In a narrow room in the industrial flats of Barrio Logan, Julio Valenzuela held up a wilting plant to a cluster of sixth graders. “Why do you think this plant looks like this?”

The children guessed. No sun. Not enough water. “It’s dying,” one boy said solemnly.

“This is an example of what can happen if you’re not focused. If you don’t feed your plant. If you don’t feed your grades!” Valenzuela said, drawing a sudden connection. “Let’s do a project. Can we make this plant survive?”

“Yes!” the kids chorused.

Saving that wilted plant looks like an uphill battle. But beating the odds is ordinary at Barrio Logan College Institute, an after-school program that gets extraordinary results. Fifteen years after this nonprofit started with just a dozen third graders, every one of its graduates has gone on to college.

Eighteen-year-old Laura Chavez just chose the University of Redlands, her first step to becoming a speech pathologist. “You can get a master’s,” the teen tells a staffer, “but I’m aiming for the Ph.D.”

This tiny program is on a massive quest: the elusive recipe for what gets disadvantaged kids from the barrio to college. For executive director Jose Cruz, it is a question that has preoccupied him since he beat the odds himself — and found himself wondering why his friends didn’t.

Cruz calls it the “college-going culture.” Barrio Logan College Institute gives kids from poor families all the information, opportunities and college pressure that wealthier kids might take for granted. It changes the question from whether they’ll go to college to where. And that coaxing comes from Latino adults who know what it’s like, who were the first in their families to go to college too.

“College was not in my language at all,” said programs director Carlos Pineda, who grew up in El Salvador and came to California schools just before his teens. If it weren’t for the successful lawyer his mother worked for, who prodded him to apply, “there’s no way I would have gone.”

So Barrio Logan College Institute acts like that adult who knows the way. In workshops, it floods kids with college knowledge unfamiliar to their families, telling them about colleges all over the country, psyching them up on campus life, and explaining the application process and financial aid.

Grade schoolers can tell you how many years in university it takes to become a doctor or an architect. Even young children have already visited college campuses and can imagine themselves in a dorm or on the quad.

“The UCLA campus is so big,” marveled sixth grader Andrea Saucedo. “You have to run to your classes from one side to the other side.”

They end each afternoon by shouting, “Who wants to go to college? We do!” The program takes them surfing, exposes them to engineering and urges them to draw out their dreams. It helps with homework and preps them for the SAT. And it walks them through the barrage of college forms.

Each step in the college bureaucracy can be a “falling-off-point” if kids miss deadlines or forget to send paperwork, college success coordinator Jean Libby said. But Libby makes sure they don’t fall off.

Though the nonprofit recruits third graders from nearby Perkins Elementary, it helps many nab scholarships to private schools, opt for charters, or take the bus to higher-scoring public schools. Just 125 students are in the program from grades 3 through 12; roughly 35 more still get help in college.

“For me this is a second home,” said 15-year-old Carlos Lepe, who says his grade point average has surged from a 0.5 to a 3.8 in two years. “It really opened my eyes to all the opportunities.”

The wall proudly papered with yeses from Drexel University and San Diego State is proof that kids can beat the odds. Its budget is surprisingly meager, spending between $3,400 and $4,300 per child annually. Parents don’t pay a dime; donations flow from foundations and private donors to cover the costs.

But if this tiny nonprofit has cracked the code to college, it hasn’t done it all alone. Parents must do their part. To avoid families angling for free childcare, parents must apply to get in and pledge to volunteer dozens of hours each year. In return, the nonprofit offers classes in Zumba and nutrition, even a communication class where parents vent in Spanish about their frustrations.

“It’s not like any other program where you drop your kids off and they forget who the parent is,” said Erika Gonzalez, who has two kids in the program. When one lost the lottery to get into High Tech High, the program urged her to persist. “I kept calling and calling. And he got in.”

Kids too must be motivated and equipped to make it. Children with extremely low test scores may not be accepted; Cruz said the program doesn’t have the remedial help they need. And if they don’t keep their grades up around a B average, kids can lose their spots if they don’t accept help and turn things around.

Add it all up and what seems like a miracle comes down to something more solid: hard work, attention, investment and ganas — desire. “Here they have the tutors to help you,” said Omar A. Sanchez, 13, whose grades have surged from Cs to As. “But it also depends on you.”

This story also appeared in the July 2011 issue of San Diego Magazine.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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