Schoolchildren Saying Yes to College

  • July 15, 2005

Yanitza Bueno walked noiselessly through the California State University, East Bay library, wearing a red backpack and a T-shirt that came down to her knees.

She looked with interest at the college students, who raised their heads from their books as Yanitza and other children passed through.

Once in the bright sunshine, the soft-spoken 9-year-old smiled.

"I imagine myself being in the library when I come to school," she said.

Yanitza stepped foot on a college campus for the first time Sunday. Three days later, she already knew her way around.

"I'm starting to know this place a lot," she said.

The aspiring veterinarian, whose father is a house painter, has been able to experience something close to college this week, along with 14 other elementary school students from Richmond. She noted how clean the campus was, and how quiet.

The students stay in dormitories, which they like to call "apartments." They take mathematics, music and science classes, and others, in the library. And Wednesday, almost without exception, they reported that they loved it all.

"Oh, the dorms are nice," said Reginald Caldwell, 10. "You got a bathroom, you got a kitchen, you got two rooms. It's tight."

He added, "I'm going to Cal State East Bay, Hayward."

The weeklong camp, called Project YES, was put together by university Department of Social Work Chairman Terry Jones and Bay Area agencies for Richmond kids who show promise in school. After a week at the university, the children will be tutored - and their progress monitored - for a year.

It is a hopeful program - perhaps needed as badly as ever in a community that has seen its homicide rate soar this year, and where fewer than 20 percent of all high school graduates have taken the courses necessary to enroll in a state university.

The number is even lower among black males.

During the 2003-2004 school year, just 14 black males - 6 percent of the total - graduated from West Contra Costa Unified School District with the courses required for a four-year university, according to the state department of education database.

But ask any of the Project YES kids where they seethemselves in seven, eight or nine years, and they'll answer with certainty that they will be college-bound.

During a recent phone conversation with her mother, 8-year-old Dariah Louis said, she made an announcement: "I said, 'Yes, I'm going to go to college when I grow up.'"

Over a lunch of french fries, salad and fish sticks, Dariah said she cried Sunday night, the day she left her mother and grandmother for what would be her longest time away from home.

"I kept on calling my mom when I was homesick," she said. "I followed her directions and I accidentally fell asleep."

Ever since, Dariah said, she's been too caught up in her classes and her friends to feel those pangs for home.

One night this week, a group of girls had a party in a dorm room, Geandra Lee, 9, said. "We just played dominoes and talked about college and what we want to be when we grow up - and what not to do when we grow up," she said.

Others complained, with a roll of the eyes, that the boys' laughter was keeping them awake at night.

While the students clearly were enjoying the social dynamics of the camp, they also seemed to embrace the academic side. In literacy class Wednesday morning, they took turns reading aloud from an illustrated biography of farmworker's rights leader Cesar Chavez, who had only an eighth-grade education.

One student read an excerpt about Chavez's initial distrust of outsiders who wanted to help him and his fellow laborers, who worked under terrible conditions for little pay:

"How could they know about feeling so powerless? Who could battle such odds?"

If the children seated in the university's wood-paneled library faced similar odds, they showed only optimism that day.

As others talked about their futures at the end of class, 12-year-old Christiana Toliver cut in. "I want to go to college, because I don't want to be a nobody," she said.

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