Modeling Success

by Greg Lippman |

Greg Lippman served from 2000-2004 as the founding principal of Downtown College Preparatory, a charter high school that prepares underachieving students for college success.

Some of the toughest work at Downtown College Prep (DCP) begins after the “regular” school day is over. From 3:45 to 5 p.m., DCP’s entire student body takes part in Tutorial, a mandatory study hall/tutoring session where our students—most of whom come to high school three or four grade levels behind in reading and math—learn how to act like students.

For our lowest performers—students who either have serious skills gaps, are still learning English, or have real difficulty concentrating on their work— we try to make sure that they get the most personalized attention possible during Tutorial. It is here where the work of the Arrupe Center, and the tutors who come week in and week out, has the biggest impact. The individual attention, both academic and personal, that the Santa Clara students provide is a critical element of our efforts to help students not only achieve at DCP but gain the confidence that they can succeed in the college classroom as well.

DCP, founded in 2000 in downtown San Jose, is a college-prep high school of 375 students. The first charter high school in Santa Clara County, DCP has a single mission: to prepare low-achieving urban students to be the first in their families to graduate from a four-year college. We recruit students from public middle schools with below a 2.0 GPA, and place them in a rigorous academic program specifically tailored to their academic and personal needs.

When we began the design process for DCP, we knew that we had to find ways to get our students into as many intimate, one-on-one educational situations as possible. Arrupe Center tutors have played an important role in this effort, spending hours and hours tutoring and mentoring the weakest and most challenging DCP students. The tutors’ work is not so much about helping students in any particular area of the curriculum; the work is harder and more subtle than that. What Arrupe tutors do is provide a critical model for DCP students, many of whom have never had a personal relationship with a college student.

Alicia Gallegos, the ninth grade principal, is an SCU grad who taught College Readiness at DCP. She has been with the school since the beginning and has seen how the tutors’ role has evolved as the school’s understanding of its students has deepened. “In the beginning, we wanted tutors to help students do their homework, to support teachers in helping students to understand the material,” she says. “But now we hope that tutors can show our students how college students act: how they respond to work, what they do when they don’t understand something, how they need to persist even when things are difficult.”

And things are often difficult at DCP. After years of failure in school, stu- dents don’t have the habits that contribute to success. In educator’s lingo, they lack necessary “habits of work” and “habits of mind” that all proficient students share, and they come to high school with a severe lack of confidence in their ability to do good work. The work of the Arrupe tutors directly addresses these needs: by modeling academic behavior and supporting students through difficult work, the tutors help build habits and a sense of hope.

And while their behavior doesn’t always reflect it, DCP students prize the opportunity to work with Arrupe tutors. “My tutor talks to me,” says one DCP student about her Arrupe partner. “If I don’t understand something, she helps me. We talk about college and sometimes she tells me what she does, too.”

The individual attention, both academic and personal, that the Santa Clara students provide is a critical element of our efforts to help students not only achieve at DCP but gain the confidence that they can succeed in the college classroom as well.

Another student points out the one major difficulty that Arrupe tutors face: trying to build relationships in a short time. One student says, “It’s hard sometimes when I don’t want my tutor to know that I don’t get the homework. I didn’t want my tutor to see that, so I would tell him I was finished with my work.” Breaking through these kinds of personal obstacles quickly is critical to the tutors’ success.

Many tutors have come back after their Arrupe responsibilities have ended, and have become regular fixtures at Tutorial. DCP has also been lucky enough to have an Arrupe intern, Caitlin Bristol, who will work 6-8 hours per week for the entire 2004-05 academic year. The Arrupe Center pays Bristol a stipend, so the service is at no cost to DCP. These interns, as well as the tutors who return, have helped create a culture in Tutorial that is warm and welcoming but demanding as well.

“At DCP, we’re all supposed to go to college,” says one student who has worked with several Arrupe tutors. “They don’t even let you graduate if you don’t get into a four-year college. It’s good to have college students help us, because they know what we need to do.”

Tutorial is in many ways the crucible for the DCP vision. It is the time and place where students work to make up for lost time, to fill in all the gaps, to learn how to expect success. The DCP students themselves point to Tutorial, and the help of their Arrupe tutors, as a key factor in getting through the arduous process of transforming themselves from indifferent low-performers into academic achievers who are ready to go off to college as pioneers in their families and communities.

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