Forming study groups, going to office hours, structuring an essay. These are second-nature to most students bound for Harvard and Stanford. But for students from impoverished Los Angeles high schools who are headed to elite institutions, they are survival skills that must be learned.
Phillip Persley is headed to the University of California at Berkeley in the fall. His high school has about 270 kids and fewer than 10 teachers. Persley was taught that essays should be two to three paragraphs with only a few sentences each. He had a lot of ideas, so he just "crammed five or six clauses into one sentence," he said, laughing at the memory of just the past year. "Commas everywhere,” he added.
“However hard working and smart they are, their writing and reading are still not up to snuff in terms of freshman year English,” said William G. Tierney, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis.  "And they are the first in their family to go to college, so they don’t have the basic skills you learn from being on a college campus.”
So Tierney came up with the idea for the "Write On! SummerTIME” program, which just completed its first year at Southern California.Thirty-two students who have been accepted into top colleges took four weeks of an intensive curriculum, paid for by the university, and designed to prepare them for the leap they will be taking in the fall. At least three-and-a-half hours of writing instruction in the morning, and one-to-two hours in the afternoon on survival skills, such as how to fill out financial aid forms or 10 ways to impress your professor. “Always show up on time; make sure your papers are formatted properly and spell-checked; if you talk to your professor, talk about ideas, not ‘Why did I get a B-‘” Tierney said. “Some of these students could miss class at their high schools and still succeed.”
Tierney had experimented with prepping high school students for college for a decade, but this year he decided to take “a more homogenous” group, all from low-income high schools, and all headed to top tier colleges. One reason for that was so that specific topics useful to all the students could be covered in the short time.
Program leaders will also follow up with students and compile data about their trials and triumphs as they go on to college. The homogenous group will make it easier to pinpoint problem areas for bright students coming from impoverished areas. All of the students are from Los Angeles, so they can come back during vacations, and keep in touch via e-mail during the year to let Write On! SummerTIME staff know, perhaps, that “financial aid was a piece of cake, but interacting with students was difficult,” he said.
Tierney is adamant that tracking the students is one of the most important pieces of the project. Many efforts to help low-income students prepare for college don't do much once the students actually enroll as freshmen. “We need accountability,” Tierney said. “With finite time and money, we have to do activities that are the most successful.”
Already, the students say the program was a success. Miriam Martinez, whose family was homeless for three months just a year ago, said it was nice to be in a classroom where she did not expect fights to break out. Martinez, who will attend Berkeley, said spending time with other college-bound students lessened her anxiety of the coming fall. “Now I know what it’s like in an environment where everyone is going to college,” she said. Martinez plans to study architecture, and said that this summer she learned Modern Language Association style, which she had “never heard of,” and met with a USC financial aid officer. “I have more confidence, and I’m a lot more confident in my writing.”
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, a graduate student in English at USC, and the first in her family to go to college, was one of two writing instructors in the summer program. She remembers looking at Persley and Martinez’s first essays of the summer, riddled with “five-line sentences,” Dobbs said, and large words “just to impress the professor.” She said their writing is much more concise now, and the students themselves seem barely to believe their own tortuous sentences of just a few weeks prior.
Tierney said he is sure there are things the program could have done better, but no one can tell what, yet. So now comes the tracking. “We’ll follow them through their first year,” said Mari Luna De La Rosa, the program director. “Then we’ll have them come back to the new class about what they experienced as far as writing in college. We’ll keep adding to what we know.”