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Monday, October 31, 2005 | Cheering seventh-graders crowded San Diego State University on Saturday, Oct. 22 to set their sights early on a college degree.

“I want to study to be a doctor,” proclaimed Alix Medina, a seventh-grader at Mar Vista High School, her beaming parents in tow. Seventh-grader Karen Pena of National Middle School isn’t sure about what she will do, “but I want to go to college and have a good future and a good life.”

More than 3,000 young students and their parents from San Diego County’s Sweetwater Union High School District traded their weekend plans for a day at San Diego State as their introduction to Compact for Success, an award-winning college readiness program.

“This is your university,” San Diego State President Stephen L. Weber said in English and Spanish. “You are our future,” he told the students, to rounds of cheers and applause. “Think how proud your parents will be to see you graduate from San Diego State.”

The unique partnership between the state’s third largest university and California’s largest secondary school system guarantees these seventh-graders admission to San Diego State if they complete the program’s rigorous academic curriculum by the time they graduate high school. It also supports students with special programs once they start classes at San Diego State, thus simultaneously addressing the three biggest barriers to a college degree: access, cost and student retention.

More than 100 of the five-year-old program’s first participants are seniors this year, and are expected to begin classes at San Diego State next fall as part of a program that also guarantees scholarships to financially needy students.

Higher numbers of Sweetwater students already are being admitted to San Diego State based on the program’s presence at the district’s middle and high schools. “Teaching and learning have increased in every classroom,” said Sweetwater Superintendent Bruce A. Husson. “Compact for Success is an enormous gift to the children of our community. The road to a university education is open.”

By the accolades and recent labeling of Compact for Success as a national model, it’s the program’s success in defying the demographic odds that is gaining the most attention outside California.

Sweetwater boasts the kind of demographics that most recent studies would show as a portrait of a school system at risk of falling by the wayside in the new race to increase college-going rates in this knowledge-based economy. According to several studies, most at risk for failure to graduate from high school or college nationwide are first-generation, low-income and minority students.

Sweetwater, which covers more than 150 square miles of San Diego County, includes some of its poorer neighborhoods. Of the school system’s more than 40,000 students, 84 percent are from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Most students from Sweetwater who make it to college are the first in their family to do so.

How do you overcome those demographic challenges? Start early and add motivation. “Research shows that students who are successful are those who have had the motivation from the earliest years,” said Gonzalo Rojas, San Diego State’s co-director of Compact for Success. He also is director of the Office of Collaborative Programs in the university’s College of Education.

The Compact for Success Scholarship Program is being funded with support from the Ellis Foundation, Eller Foundation, Stensrud Foundation and with $540,000 in federal funding obtained through the leadership of one of the program’s chief advocates, U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista.

Eleven-year-old Elbert Guico, a seventh-grader at Bonita Vista Middle School who wants to be a car mechanic, knows “it will be easier for us to get into a university” than it was for his older sister. “She told me it would have been helpful to her if she had known exactly what subjects to take.”

His father, Edilberto Guico, agrees. “It’s very important that they start at the younger ages,” he said. “This gives our kids a road map to success.”

Renee Haines is a veteran journalist and higher education consultant who recently joined the communications team at San Diego State University.

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