Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

To graduate high school, some students must get into college first

Students paint signs with the names and logos of colleges that former classmates now attend. Environmental Charter High School requires that each of its students get accepted into a traditional four-year college or university in order to graduate.
Students paint signs with the names and logos of colleges that former classmates now attend. Environmental Charter High School requires that each of its students get accepted into a traditional four-year college or university in order to graduate.
Jed Kim/KPCC

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Kate Spence is a hard sell when it comes to picking a school. She’s visited several colleges and universities but has yet to have her eureka moment.

“I have a lot of schools that I like, but I haven’t found the one,” Spence said. “I’m waiting to walk onto that campus and be like, ‘This!’ I haven’t had that connection yet with a school.”

That love-at-first-sight experience may not be in her future. It certainly wasn’t in her past. Kate is a senior at Environmental Charter High School, a place she did not want to attend at first. Her mother had to convince her.

“I really, really, really wanted her to come here,” said Theo Spence, Kate’s mother. “I liked the reputation that it was very much geared towards going to college.”

In fact, Environmental Charter High School places such high value on college education that it requires its students to get accepted to a four-year college or university before they can graduate. Lawndale Elementary School District, which holds the school’s charter, has agreed to the rigorous mandate. State law allows school districts to set graduation requirements.

The school's students also have to perform 80 hours of community service, write and present a senior thesis project and complete all coursework necessary to enter the UC or Cal State systems, known as the A-G requirements. Any student who does not meet the graduation requirements must appear before a panel and present evidence for why he or she should be able to graduate.

The college-first focus seems to be working. School officials said 90 percent of last year’s senior class got into college.

That statistic is even more impressive because 75 percent of the student body is Latino and most come from low-income families. In California, only 28 percent of Hispanic students graduate high school having completed the A-G requirements. At Environmental Charter High School, it's 98 percent.

“Our thing is to hold all students to very high standards,” said Alison Suffet Diaz, the school’s founder and executive director. "When you expect high standards from students, they perform at those higher standards."

College prep ecosystem

Since its founding 13 years ago, Environmental Charter Schools has expanded to include two middle schools in Inglewood and Gardena in addition to its high school in Lawndale. Suffet Diaz said the schools currently enroll more than 1,000 students and each grade has a waiting list for entry.

As its name suggests, Environmental Charter Schools' focus is study of the environment. A narrow stream runs between buildings at its high school, providing hands-on lessons for classes. Students maintain gardens, from which anyone can grab a fig or a handful of grapes between classes.

The atmosphere is steeped in college. Dozens of student-painted placards stretch down the outside of one building. Each features the name of a college that former alums now attend. On Fridays, instead of their regular uniforms, students are encouraged to wear college-themed clothes.

“We’re really passionate about it. I want to go to university,” said Xiomara Diaz, a junior this year. “If you come to ECHS, the whole environment is like, ‘University, university,’ but it makes you feel really proud of yourself, because you know that people are here to support you, and you’re going to go far in life if you do the stuff that you need to do.”

For many, however, doing what needs to be done to access higher education can be a mystery. Like many of the school's students, Xiomara would be the first in her family to attend a traditional college or university.

As such, they often don’t have the benefit of someone who’s gone through the rigorous and often-confusing college entry process, with its many application deadlines, standardized test requirements and financial aid considerations.

The school plays a vital role for those families, walking them through each step of the process.

In it together

On a recent weeknight, school seniors and their parents gathered in two classrooms for the first of several informational sessions that would occur throughout the year. Counselors handed them detailed calendars listing application deadlines. They spoke and answered questions in both English and Spanish. Many parents seemed a little dazed.

School officials said they'll hold workshops in the next few months where parents fill out financial aid applications together - and send them off, ensuring they get in on time.

“Whatever a kid needs, we’re going to try to get them the resources so they can be successful and get them out of here,” said assistant principal Mandy Breuer. That includes "after school programs, extracurricular programs, family programs, and social/emotional support."

Breuer said it’s merely a matter of enabling students to succeed.

“I think what we’re showing here is that if you resource kids, you give them everything that maybe a student from a higher socioeconomic background has, they will run as far or further with it,” Breuer said.

Bryan Macias graduated from Environmental Charter High School three years ago and is now studying anthropology at UC Riverside. He said the school was vital, since no one in his family had ever gone through the process of applying to college.

“It was difficult. My mom didn’t know much regarding school or how the application process works, so we had to do a lot of learning together in how do you apply for schools, how to get grants, things like that,” he said. “If the school wasn’t here, we wouldn’t have known what to do.”