As a senior at Pasadena High School, Michael Ocon never would have applied to Stanford if it hadn’t been for College Access Plan, the college preparation nonprofit helping local students prepare for a higher education.
With a $90 application fee, Ocon felt he just couldn’t take the chance of losing the money and not getting in.
“I really couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t think I could ever get in,” said Ocon, who finally submitted the application just 45 minutes before the deadline, and only at the insistence of one of the CAP advisors.The bet paid off. Not only did Ocon get in, he got a full scholarship.
He has CAP to thank, he said. The college training organization helped him from the beginning, with early SAT/ACT test preparation, all the way through the process, with college selection, applications and essay writing.
“I would not be where I am without CAP,” he said. “Their style of engaging with the students is really unique, it really gets in the trenches; it is committed to learning about you. It’s a totally holistic approach to preparing students for college applications.”
In striving to help more students like Ocon, CAP has grown at a rapid pace since it began in 2006. Today, it serves about 1,500 students, across all Pasadena Unified School District high schools and middle schools, as well as alternative schools like Rose City High School and CIS Academy. It offers — for free — services that can cost as much as $10,000 elsewhere, including test preparation, curating college lists, personal statements and essays, financial aid support, college selection and enrollment.
CAP has also expanded services to middle schools, practicing early intervention classes at afterschool programs and at Lake Avenue Community Foundation, with the goal of teaching kids from early on to think about college, making it part of their repertoire.
“The goal is for those kids to follow us into high school, and for us to continuously reach out to those students and engage them; reach out to their parents and engage them as well,” said Mo Hyman, CAP co-founder and executive director.
As an English teacher at Pasadena City College 12 years ago, Hyman was seeing the difference in the way students were approaching college. Largely, those from lower-income and first-generation homes who’d never had a parent go to college were hopelessly disadvantaged when it came to understanding the college application process.
Meanwhile, other kids’ families were paying big money to hire prep-testing companies to improve scores and even for-hire college planners, who adapt an entire list of universities best suited to a student’s ability, need and chances of acceptance.
“Looking around us, we said there are these kids who need those same resources that people pay for, but they can’t pay for them, and that is just not equitable,” she said. “The biggest determinant of whether a child will go to college or not is whether or not their parents did. And that should not be what determines a child’s fate.”
Going with the idea that “education is a right, not a privilege,” Hyman began to open support services to PUSD high school students with co-founder and fellow educator Kathleen Parent, coining their signature “drop-in” program. That proved to be hugely successful, giving an after-school option to kids with questions about how to navigate the college application process. With the opt-in approach, students came because they wanted to.
“It really helps foster self-advocacy, something they will need to be successful all the way through college,” Hyman noted.
Over the years, CAP also has created its own prep-testing program, designed to help improve scores up to 300 base points.
That testing program was one of the reasons Ocon said he stuck with CAP at the beginning. After initially scoring about 1800 on the SAT, Ocon wanted to raise that mark, but he balked at the cost of hiring one of the many for-profit test prep companies, which can charge anywhere from $250 to thousands of dollars. He simply couldn’t afford it.
But CAP told students if they committed to doing the work, they could significantly raise their scores. They would practice after school twice a week, using a clicker system designed by Joanne Do, CAP’s managing director.
“I ended up raising my score to 2120, which put me in the top-3 percentile, and that really changed my outlook as far as which colleges I could target,” Ocon said.
Although it took some time, Do said creating their own test-prep system has been worth it.
“We are different because we meet our students where they are,” Do said. “We found that a lot of those for-profit test companies weren’t offering any support or follow-up, and our students need that.
“Because a lot of our students are first generation and lower income, a lot of the curriculum is based around creating a community. It helps hold them accountable to study.”
Do said with her system, she can really gauge where the classroom is and adapt the curriculum and pace to each campus.
With an annual budget of about $500,000 and only eight staffers, CAP has found a “lean and mean” method to help the students, of whom about 80% come from lower-income households, Hyman estimates. Part of the key is creating relationships with the kids, she adds, giving them the tools they need to streamline their own improvement.
One of the most time-consuming help areas is the essay writing, which can take up to eight different revisions to get a statement in proper form. While English classes in school often make a statement classwork, those teachers really aren’t equipped with the time or training to help each student individually on such a broad range of essays.
This has led Hyman to think of CAP as supporting the public school model.
“Sometimes you hear, ‘Isn’t that the schools’ job?’ But the reality is it is never the school’s job. No school, counselor or teacher — nowhere — does [college prepping] on their own. Even at private school, at least a quarter are receiving outside support,” she said. “Yet we look at public schools and say ‘Why aren’t you doing the impossible?’”
CAP stresses that while their services are free, they are not just for the top-tier grade students. With proper preparation, even students with GPAs below 3.0 still have a chance to go to a four-year college.
In fact, in 2016, CAP students with a 2.0-3.0 GPA were 2 1/2 times more likely than their non-attending PUSD peers to attend college, while students with a 3.0 or above GPA were more than twice as likely to be suited for a more competitive UC over a Cal State school.
“Some students come and recognize, ‘Yeah, I’ve made some mistakes, I’m not where I need to be,’ and we get that,” she said. “It’s our job to be really agile because we have to understand strategies for a greatly diverse range of students.”
Part of that flexibility has led CAP to fill another need among their alumni students: The struggles weren’t ending at admission to a four-year college. The students needed support to stay in school. Sometimes it involved filling out fee-waivers and FAFSA forms. Other times, it was just a shoulder to lean on when they felt they didn’t fit in with roommates or the student population. The “I Heart College Alumni” program was created to build retention rates through mentoring and an online platform where kids can blog or send emails.
Ocon said he is proud to be joining that alumni program. At Stanford, he’s experienced what he called “micro-aggressions,” or stereotypes, people asking him if he sold drugs, was in a gang, even if he was the janitor.
“It’s been tough coming [to Stanford] from a community of color and lower income; this system isn’t always meant for kids like me … but it helps to build up networks and contacts and grow with them.”
Early intervention is also key to helping kids get into college, and stay there.
Nancy Stiles, executive director of Lake Avenue Community Foundation, helped forge a partnership with CAP, which focuses on getting high-risk, low-income middle schoolers to commit to attending college.
“[CAP] teaches every student to introduce themselves and say where they want to go to college,” Stiles said. “The program is really giving them all the building blocks they need to be college-ready in high school. They really have a picture of what their college process will be like.”
To learn more about CAP, visit collegeaccessplan.org.