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High-profile speakers inspire students at Roosevelt High

Javier Ceja never thought of himself as college material. The senior at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights said he frequently ditched classes and has a borderline C average.

But after two high-profile speakers plugged the merits of higher education on his campus Monday — University of California President Mark G. Yudof and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — Ceja said he was inspired.

“It makes me open my eyes and say we can do it,” Ceja said. “We can all rise higher.”

The event was aimed at addressing what educators say is a critical need to motivate more Latino students both to enter and to complete college. Only 22% of those who attend a community college —the overwhelming higher-education system of choice for Latino students — finish with a degree or certificate or transfer to a four-year university, according to a study last year by the Campaign for College Opportunity.

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Latinos now make up the majority of California public school students. Unless they increase their college completion rates, experts say, they will lack the skills to get higher-paying jobs. Latinos are increasing their presence on UC campuses, however, accounting for 26% of the freshman class this fall compared with 18% among all undergraduates.

Yudof, wearing a sash with Roosevelt’s red and gold colors, told the students that the road to UC is tough: 15 required courses, a minimum 3.0 grade-point average, SAT scores and community service to demonstrate leadership. Students who work hard to meet those requirements can rely on UC to help them out, he said, including financial aid that could cover their entire tuition.

But it was Villaraigosa, a Roosevelt graduate, who appeared to motivate the audience the most. He described his own “up and down life”: being kicked out of one school and dropping out of Roosevelt before returning to finish and eventually graduating from UCLA. He said high school dropouts face a life of poverty and urged students to complete college not only for themselves but also for their families.

Then he led the 1,200 students in the auditorium — festooned with blue and gold UC banners — in a round of cheers: “I believe in me!”

Roosevelt is one of 15 Los Angeles Unified campuses managed by the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which was founded in 2007 as the cornerstone of Villaraigosa’s strategy to improve education. After it took over Roosevelt, the group divided it into seven smaller schools.

But the challenges are formidable. Only 5.6% of students are proficient or advanced in math, 24.8% in reading. Four-year graduation rates range from 44.1% to 84.4%, according to the nonrpofit.

The students are overwhelmingly low-income Latinos, many of them children of immigrants who did not finish high school and work in blue-collar jobs. But several said those hardships have motivated them to aim for academic success.

Cristian Zarate, a 17-year-old senior, said he hopes to study engineering at UC Santa Barbara so he can help his family and afford things his parents couldn’t give him, such as a calculator. Karina Aguiar is still a ninth-grader, but the B-average math and science enthusiast said she wants to attend college to prove people wrong who view Latinas like herself as “people who drop out.”

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Oscar Isidoro, a senior, is taking four Advanced Placement courses, maintains a B average and plans to study business in college so he can become a chief executive officer.

“My parents encourage me to make something of my life and not end up like them,” said Isidoro, whose parents are garment workers from Mexico. “They said if I don’t go to college, I’ll be a failure to this country to have had every opportunity and not take it.”

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com


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