CAL Prep, the academic charter high school that Berkeley co-founded six years ago, is about to celebrate the graduation of its first class of seniors.
In the season of caps and gowns all over town, what makes planning for CAL Prep’s June 12 graduation especially sweet is that every single senior — 17 in all — won acceptance to a four-year college. And some were accepted by as many as six, eight or 14.
One will enter Berkeley in the fall — with 52 college credits already, accumulated at Cal and Berkeley City College as part of CAL Prep’s curriculum. Others are going to study art and architecture at Cal State Chico, engineering at Cal Poly Pomona. Many are wondering how they’ll come up with the money to pay for college.
In many cases, without CAL Prep, these students would not be college-bound. The school, located in the old St. Joseph the Worker School on Jefferson Street in central Berkeley, was created to educate kids from families who have no college-going history, kids from groups that are underrepresented at universities like Berkeley, kids from low-income families.
“We get kids who are underserved, period,” says Principal Megan Reed, part of the Aspire charter schools management team that runs CAL Prep in collaboration with Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education and Center for Educational Partnerships (part of the Division of Equity and Inclusion) as well as Berkeley City College.
That means two things.
“One is that they come from their district schools,” Reed says, “and because of what they look like, they weren’t pushed, they’re not in AP classes, they’re not offered honors classes, they’re not challenged.” They’re not steered toward college.
Parents of kids like this have a tough choice, Reed has learned: Send their child to a school where no one else looks like them, or stay in the school where they’re not challenged.
The other students CAL Prep serves are “those who are forgotten about or left behind,” says Reed — the ones who are allowed to cut classes or perform way below unrecognized abilities.
“So we have three to four kids who are repeating their freshman year because they were allowed to cut their whole freshman year at other larger, comprehensive public high schools,” she elaborates.
At CAL Prep (officially the California College Preparatory Academy), both groups find themselves in an environment where everyone shares high expectations of them — that they really can go to college, says Gail Kaufman, who works closely with CAL Prep as part of Berkeley’s CEP.
“It may take longer for them to have that expectation of themselves,” she observes.
Since CAL Preps inception in fall 2005, test scores – as measured by the Academic Performance Index – have shot up from 650 in 2006 to 833 in 2010, with another increase expected this year.
CAL Prep’s students are roughly 40 percent African American, 57 percent Latino and 4 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. About half are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch. Almost three-quarters have parents who did not graduate from college.
The senior class represents the spectrum — and to a one credits CAL Prep, especially its teachers, for both teaching and motivating them to imagine themselves as college students and then to study, take and re-take tests, do what it took to win the coveted acceptance letters.
Interviews with six of them, in alphabetical order below, show that each one internalized the school’s message, conveyed in the college banners that decorate CAL Prep’s walls.
A slogan mounted on Reed’s office wall with photos of college students who had graduated from a similar charter school says it best:
“College kids, they look just like us.”
Meet some of the graduating seniors:
Stephanie Alejandre: ‘Oh, I can get an A if I really try’
Vitals: 17. Lives in Richmond. The first in her family to graduate from high school. Has been at Cal Prep for two years.
Accepted by: UC Santa Cruz, UC Merced and three CSUs.
Going to: UC Santa Cruz. I felt like I belonged there.
Cal Prep experience: Back in my old school (a Catholic high school), I didn’t get as good grades as I should have gotten … because I didn’t put too much effort into things. It was like, oh, I’m in high school and I’m just having fun. I didn’t have teachers behind me to tell me do this, do that. When I came over here I started getting better grades. I was horrible at math, I used to get Cs. Then I got my first A over here and it was oh, I can get an A if I really try.
Biggest challenge: The bigger and more difficult homework load.
College path: It certainly was a dream of mine. I heard it from my family all the time. But at the other school, I didn’t have an adviser to help me with the college application process. I didn’t know there was a GPA requirement or anything. Thinking back, I didn’t know anything about (getting into college).
College plans: I want to study sociology. I was thinking of becoming a social worker. Mom is a single mother and I’ve seen her struggle so that kind of pushed me to wanting to help other people with their problems.
Looking forward to at college? The new experiences. Starting a new life.
Worried about? That I’m going to be so overwhelmed, like, oh my god, I’m in college.
How did Cal Prep change you? Now I take things seriously, like this is what I have to do and I’m determined to do it because I can get there.
Victoria Cuan: ‘My uncle would tell me, you’re going to college, you’re going to have a better life’
Vitals: 18. Lives in San Pablo. Has been at Cal Prep five years.
Accepted by: CSU East Bay, National Hispanic University
Going to? (Undecided.) Money is the big issue right now. I’m thinking of community college for just one year so I could start working and earning money and then I could transfer out. (She’s applied for scholarships but hasn’t heard yet.)
Cal Prep experience: I was in a big school. When I came to this school it was different. All the teachers were helpful, they were a lot closer to you and you get more undivided attention. Teachers really care. It made me a better student. I was really shy in middle school. I wouldn’t raise my hand in class and ask questions. (Here) they gave me an extra push. I have to ask a lot of questions in order to get the material.
Biggest challenge: Me getting used to it. I wasn’t used to academic work. In my (previous) school I wasn’t really getting a lot of homework. When I got here, there was a lot of homework. They want you to practice and practice all these materials for you to understand it. It got me to where I am right now. All of my hard work is paying off.
Path to college: My uncle, when I was little, would tell me you’re going to college, you’re going to have a better life, I didn’t have that life and neither did your parents. Stay in school, don’t drop out, don’t start working and hopefully you’ll reach your dreams.
Looking forward to? Being independent.
