When Oscar Cabrera was 13, he was accepted at the Webb School of California, a boarding school in Claremont. He didn't want to leave his mother and sister or his neighborhood at Pico Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. But Cabrera's mother, Martha, a native of El Salvador, insisted.
"My mother said that it was the opportunity of a lifetime," said Cabrera, now a fifth-year student majoring in clinical psychology at UCLA. Looking back, he agrees. "Those were probably the best years of my life. I don't regret it a bit."
Cabrera applied to Webb through the Independent School Alliance for Minority Affairs, which links minority students with 29 private elementary and secondary schools in the Los Angeles area.
Established by headmasters who wanted to increase the number of minority pupils at their expensive, academically demanding schools, the alliance has helped more than 1,000 minority students since 1984. Nearly 500 have entered schools on the Westside, including John Thomas Dye in Bel Air, P.S. No. 1 in Santa Monica, Curtis in West Los Angeles, Windward in Mar Vista and Harvard-Westlake near UCLA.
Most families hear about the alliance by word of mouth. Martha Cabrera, a private nurse, learned of it from a patient's son.
In an initial phone screening, the private schools look for strong, capable youths, said Manasa Hekymara, the alliance's executive director. Interested families then fill out a three- to six-page application and visit the alliance's mid-Wilshire offices, where Hekymara works to match children and schools.
"Each school has its own culture and its own philosophy and its own educational practices," explained Marcia Kopp, director of admissions at Wildwood School in Culver City.
Families visit the schools while they are in session. Then they pay a $50 fee and fill out an application, which the Alliance submits to three schools. Over the past nine years, 652 of 1,063 alliance applicants have been accepted by at least one school.
Alliance alumni now attend colleges including Stanford, UCLA, Morehouse, Loyola Marymount, Bryn Mawr and Princeton.
Because tuition at the alliance's member schools ranges from $4,050 a year for the least expensive elementary school to $13,055 for the most expensive secondary school, families fill out extensive financial aid applications.
Each school admits students regardless of their ability to pay and makes its own financial aid decisions. But middle-class families shouldn't hesitate to apply, Hekymara says.
"If they have $40,000 to $50,000 annual income . . . a family can usually qualify for some aid," she said.
In 1994-95, alliance schools awarded $11.5 million in financial aid, including $6 million to minority students.
Once accepted, students are not left on their own. At the alliance's four-day summer orientation camp, new students sample classes and talk with veterans about what to expect in their new schools--especially the mountain of homework.
Cabrera said he still uses the note-taking and organizational skills he learned at the orientation.
Cheryl Cox, who lives in the Crenshaw district, remembers that her first day at Marlborough School in Hancock Park wasn't a bit lonely because she had met nine schoolmates at the alliance camp.
The alliance also holds a parent orientation in August, where discussions may range from interracial dating to the wealth of many private-school families. An annual "Cross Colors" conference helps middle and high school students and their schools deal with the everyday issues of diversity.
As for Cabrera, he advises interested families to contact the alliance as soon as possible. "Here's basically the opportunity of a lifetime," he said.