a family who fully supports her goal of attending college, despite the distance involved, as well as a community that embraces her will to succeed. A student at Roosevelt High School for about a week after graduating from Stevenson Middle School, she found that is was too large and was having trouble getting the schedule she wanted. She always knew college was her goal -- one sister graduated from Brown University and another from CSULA -- the current site of her Alliance High School, but at Roosevelt, she felt she would not get the guidance and support she needed. Her parents realized this too, and through community outreach by the Alliance, they learned about the newly opened Stern MASS High School. That was four years ago. Today, Ofelia has been accepted to Berkeley, Brown, Smith, Wellesley, Wesleyan, Amherst, UCLA, Santa Cruz, UCSD, NYU, and her choice, Williams.

"At first, I was surprised by the uniforms. I didn't like them," says Ofelia in describing her transition from Roosevelt, with a graduating class of over 1,000, to Stern MASS with its class of just over 100, "but now, I'm used to it -- I even enjoy not having to think about what to wear every day."

"There is accountability here," she continued, "You are engaged here. You can't hide behind 30 students - participation is required. And the focus is college. It always has been, right from the start."

Each time I meet an Alliance student, I am struck by a recurring sentiment and phrase -- "They know your name here. Everyone knows your name. Even the Principal." I heard this from each student profiled for this article.

"At Roosevelt," continued Ofelia, "they have to fund-raise for tests. At MASS, the school pays for AP testing."

Where Alliance schools may not offer the space for things like football and soccer, Ofelia described the opportunity for leadership created by the initial vacuum of no clubs, while the school was just opened. She helped found the MASS's first yearbook club and debate team. When asked about her college goals, she said she's most looking forward to the variety of classes and meeting new people from all over the country. She hopes eventually, to pursue a career in public health or law. Currently, she's working on her end-of-year thesis (a requirement for each grade level at MASS), about the free-market system and its effect on public health.

When asked what differentiates her Alliance school from other public schools, Ofelia cited accountability, a sense of genuine caring on the part of teachers and staff, and small class size as key. When asked why she chose Williams of all the acceptances she received, she said, "There are 1,700 undergrads at Williams. I like that size. I like that their student-body seemed interested in social justice issues. It was like MASS, small-scale and personal."

Does she feel prepared for college? "Yes, I feel well-prepared.," says Ofelia, "I may need to break out of my independent shell and seek help when I need it, but my writing skills are strong. I've had good teachers. They've help me build my self-confidence to the point where I can go far and still be myself." How does she feel now that all the testing and applying is over? "Like a weight of 4 years has been lifted -- I'm floating!" When asked what the Gates Millennium Scholarship means to her, she said, "It gives me freedom. I wanted to go to the college of my choosing -- not my mother's or my sister's choice, but my own. Now I can and I will."

Good luck and best wishes, Ofelia. We're here for you!

2010-05-28-number2.jpgDiana Castro, Age 17

Graduating from Gertz-Ressler High School.

Will attend Yale College this fall.

Diana Castro lives in South Los Angeles near Central Avenue. She has attended Gertz-Ressler for all four years of high school. When asked why she chose Gertz over Jefferson, the District's assignment, she said her parents were concerned about race riots that were occurring at Jefferson as she was graduating from middle school. She keeps in touch with some of her friends at Jefferson and they're not doing as well. "It wasn't just about the education," as Diana explains her choice, "it was about the personal connection and caring at Gertz. Had I gone to Jeff with one counselor for a thousand students, I don't think I would have done as well. I really relied on the counselor here for individual guidance." (That's Veronica Gonzalez, by the way.) She also cited the longer instructional time -- classes at Alliance schools are typically two hours vs. the 45 minutes of LA Unified School District classes, not to mention the longer school year at Alliance schools.

"The classes at Gertz are smaller; it's a tighter community. There's support. The teachers and principal know who you are -- they know your name. At John Muir (the Middle School she attended), they only talked to you when you were in trouble. The classes here are harder, but they're college-prep. A's at Jefferson are not the same as the A's at Gertz-Ressler."

When asked if she would have been able to attend Yale without the four year Gates Millennium scholarship, her answer is a definitive no. Financial concerns were and still are primary for her parents. The scholarship allows her to focus on her studies without being reliant on the income from work-study "I was worried about the workload of having a job and classes. Now that pressure is lifted and it's a big relief!"

