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Guest Opinion: It's time to focus on Hispanic students

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My parents have always wanted college to be in my future—that’s why they enrolled me in the biggest college preparation charter school in Redwood City; Summit Preparatory Charter High School, the flagship school in a network of California charters known as Summit Public Schools (SPS).

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Jovani Contreras is a student journalist and senior at Summit Preparatory Charter High School. courtesy

I agreed to go to Summit because I was convinced it was the school that would give me the best chance of getting into college. Summit Public Schools boasts an impressive four-year college acceptance rate of 96%. Summit alumni complete college at twice the national average.

Summit’s college acceptance and completion numbers looked great to my parents and me; plus, the school advertised 1-1 mentoring, small class sizes, and a curriculum centered around college preparation. Therefore, Summit was a no-brainer when compared to my parents' horror stories about larger public high schools in the area. 

The school was diverse and claimed to cater to underserved communities. As a Hispanic student from a low-income background, a charter school that focused on getting underserved students into colleges sounded like the perfect fit. 

So it was decided. I would enter my name into Summit’s lottery admission pool. The lottery system used by Summit schools, and most other charter schools, felt like a lottery for my chance to get into a good college, a lottery for my entire future.

When I was admitted, it felt like I had won the lottery, and the prize was a spot at a prestigious four-year university. I would soon learn that this was not the case. I would soon learn that although I was set up to get into a four-year college, I had less than a 1 in 3 chance of actually completing college.

In the fall of 2021, Summit Public Schools conducted the “Alumni Pathways Project” to collect information on SPS alumni. It seemed like the study's intention was not only to collect long-term data on Summit alumni but to prove the effectiveness of the Summit Learning Model.

Today, Hispanic students make up nearly 50% of the Summit Public Schools student population, and over 40% of the Summit alumni from 2007-2014 identified as Hispanic. Yet, Hispanic alumni shared the lowest completion rate of six-year bachelor’s degrees of all groups at a meager 32.3% English language learners with a Summit education were shown to be at a major disadvantage in college. The majority of English language learners at SPS are Hispanic students who are heritage Spanish speakers; English language learners had the lowest degree completion rate of all alumni in the “special characteristics” section. 

Over 300 Hispanic Summit alumni participated in the Pathways Project, but it was found that less than a third of them (110) earned degrees. Of the 69 English language learners, only 10 would complete college within six years. For a school that claims to cater to underserved communities, these numbers are unjustifiable.

Summit schools are a prime example of the academic underserving of Hispanic students. Even at a charter school founded on the basis of preparing a “diverse student population for success in a four-year college,” the steep college achievement gap between Hispanic students and their peers persists.

There is no clear solution to closing this divide, but there are a few steps SPS and other schools can take to better support Hispanic students.

The first issue perpetuating this gap is the English language learners program, or rather the lack thereof a strong English learners program. SPS uses a self-directed learning model where students guide themselves through the online Summit Learning Platform while teachers act more as facilitators. But most English language learners face a language barrier at Summit and require extra support in their courses, whether that be through the help of an assistant or a bilingual speech program.

SPS does not have systems in place to help these students, and the lack of support leaves English language learners isolated and alone in the environment of self-directed learning.

While this is a major flaw impeding heritage Spanish speakers, all Hispanic students at SPS face a much larger issue.

Since SPS does not believe in academic tracking, each student is pushed through the same preselected set of classes, assuming that all students are at the same academic level. This model is a pitfall for historically underserved groups.

Charter schools advertise a “personalized learning experience,” but in reality, the Summit Learning program essentially is a one size fits all curriculum. Students get little to no choices when choosing their schedules, and students are also forced to take the same designated advanced placement classes.

Hispanic students have historically faced barriers to higher education, including resource-poor schools, parents with low-household incomes and low levels of formal education, and a lack of quality teachers. To assume that said students are at an equal level of education as their historically privileged peers is a setup for failure, proven by the unjustifiably low college completion rate of Hispanic alumni.

It’s time to support Hispanic students. It’s time to support English language learners. With the 2023 application season rearing its head, it's important that we advocate closing this ever-growing college achievement gap. Charter schools need to implement strong language learners programs that will support heritage Spanish speakers and truly personalize education.

It is not only Hispanic students who need support, but it is essential for the education of all historically underserved communities that schools across California are made equitable for all.

Jovani Contreras is a student journalist and senior at Summit Preparatory Charter High School.  You can contact him at jcont870@gmail.com.