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Help From Peers Increases Chances for College Success

In L.A., an innovative mentorship program is helping first-generation college students jump the early hurdles.

June 9, 2018

Susan Brenna

In Southern California, a charter network that includes 18 high schools says it has found a way, at the relatively low cost of about $200 per student, of helping more first-generation college aspirants finish four-year degrees by protecting them from “summer melt” and easing them through the hazards of freshman year.

The network is Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, which educates 13,000 middle school and high school students across Los Angeles, almost all of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The intervention is the Alliance Mentorship Program, or AMP, designed and run by Simon Linsley (Greater Philadelphia ’09), who works on the Alliance network College Success team.

Here’s how it works: As part of the college application process in Alliance schools, high school seniors—like 18-year-old Natalia Plata, who’s interested in law—are recruited and paired with mentors who are sophomores, juniors or seniors at the same colleges they plan to attend. In Natalia’s case, that was 19-year-old Sam Velasco, an English major at California State University, Los Angeles.

At an event for all Alliance high schools called AMP College Prep Summit, graduating seniors meet their mentors before they finish high school. Over the summer, the college mentors frequently contact their aspiring freshmen to ensure they don’t miss their shot at college due to lost forms or general anxieties. Linsley calls this a critical moment for high schools to intervene, “when we still have a strong connection to our students.” Research shows significant numbers of students of color from low-income communities—up to 40 percent in places—don’t show up for the first day of classes at their intended colleges.

Throughout their freshman year, students often hear via text from their mentors who check in on big items like course registrations and financial aid deadlines. The pairs also meet in person for mentors to translate code like confusing course requirements and campus addresses written in acronyms. (Mentor Vanessa Najarro, a Cal State LA sophomore, asked freshman David Arellano to send her a screenshot of his class schedule, and then gave him a tour of the buildings.) Mentors also drop hidden knowledge: where to print free copies, what services you can get from a health center, how to ask a question in a big lecture course.

"I felt like I was on training wheels and she was behind my back, supporting me," Natalia Plata (left) said of her mentor, Sam Velasco. NICK AGRO

To become effective coaches, mentors get to know every resource on campus. They earn small stipends, and Alliance college specialists train them in how to manage their time and money, apply for internships, and create compelling resumes and LinkedIn profiles. 

In a recent published report on the AMP program, the Alliance network reported strong results. About 95 percent of graduating seniors at Alliance schools are accepted to four-year colleges, and about half— 900 students last year—are paired with campus mentors. Some 88 percent of the seniors who had mentors matriculated from high school to college, compared to 70 percent who did not. And 81 percent of freshmen with mentors persisted to sophomore year, versus 65 percent without. The current Alliance four-year college completion rate is 27 percent, around triple the national average for students from low-income backgrounds, but which lags behind some other charter networks, and is far from the network’s goal of 75 percent. 

Linsley says his team has learned a lot through surveys and data collection in AMP’s first five years. They’re continually refining supports. High schools, for example, have doubled down on preparing seniors for entrance exams so they don’t get under-matched into remedial courses. At the same time, Alliance is committed to creating a replicable model that other networks and districts could afford without heavy private subsidies. “We do know we lose students at the higher” college grades, Linsley says, “but there’s that challenge with scalability and cost. We’re still working on solidifying that first year.”

This article was reported by Susan Brenna and Carl Finer (L.A. '04) and written by Susan Brenna

Mentor Pairs Agree

Everyone benefitted from having a guide who’s a near-peer from similar circumstances. “I felt like I was on training wheels, and she was behind my back, supporting me,” Natalia Plata said of her mentor, Sam Velasco. “I felt safe with her.” David Arrelano’s mentor, criminal justice major Vanessa Najarro, said, “We have the same struggles, so we know if you're struggling, I'm struggling.” Arrelano described Najarro as his “backbone.”

Freshmen appreciated practicing different kinds of relationships with adults than they had with their teachers at small schools. “She's a student, but she's still my mentor,” freshman Jaimy Bolanos, a nursing major, said of junior Valeska Penate. “I think talking to her kind of eased me into talking to my professors.”

Mentors’ deep knowledge of their colleges and attention to deadlines benefitted both members of the pair. Valeska Panate says she’s applied what she’s learned about planning ahead to visiting office hours and getting to know professors who could write recommendations.