The youngest of three children, Diana's brother, who attends Cal State Dominguez Hills, is struggling with budget cuts and fee hikes. Her father has 16 brothers and sisters, resulting in 100 cousins, and she cites her parents as the primary motivators for her being college-bound. "I always knew I wanted to go to college because my parents wanted a better life for me." Her parents are mechanists, her mother for a clothing manufacturer and her father as an electrician, but lately, work has been scant for both.

When asked how her parents feel about her going to college, she said they are proud but concerned about the distance. She applied to 18 colleges and was accepted to 16, among them Stanford, Brown, Vassar, and Berkeley; and was wait-listed at Princeton and U-Conn. "My parents wanted me to go someplace closer to home, like Berkeley or Stanford, but I chose Yale."

Why Yale? Diana says she visited the campus in New Haven with College Match (a program that sponsors school visits), and fell in love with the energy. "The people seemed more interesting and I liked the campus." She plans to study liberals arts, is excited about history and art history courses, and while she's not yet sure of her major, she'd like to minor in math.

Eventually, she may choose teaching as a profession, as she said, "to help her community." When asked why she thought Yale had chosen her, she credited her student essay, stating, "I'm very determined and have found ways to communicate what I know." She also cited the extra-curricular activities and opportunities at Gertz-Ressler, such as serving as the student-ambassador of Step-Up, a program that supports women transitioning from homelessness to work, and being a math tutor. When asked what she's most looking forward to at college, she said, "The challenges, the classes, and the people. The different choices, being away from home for the first time, doing things I've never done before, like traveling." Then she paused and added, "I live in a neighborhood that's 90% Latino -- I'm looking forward to being a minority."

As Diana heads off to her new life in the Ivy League under the protective watch of her new mascot, the bulldog Handsome Dan, we at the Alliance wish her all luck in the world with a reminder: she comes from the City of Angels where the mascots have wings and they will watch over her as well.

2010-05-28-number3.jpgJoshua Majano, Age 17

Graduating from College-Ready Academy High School #4.

Will attend UC Berkeley this fall.

Joshua Majano is the youngest of three siblings. His sister, a graduate of Cal State Dominguez Hills, is pursuing a teaching degree at Cal State Northridge, and he describes his older brother as "in and out" of college. His father has a 2-year associates degree and his mother never went to high school. He lives in the Pico-Union district near downtown LA and when asked what his motivation was for going to college, he cited his parents as his biggest supporters for providing encouragement and discipline. "Not going to college was never an option," he explains. "It was more a question of where I would go and how difficult it would be to get there."

When asked what the POSSE Foundation scholarship means to him, he exclaimed, "It means I can go to Berkeley!" While he feels that he probably would have made it into "some college, any college," he knows that finances present certain hurdles for him and his family. "It's more than just a scholarship," he explained, "I have to represent my family, my community -- the scholarship puts me more at ease -- and my parents won't have to stress."

Growing up, he said the obstacles he had to overcome have to do mostly with financial restraints and being the youngest. He felt isolated from the advice of his siblings once they left home, and from his parents who were busy working to put food on the table. He said his parents are sad that's he's leaving Los Angeles -- the distance he will travel is greater than any of his siblings, but he's looking forward to living on his own and adapting to a new lifestyle. "I want to see a new environment and different aspects of California."

Joshua hopes to study applied mathematics at Berkeley maybe one day be an engineer. When asked if he felt prepared for the challenge of college, he said yes. "The curriculum here prepared me for college, the teachers won't let you slide -- they actually care." When asked how he feels he would have fared had he gone to Los Angeles High School, instead of CRAHS #4, he said he may have gotten into college, but he wouldn't have be able to go without financial aid. "The counselors (at #4), really helped me with time-management and resisting the urge to procrastinate. LA High is full of distractions -- it's really big -- and I don't know if I could have resisted all of that."

He credits the teachers and administrators at #4 for filling him with the confidence needed "to step outside the comfort zone" and apply to his dream schools. "Grades are important, but they're not the only thing colleges look for -- you have to find a balance between school-work and life." True to that philosophy at #4, Joshua participated in student government, the literary journal (as writer and editor), and co-founded the baseball club.

