In the ninth grade Sheryl Munguia was a struggling C student with low self-esteem and little interest in school.
But after enrolling in the Inglewood school district's University and College Opportunities program, Sheryl says, she "woke up" and realized what she was missing.
Today, the 17-year-old senior at Inglewood High School has a 3.6 grade-point average on a scale of 4, and is deciding whether to attend the University of California at Irvine or California State University, Dominguez Hills.
"It was hard work to get to this point. I totally changed my study habits," Sheryl said. "My first semester in UCO, I received three A's, two Bs and a C. At that time that was a great report card. If I got those grades today I would be dead. As time changes, your expectations change."
Throughout the district, hundreds of students like Sheryl are being prepared for college by the program, aimed at students who demonstrate an ability to meet the entrance requirements to four-year colleges or universities.
Since starting four years ago, the number of students continuing their education after high school has steadily increased, district officials say. According to the district records, out of 564 graduating seniors in the program, 70% were accepted by institutions of higher learning. Of the graduates, 32% went to four-year colleges and universities; 38% attended community colleges; 16% entered on-the-job training programs; 9% entered the armed services, and 25% started full-time jobs. Of the graduating class, 336 participated in UCO since its inception, said Maurice Wiley, the program's coordinator.
Many of those who were accepted by colleges but did not attend had financial problems or had to support their families, Wiley said.
The Inglewood district is predominantly black and Latino, and the program is designed to give special attention to the needs of minority students, but it provides college counseling for all students who seek assistance.
"The ultimate goal of UCO is to encourage and nurture every youngster who has the ability and the desire to go on to college after high school," Wiley said.
To be admitted, students must meet a variety of requirements, which include maintaining at least a 2.7 grade-point average initially and getting higher grades each semester afterward; taking college entrance exams; performing community service work, and being involved in a special-interest academic group such as the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement Program; Gifted and Talented Education Program, or the Academic Decathlon Team.
Most of the students come to the program highly recommended by teachers and counselors. Once in the program, students and their parents participate in workshops usually held in the school library that provide information on study skills, career planning, test-taking skills, financial aid and how to choose a college.
In addition to the workshops, students are taken on field trips to local businesses and colleges throughout the state.
Students in the program also are required to participate in the Mentor-Mentee Program, in which they are matched with an adult professional mentor in the career area of their choice.
Students are kept informed of program activities by a monthly calendar and receive a college planning booklet that contains tips on how to get admitted to and graduate from college.
The program was started in the Inglewood School District in 1983 by newly hired Supt. Rex Fortune.
It originated in 1978 when the state Legislature, alarmed by low minority enrollment in the California State and University of California systems, passed legislation aimed at increasing that enrollment, said Rose Talley-Holloway, manager of the state UCO program since its inception.
Among the projects authorized was a three-year, $500,000 pilot program that was used in nine school districts throughout the state. Currently there are 12 school districts participating in the program, including two of the originally funded programs (Orange County and Sacramento school districts). None of the districts now receive special state funding for the program.
In the beginning, the Inglewood program served grades nine through 12, but this year the program expanded to grades six through 12. There are 1,641 UCO students in the district's 19 schools. The district has a total of 15,952 students.
The program is operated by Wiley from his Inglewood School District office. Two other college counselors and offices are located at Inglewood and Morningside high schools. The program operates on a $140,000 budget, which comes from Inglewood School District funds. The money is spent largely on salaries, Wiley said.
Counselors devote much of their time to coordinating independent study, honors and advance placement college preparatory courses. They also conduct college success seminars designed to help develop the students' skills in writing, note-taking and improvement of study habits, Wiley said.
Wiley said that before UCO there was no coordinated effort to reach all students in the district. College counselors worked only on a part-time basis and served only seniors.
"UCO made us accountable for all students," Wiley said. "We make sure that the parents and the students have this information. If a teacher tells me there is student that has the potential to go to college, I make a note of it, and if the student doesn't come to see me I call them."
Jeraldine Martin, principal of Morningside High School, said: "Since students know what UCO is, they begin to accept the extra work they will have to do to get into college. The youngsters are aware of the possibilities and opportunities available. Because they began planning from the beginning, they know they will take four years of science."
Sarah Cole, UCO counselor at Morningside High School, said one reason minority students don't go to college is lack of exposure.
"Sometimes they might go to the classes and get the work done, but they don't have the knowledge of the different colleges and the classes that will prepare them for their major in college," Cole said. "UCO helps a student to choose a college that will fit their individual needs and personality, not just a college they have heard of."
Liza Daniels, assistant principal of instruction supervision at Inglewood High School, said UCO develops confidence and rewards good students.
"When they come into the program, college isn't a mind-set with them but by the end of the school year there is no doubt in their minds that they will go to college and graduate," Daniels said. "We want to say to our students that it's neat to be academic. Students that are willing to put in time and do homework will be rewarded."
Anthony Bonner, 17, said: "Without UCO I would be a regular student, my grade-point average (3.2) would be lower and my awareness of college would not be here. I would be scrambling around worrying about what college I might fit into."
Wiley said parent support has also played a major role in the program's success. Parents help put together potluck dinners where they meet college officials and working professionals to learn more about how to get their children through college.
Carol Price, whose son Chris, a senior at Morningside High School with a 3.92 grade-point average who is being recruited by Harvard, UCLA and the University of California at Berkeley, said: "The program has been invaluable. We didn't get to go to college. At least we feel like we got some help for our son."