Apply yourself

For many teens and parents in this difficult economy, a Catholic high school education may seem unattainable—and a Santa Clara University one utterly unimaginable. But thanks to the dedication of a group of SCU alumni, the backing of the University, and support from several grants, both are a reality for a record number of Los Angeles youth. For fall 2009, L.A. Catholic high schools experienced a surge in applications. And a record number of students from more than a dozen targeted L.A. Catholic high schools matriculated at SCU last September.

Step one: Gearing up eighth-graders

The Santa Clara University and Cathedral High School Eighth Grade Recruiting and Tutoring Project, spearheaded by alumni Kathy Anderson ’72 and Martin Sanchez ’02, provides specialized tutoring to 275 eighth-graders from 25 Catholic elementary schools in the East L.A. area. The first goal: Prepare them for the Catholic high school entrance exam.

Through the SCU Alumni for Others program, about 12 additional alumni, in conjunction with approximately 100 student-tutors from Cathedral High School, worked with the eighth-graders during four Saturday sessions last fall. Using a syllabus developed by Dan White ’70 and Sue White ’69, tutors guided students through mind-engaging games, skills review, and test-taking strategies. The tutoring program is entering its fourth year.

“This is a great example of our alumni living out that traditional Ignatian value of service to others,” says Jim Purcell, vice president for University Relations.

Eighth-graders are not too young to be considered future Broncos, Purcell adds. “If we don’t have kids who are successful in elementary school and high school, we’re not going to have kids who are going to be successful in college.”

Sanchez notes that in the neighborhoods the program reaches, students have a much better chance of graduating from high school if they attend a Catholic high school versus a public school. Which means they have a better chance of attending college as well. “This ‘jump’ from Catholic elementary school to Catholic high school is a critical point,” he says.

Other factors have contributed to the energy and purpose of the project. Anderson, who is executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation, provides tuition assistance to students who cannot afford to pay for Catholic elementary or high schools. Most live in inner-city areas. To participate, students pay $10 to attend the program. “We felt that to keep these kids invested, they needed to pay something,” Anderson says. However, no student was turned away; scholarships were provided as needed.

Equally important, more than 100 parents attended a program to get the inside scoop on financial aid and budgeting for Catholic high school tuition.

Community support also plays a role. Charlie Steinmetz ’75 has offered use of his charitable Big Yellow Bus Program to transport students and families from their home schools to the tutoring site. A one-time grant from the Specialty Family Foundation, which uses education for low-income families as a way to alleviate the conditions that lead to poverty, paid for books and supplies.

Step two: Helping high schoolers apply for college

A separate but related endeavor has also been helping L.A. area teens with the University’s application process—while increasing the presence and name recognition of SCU. “We wanted to increase our efforts to reach out to high schools that have high concentrations of students who are underrepresented at Santa Clara, particularly students of color from lower socioeconomic areas,” Purcell explains. “So we identified 14 high schools in the Greater Los Angeles Archdiocese that fit that profile.”

Sanchez, in his role as consultant to SCU, speaks with the targeted schools’ teachers, principals, and counselors, who help identify qualified students. From there, he holds informational sessions for students and their families in negotiating the application process for both enrollment at the University and for financial aid. He remains on call to answer questions.

The recruitment effort is not a matter of bending admission requirements. Rather, the idea is to provide assistance in traversing the sometimes challenging territory of the application processes. In reaching out to qualified candidates who would do well at SCU, Sanchez is able to assist prospective applicants who might otherwise have failed to apply to SCU due to financial constraints or unfamiliarity with the school. Once students know about SCU, the academic rigor, the small class size, and the secure community atmosphere appeal to many.

The main hurdle has been the price tag. With undergraduate tuition now $37,368 a year, “they had to believe that sufficient financial aid was possible,” Sanchez says. Indeed, some 70 percent of SCU students receive financial aid.

In addition to financial aid from the University, significant financial support from two foundations in the Los Angeles area—the Bill Hannon Foundation and the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Foundation—put Santa Clara within reach for these teenagers. “These students would not be coming if we were not able to have that additional financial aid” Purcell says.

The results of this program, which began in 2008, have been promising. Applications from the select 14 high schools jumped 73 percent to 135 this year. Of those, 68 received acceptance letters, compared with only 30 the year before. “Best of all, 23 out of the 68 decided to attend Santa Clara,” Purcell says. Nineteen of those come from underrepresented groups and low socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Word is already spreading,” Sanchez says. “It was all that the seniors who were accepted into Santa Clara were talking about these last few months.”

Anne Federwisch lives and writes in the Bay Area.

post-image In the garden: Martin Sanchez ’02, far left, with some of the 20 students from L.A. who enrolled at SCU last fall. Left to right, with major and high school, they are: Nataly Quintero, political science and ethnic studies, Sacred Heart of Jesus • Anthony Mejia, business, Cathedral High School • Ja’Nai Aubry, undeclared arts and sciences major, Junipero Serra High School • Belinda Resendez, communication and political science, Sacred Heart of Jesus • Josérgio Zaragoza, bioengineering, Cathedral High School • Xochitl Davila, biochemistry, Sacred Heart of Jesus • Bianca Lopez, public health sciences, Sacred Heart of Jesus • Gladys Mancillas, theatre and dance, Bishop Conaty High School • Audra Roberts, mathematics, St. Mary’s Academy. Photo: Charles Barry
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