Natassija Jordan: ‘A lot of people would have left after the butcher paper’
Vitals: Will be 18 in June. Lives in Oakland. Has been at Cal Prep since the beginning, in fall 2005.
Accepted by: 14 colleges, including UC Berkeley (with an Incentive Scholarship Award), Mills ($9,000 scholarship), Fisk, Syracuse, UC Santa Cruz and three CSUs.
Going to: Berkeley was my number one choice. My mom was all, what do you want for your birthday and I told her I got it already, I got into Berkeley.
Why Berkeley? I love the campus. I’ve met professors. Cal Prep provided opportunities for us to audit courses.
I took a freshman seminar about Supreme Court cases. You come in and you’re surrounded by all these other kids who are already in college listening to me about why I agree or disagree with a decision, and they look at you like you’re just another student there learning. It’s open and welcoming. This is the place for me.
Study plans: Political science with an emphasis in international relations.
College credits earned: 52, through courses at Berkeley and Berkeley Community College. Cal Prep requires students to take at least 15 credits’ worth.
Cal Prep experience: I’ve been here since the day Cal Prep opened. It didn’t have desks. We had foldup picnic tables covered with butcher paper. I watched it grow.
Biggest challenge: Recognizing the vision of Cal Prep and knowing it was getting to the place it was going to be. A lot of students left because they didn’t see where it was going. Seeing that is the reason I stayed. A lot of people would have left after the butcher paper.
College path: (Her parents both went to Berkeley.) My mom has been very good at making sure from a very young age that I knew college wasn’t an option, it was a responsibility. And Cal Prep has been influential. In the beginning we had to line up outside and to get in you had to scream out “college for certain.” It’s engraved in our minds that we have to go to college.
Worries about college? My roommate — who my roommate is going to be.
Do differently at college? I’ll probably stay up a little bit later. I love to cook, so I’ll probably cook more.
Maria Torres: ‘Here, it was all about college, college, college. It was a wake-up call.’
Vitals: 17½. Lives in San Pablo. Went to Catholic schools before moving to Cal Prep as a sophomore.
Accepted by: Two CSUs (East Bay and Monterey Bay) and Notre Dame De Namur University
Going to: Undecided, and also considering Paris Beauty College in Concord.
Cal Prep experience: At Cal Prep the teachers expect more, and the more they expect the more they were there to help. In English, the teacher would give us multiple essays. I’d think, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ Then I’d sit down and pay attention in class and the teacher — who is a very enthusiastic English teacher — would get me to where (I would do one) and it was, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this.’ I just kept going.
The hardest part: Doing all the homework and turning it all in on time.
College path: (At her previous school), they didn’t really emphasize going to college. They didn’t really mention it. When I came up here it was completely different, it was all about college, college, college. It was a wake-up call.
What will you miss? The teachers – and the principal.
Jonathan Turner: ‘I was in charter schools from fourth grade. Here, it was different.’
Vitals: 18. Lives in Oakland. Has been at Cal Prep for five years.
Accepted by: Cal Poly Pomona, UC Merced, two CSUs, Dillard and Morehouse.
Going to: Cal Poly Pomona, to study engineering, most likely either mechanical or aerospace.
Cal Prep experience: I was in charter schools since fourth grade. Here it was different. The classes were smaller, it has a more family feel, and the teachers were more dedicated to helping you reach your full potential. In ninth grade we started taking college courses and I actually liked it. I was class president. When I first started there wasn’t a student government. It was a new school, so I was helping my class get what we needed to the principal so we could work together.
Biggest challenge? The rigor of the courses. You have to make sure you do your work because if you fall behind it’s very hard to catch back up. If you need help, you have to be assertive, you have to take the initiative. I used to live across from Cal Prep when it was at the old location so I got up at 6 a.m. when I didn’t understand something and went over to school early to get tutored.
Favorite subject: I like science. In eighth grade we did a Rube Goldberg exhibition. I built a contraption — I took a marble and it goes down a series of different tubes and the end result is a water bottle pouring water into a little lake at the bottom.
College path: I just knew after high school I was supposed to go to college. (Other people in his family had gone.)
Looking forward to at college? The new experience, growing up, becoming more mature, becoming more of a man.
Worried about? Just dorms. And if I’m going to like my dorm mate.
Christian Vazquez: ‘Here, teachers get to know you. There, it was hey you.’
Vitals: 17. Lives in Richmond. Has been at Cal Prep for five years. Is the first in his family to be college-bound.
Accepted by: Three CSUs (Chico, East Bay, Sonoma) and National Hispanic University.
Going to: Chico State (along with four others from Cal Prep). It’s the only school that had what I wanted to do — art. I like architecture.
Cal Prep experience: I came from a middle school in Richmond that didn’t really see college as an option. There you were just a statistic. Here the teachers actually get to know you; over there it was hey you. I was never used to uniforms. The homework was difficult at first. After a while I started seeing it as a challenge and I like challenges. I started completing everything. My attendance is better. In the other school I was really quiet, here I’m more engaged with people since I’m closer to them. You get the individual help you need. You’re checked on at all times to make sure you’re on track. I went back to the other schools to visit – turns out, most of my other friends didn’t pass, dropped out, some went to jail. So I’m guessing that this was one of the best decisions made for me.
College path: I never just thought about applying to college because my parents didn’t do it. Once I got to Cal Prep, they had us say “college for certain” every morning — yell it out. That got me to thinking about it. I saw everyone else talking about it here. That made me think, wow, I could actually go to college. I got accepted to all the colleges I applied to.
Worry about college: Paying for it. (He’s applying for 10 scholarships.)
Like best about Cal Prep? The teachers. They’re fun to be with. I like messing with them.