The University of California, Berkeley, is less than 10 miles from Richmond High School, yet the distance to UC Berkeley or other college campuses can seem beyond reach to many students at this gritty urban school.
That’s why about 15 UC Berkeley students work through a campus volunteer organization called “Spread the Word” (STW) to help Richmond High students see college as a real possibility.
Toward that end, they lend students academic, moral and practical support and try to demystify the often complicated college application process. They advise students about college requirements in general and UC requirements specifically, how to fill out college and financial aid applications, and how to write effective personal statements to accompany applications.
To celebrate this year’s work and to give students a close-up look at campus life, STW will bring about 90 students from Andrew “Jake” McDonnell’s Richmond High English classes to Cal this Friday (April 27). For most students, it will be their first time on a college campus, much less the premiere public research university in the world.
The visit will be filled with tours, class visits, a dance team performance, a discussion of the Occupy movement and student activism, rides to the top of the Campanile bell tower, and more.
Spread the Word helps fill a void, as counseling can be hard to come by. A 2009-2010 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics showed the ratio of students per guidance counselor at the state’s public high schools to be a staggering 810:1, surpassed only by Arizona, with a ratio of 815:1, and barely ahead of Minnesota, where the ratio was 771:1.
Richmond High has about 1,600 students. The school has four guidance counselors, and will have two beginning next year, said McDonnell.
STW volunteers “function as guidance counselors, encouraging the students to go to college and helping them with all of the bureaucracy involved in applying,” said John Hurst, a professor emeritus at the Graduate School of Education. His Education 190 course exploring education and policy was the impetus for Spread the Word and numerous community projects over the years.
McDonnell said Richmond High is approached by lots of volunteer and non-profit organizations interested in providing programming. But he said the school is very selective about programs that it accepts, focusing on those that offer instruction relating to mandated state education standards.
Youth taking Advanced Placement classes in high school seem to get the special attention they need from school counselors, said Patricia “Paty” Arroyos, a UC Berkeley senior and leader of Spread the Word. “But the other kids just slip through the cracks. I want to work with them, the kids who haven’t even been told about college at all.”
“Our students want to learn. They are ready,” said McDonnell. “The question is, Will we provide the structure for them to do so?”
During a recent visit, Spread the Word volunteers returned drafts of personal statements that the Richmond students had written on their lined notebook paper, along with encouraging words like “really good job” and “amazing.”
They also had students present skits with solutions to scenarios based on real college situations, such as dealing with a looming deadline for a lengthy paper, giving a good interview, living with a difficult roommate, and keeping up academically during a relationship crisis.
“They’re all really bright kids at Richmond High, but there’s nothing expected of them, and they know that,” Arroyos said. She said they remind her of “the lack of a college-going culture” in her Southern California hometown.
About 75 percent of Richmond High students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, according to Richmond High’s School Accountability Report, which notes that 61 percent of the school population qualifies for free lunches.
Some STW volunteers come from modest means, having arrived at UC Berkeley after transferring from community colleges and/or overcoming significant personal challenges. All are enthusiastic about helping to expand access to higher education.
“Our goal is not only to empower these students to pursue higher education, but show them that it is indeed a viable option,” said Arroyos.
Arroyos said she was lucky, because her immigrant parents stressed the value of learning and academic achievement. She is the first in her family to attend college, and soon will be the first in the family to graduate, with a degree in sociology and an education minor and thoughts about a future involving education and public policy.
During a recent STW visit, one Richmond High student said he plans to become an auto mechanic, but that he will need to take college classes to learn much of what he will need to know. A young woman said she plans to become a doctor and hopes to attend UC Berkeley.
As the Richmond High students ride the elevator to the top of the Campanile tower on Friday with their classmates, they will be treated to a breathtaking, panoramic view of campus — and a bird’s-eye view of the real world of higher education.