Crossing over the ‘Bridge to Success’

Shweta Saraswat

While recent research reveals that roughly half of all high school seniors in the 50 largest cities in the U.S. don’t graduate, Pierce College continues to try to persuade students who may have left their education early to return to school.

A study released April 1 by America’s Promise Alliance found that in the 2003-04 school year, the graduation rate in Los Angeles was at 43.5 percent, while San Diego and San Francisco had graduation rates in the 60s and 70s, respectively.

Pierce allows students who did not graduate high school to enroll if they are at least 18 years old. According to data released by the college’s office of institutional research, 3 percent of the Fall 2006 students at Pierce did not have high school diplomas, as compared to 6 percent in 1990.

The reasons why students drop out vary. “Many students have a sense that 11th and 12th grade are irrelevant if they’re not going to college,” suggested Pierce President Robert Garber. “They need to know what is in it for them.”

Suki Dhillon, assistant principal at El Camino Real High School, has similar ideas as to why students drop out.

“Some students are not succeeding and it becomes somewhat frustrating,” he said. “They haven’t had success in a long time and they basically give up.”

Dhillon also suggested that some students “have other responsibilities and end up getting jobs,” recalling one student in particular who left school to take care of his ill mother and simply never returned.

However, the administration at El Camino is trying not to let students slip by so easily.

“We start watching students, their grades, what direction they’re headed in from the ninth grade,” Dhillon explained. “When we start to recognize that there are certain students who are not performing, the counselors or the deans will get in touch with the students and their parents.”

Though Garber doesn’t feel that high school drop out rates directly affect enrollment at Pierce, he does acknowledge the fact that “if more students stayed in high school and made the decision to get a college degree and career training, our enrollment would go up.”

Pierce is actively helping high school students earn their high school diplomas through the state-funded “Bridge to Success” program, which includes career advancement and high school completion programs, as well as a one-unit course that trains students to pass the required high school exit exam.

“We are a community college meant to serve the community, not just those who are transferring,” said project director Crystal Kiekel, who maintains close relationships with all of her students.

Parmjit Singh, 22, who left high school after struggling with low grades and a language barrier, joined the “Bridge to Success” last month.

“After leaving (high school) I worked for a little bit, then went back to India,” said Singh, who enrolled in Reseda Community Adult School when he returned to the states.

With the help of one-on-one attention at Pierce that he didn’t receive at Reseda, Singh is hoping to earn his GED, get his high school diploma and start career training as an automotive mechanic.

Sylvia Monge, 25, is another participant in the “Bridge to Success” program.

The mother of two had left continuation school to focus more on working, but realized that it was time to go back to her education.

“I know I am capable of doing something more with myself, and I want to set a good example for my daughters,” said Monge, explaining her decision to pursue her high school diploma and an A.A. degree in administrative justice at Pierce.

In addition to “Bridge to Success,” Pierce offers classes in more than 15 high schools in the San Fernando Valley, a practice that Garber hopes keeps students interested in their futures even though they may be bored with high school.

Through these programs, Pierce is “establishing a presence in high schools so that even if a student leaves, they are aware of the opportunities available to them,” according to Garber.

“Pierce has been so successful because our message resonates,” he said, describing how “people who may have found high school a waste of time don’t feel that here.”

Garber firmly believes that everyone, high school graduate or not, has the opportunity to succeed at Pierce.