"At the beginning of the year, I didn't think I could do it," says Joshua of the application process. "I decided a few years ago I wanted to go to Berkeley and wasn't sure I could get in." Despite the pressure he felt from friends and family to stay, and thanks to a lot of hard work and guidance at #4, come this fall, Joshua's dream becomes a reality.

2010-05-28-number4.jpgJoshua Hernandez, Age 17

Graduating from Huntington Park College-Ready Academy.

Will attend Harvard University this fall.

Choosing where to go to college is an important decision for many high school graduates and often, one that is made for them based on where they are accepted. But what happens when you are accepted to every school to which you apply? That's exactly what Joshua Hernandez, of Huntington Park College-Ready Academy, had to decide when he was accepted to all 13 schools he applied to, including UCSB, UCSD, UC Berkeley, Pomona, Swarthmore, Northwestern, Brown, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and his choice, Harvard. "I chose Harvard for big-city proximity," he explained. "I'm used to Los Angeles and feel comfortable in an urban environment. I wanted to be near Boston." And it is Harvard, after all.

Finances played a big part of the decision. "There is no way I would be able to go to Harvard without scholarships," he says. "The goal was to raise the $4,000 needed to cover the student contribution of $1,500 and $2,500 of work-study." Four thousand dollars might not seem like a lot to go to Harvard (in 2010 the annual tuition, without his $49,000 scholarship, is $53,000), but for Joshua and his family, the amount still presented a certain barrier. "But we did it!" he says. A scholarship of $10,000 from the Milken Family Foundation will permit him to attend Harvard without having to work during the summer or the upcoming semester.

"I used to dream of going to Harvard," says Joshua, "but I had a mentor tell me that the best I could hope for was to be waitlisted. From that point on, I was afraid to say Harvard. I would tell people my first choice was Swarthmore, just because I didn't want people to think I was being unrealistic." Keeping personal ambitions to himself seemed natural to Joshua, who described coming from a culture of "family first vs. me first." Neither of his parents graduated from high school and with three older siblings ahead of him, he witnessed first-hand the struggles that going to college can present a family. His oldest sibling went to UCLA, the second oldest went to LA Trade Tech College, and the third went to the LA Recording School.

"There's a big gap in ages between me and my oldest sister," and a span of eight years between him and youngest of the three mentioned.

"Having people tell me that the Ivy League wasn't an option, kind of fueled me," he explained. "I wanted to prove them wrong."

When asked why he chose Huntington Park College-Ready Academy, instead of the assigned school, he said his mother wouldn't let him attend the other.

"There was no way. She saw what my friends and (siblings) went through and wanted something different for me." The transition wasn't as easy as his parents had hoped. "I almost left the school at first. I wanted a typical high school experience -- with a football field, a theater, everything... but my mom wouldn't let me leave." By the end of his sophomore year, he realized he'd made the right choice. "I had friends at other schools who didn't even know what SATs are." When he speaks of his counselor, Mr. Ramirez, the words are praise. "That man is amazing - he really made me see my potential and now I understand that colleges don't look at just grades, they want a whole person."

Like so many others, Joshua cites the small, close-knit environment of his Alliance school that sets it apart from the others. "The Principal knows your name. My English teacher required a portfolio!," he emphasizes. Would he have been able to go to college had he (or his mother) not chosen an Alliance school? "It's hard to say, but I doubt it -- I'd probably have been accepted to Swarthmore. But I don't know how I would have gotten there."

Joshua plans to study English and Ethnic Studies at Harvard and perhaps go to law school or enlist in Teach for America after college. He's looking forward to meeting different people and cultures from around the world.

"I don't want to be a person that isolates and self-segregates by ethnicity. I want to know who I am without my parents, but not lose touch with where I came from."

When asked if he feels prepared for college, he talked about junior year, the hardest for him because he had a job, was training for a marathon, his sister was bed-ridden with crippling arthritis, and then he had to take a lot of tests and fill out college applications. He put it this way, "People call me a Type A personality, because I am never satisfied. I am proud and grateful, but there is always room for improvement." Then he reminds himself that if he can get through that year, he can get through anything. His one piece of advice for parents of children who plan to leave the state for college? "Let your kids go -- let them grow." One thing is certain, Joshua Hernandez is an intelligent, well-rounded individual, facing a bright and promising future.