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Wednesday, February 08, 2006 | Barrio Logan College Institute teaches eight-year-olds how to get into college.

The mission of the institute is simply stated, yet not simply achieved: prepare kids from low-income and minority areas for college by introducing the notion of higher education at an early age.

The concept behind the organization came from a public-service entrepreneur who felt such students needed a way to push past obstacles blocking their access to higher education. To achieve this, the institute focuses its efforts on after-school enrichment programs, parent involvement and mentoring.

“We were founded as an elementary program to do an early intervention and prevent students from falling through the cracks and becoming statistics,” said Diana Getrich Villegas, executive director of the BLCI.

Falling through the cracks is more common than not as elementary and middle schools aim their focus at working in the present.

Founded in 1996 as an after-school program in conjunction with the Boyle Heights College Institute in Los Angeles and the North Central College Institute in San Mateo, the nonprofit institute is the only remaining one of those original three models that hasn’t closed.

Angel Prado, a parent and the institute’s chairman emeritus, said school districts don’t properly alert students of college opportunities, making programs such as this vital to student’s future.

“If the school system was doing its job we wouldn’t need programs like this, a child would be prepared in the school system,” he said

That’s not surprising, considering the attitude of the school board.

Luis Acle, president of the Board of Education for San Diego City Schools, said that preparing elementary students for college is “outside of the scope of the school board.”

“We are very much in favor of having our kids continue their education but we are not engaged beyond preparing them for higher education in high school,” he said.

Seeing a need for their presence in the community, the institute is guiding students from elementary school through high school with the mindset that they can go to college, and backing it up with programs and support to enlighten kids of their future possibilities. That, in turn, will give them reason to stay in school.

Diverse families and cultures make up the Barrio Logan community. Getrich Villegas explained that by the end of eighth grade the majority of their students have surpassed their parents’ education level.

Not only do they tailor their prospectus to the age levels of the students, but they make sure young minds are well-aware of the existence of scholarships or a Federal Application for Student Aid form.

All this, long before the children reach eighth grade.

By 1999, the ability to accommodate the growing needs of their students brought on an expansion of the program. The extension included the creation of three key college preparation programs, for elementary, middle and high school students, that continue to thrive today.

Clairbel Villa, presently a freshman majoring in fashion merchandising at California State University, Northridge, began the institute’s elementary program when she was in the fifth grade. Villa, who comes from a single-parent household, said her mother knew it was exactly the right place for her daughter.

“She’s always been involved … helping with homework, going to PTA meetings, bringing me food at BLCI after school,” Villa said of her mother. “She always said that if I went to college, I’d be living her dream as well.”

Midway through the program, Villa found herself admiring the college institute’s staff – not only because they were Hispanic, but because they were college graduates.

From aiding in her admission to the Preuss School UCSD in La Jolla – the charter school where she graduated from in 2005 – to encouraging her so she wouldn’t fall behind, teachers at the institute gave Villa the “help your counselors in high school won’t give,” she said.

“My senior year was the most stressful year for me and they were literally spending time with me until 11 p.m. to make sure that my (college) applications were in,” Villa recalls. “Nowhere else would they do that.”

Besides staying open late to help students, the institute provides many of the resources students lack at home, from computers and printers to tutors and mentors.

With a college preparatory curriculum, the institute embeds the expectations of universities into the minds of their students by teaching them about leadership and personal responsibility, the importance of financial aid and social skills, and how they too can give back to the community by succeeding in college.

“College definitely should be in the picture to let kids see what is out there, which you can only do … with exposure,” Prado said. “Most Anglo families or families of other backgrounds may already have third- or fourth-generation college graduates, but in minority cultures we want our kids to be our first generation to go to college and do more.”

The institute is not only for students, but their parents, too. The success of area students is, after all, a combined effort. By making parents aware of what their kids need to get into college – the SATs, mandatory requirements, good grade point averages, etc. – the parents will be more connected in the progress of their children.

“We want to empower parents to manage things on their own, so they can own the process and fully become participants and learn the American way so they can be like parents here,” Getrich Villegas stressed.

She added, “Most parents only speak Spanish, so having this ability to help the students is great. It’s important we are here to help, especially because the drop-out rate has been hovering around 40 percent for Latino students in San Diego.”

As for students thinking of dropping out, Villa has a better solution.

“Don’t be afraid to get help and say that you need someone to push you. As long as you get to college it doesn’t matter what path you take. My mom always told me this country is full of opportunities; the people who don’t succeed have themselves to blame. Take advantage or the next person is going to take it.”

For more information on the Barrio Logan College Institute, visit www.blci.org.

Betsy Lopez Fritscher is Voice’s editorial assistant. Please contact her with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips at

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