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Educators: For first generation college students, getting accepted can be the least of their challenges

With Downtown College Prep students behind her, Executive Director Jennifer Andaluz talks about the school’s vision for a new campus at a capital campaign launch held at the former Southern Lumber store last spring. (Sal Pizarro/Staff)

Monday was National College Signing Day. For students who’ll be the first in their family to graduate from college, this milestone is a symbol of personal, social and economic potential.

Unfortunately, only 9 percent of low-income students will complete college compared with 77 percent of affluent students. This completion gap has profound implications for the economic divide that grips our region and nation.

Downtown College Prep (DCP) was founded in 2000 to tackle college completion for low-income, first-generation students. Many charter schools nationwide share DCP’s commitment but have fallen short of the ambitious goal to level the playing field. USA Today recently highlighted the results: only 23 percent of charter school graduates earn a college degree.

DCP graduated its first class in 2004 with 56 percent completing college. Completion rates have fluctuated over the years, down to 41 percent for the class of 2010. Unsatisfied, DCP transformed its model based on the experiences of its alumni. Today, 83 percent of graduates persist in college and 60 percent are on track to complete.

We have focused on building students’ academic readiness, personal confidence and financial capacity.

To address academic readiness, DCP expanded its program to include middle school, where we close literacy and math gaps. Middle school is also fertile ground for developing students’ growth mindset.

We’ve partnered with elementary schools like Rocketship who ensure families set their sights on college beginning in transitional kindergarten. Several founding Rocketeers will graduate from DCP high schools with plans to attend a diverse array of colleges such as UC Berkeley, American University and San Jose State.

DCP also established interventions beyond the classroom to help students engage with new environments. First-gen students don’t grow up listening to their parents’ college stories and rarely interact with people from different professional careers.

A partnership with Santa Clara University allows students to take summer courses with professors. For students who need a different entry point, a collaboration with JUMA Ventures supports employment training and financial planning by providing jobs at local stadiums. These strategic interventions build students’ confidence in their future.

Finances play a critical role in first-gen college completion. Every DCP family has a financial plan for college. For students who plan to attend a four-year college, counselors build personalized profiles of universities that have a track record of success with first-gen students.

We’re also connecting students to local community colleges whose first-gen support programs such as METAS at San Jose City and ENLACE at Evergreen Valley are making the college journey affordable.

First-gen college completion is a regional, state and national priority. Still, there is a significant resource and accountability gap to ensure a level playing field. Currently, the public has no way to gauge how K-12 performs on college eligibility, matriculation or completion.

This year, California issued a one-time grant to support college readiness. The legislature should go further and fund strategies to increase college enrollment and retention. As many as 40 percent of low-income students who’ve been accepted to college do not enroll in the fall after high school graduation.

As California rethinks school accountability, it should explore strategies and measurements to connect K-12 and post secondary institutions. It begins with developing an integrated K-16 system for tracking students’ post-secondary experience.

Early-warning systems could inform schools like DCP when graduates are at risk. Now, DCP’s commitment to monitor and support students is done largely through social media and internal mechanisms, such as DCP’s college scholarship program.

Let’s renew our commitment to first-gen students by building the systems to support college completion. This will make College Signing Days something to remember.

Edgar Chavez is Director of College Success and Jennifer Andaluz is co-founder and Executive Director of Downtown College Prep in San Jose. They wrote this for The Mercury News.