The Preuss School UCSD is one of the top transformative high schools in the nation. It is a beacon of opportunity, providing low-income and first-generation students a pathway to college.
For twelve-year-old Djulia Sekariyongo Koita, each weekday starts at 6 a.m. She gets herself and one of her younger sisters ready, then walks her to the local
elementary school. After that, she catches a bus with other students to The Preuss School UCSD, some 15 miles away on the UC San Diego campus.
Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djulia fled the war-torn country with her parents and an older brother, eventually making her way to the United States in 2007. Unable to stay with her parents, Djulia was placed into foster care. She lived with a family in Imperial Beach before moving in with her current adoptive family in southeast San Diego two years ago.
After she began attending her neighborhood school, one of the teachers
recommended that she apply to The Preuss School, a charter middle and high school for low-income, highly motivated students who strive to become the first in their families to graduate from a four-year college or university. Djulia applied and successfully made it through the school’s application process and lottery system.
“When I found out I would start sixth grade there I started jumping up and down,” she says. “I was so happy because my neighborhood schools had bad records. But at Preuss I knew I would have hope for the future.”
The Impossible Idea
The Preuss School, which opened its doors in 1999, was the brainchild of a group of UC San Diego faculty who wanted to increase the number of low-
income students at the University. Under the leadership of Cecil Lytle, provost of Thurgood Marshall College at the time, the group approached then Chancellor Robert Dynes and requested that a charter school for students in grades 6-12 be built and run by the University.
Dynes brought the idea to the UC San Diego Academic Senate, which eventually agreed to the plan on the conditions that the University find the money to build the school and run it self-sufficiently.
When the school opened, there were 150 students in grades 6–8, all housed in portable buildings on UC San Diego’s Thurgood Marshall campus. Now, nearly 15 years later, the school is home to more than 800 students in grades 6-12. The students come from 40 different zip codes throughout San Diego County, and are bused in daily to Preuss’ current facility on the University’s East Campus, which was completed in 2000.
Over the years, Preuss has earned impressive accolades and its success has led dozens of other university campuses to engage in similar efforts including the University of Chicago, UC Davis, UCLA, UC Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and many others.
has named Preuss the top transformative high school in the nation for three years in a row, citing the school’s ability to lead the way in getting low-income and first-generation students ready for college and beyond. The school was also ranked the top charter school in California in a report by the University of Southern California.
While the rankings and accolades are great, for students like Djulia and her classmates, the most important thing is that the school remains committed to its educational model.
“I get so much support here at Preuss and the teachers are so dedicated,” says Djulia. “It really makes a difference.”
A Model for Success
The Preuss model is based on variety of research-based best practices proven to help prepare low-income students to be first-time college attendees. Among these practices are a single-track, college preparatory curriculum and the creation of a strong college-bound culture at the school with high expectations for students, most of whom are minorities.
“We believe that you should challenge all students with rigorous coursework. Each student takes at least six Advanced Placement courses with some students taking up to 10,” says Scott Barton, a founding member of The Preuss School staff and principal since 2008. “But, we also provide them with the support they need to succeed.”
That support comes in a variety of forms. Preuss students benefit greatly from tutoring provided by UC San Diego undergraduate students as well as mentorships and counseling
. Students also participate in an innovative Advisory Class—sometimes referred to as “homeroom on steroids”—that offers students tutoring, character building and, eventually, SAT-prep and college-essay help as well as keeping the same teacher for grades 6–12.
Preuss students are also in school longer each day and for 23 more days a year than the typical student in California, adding up to almost an entire extra academic year in their Preuss careers. With this additional time, Barton says, Preuss can provide an environment where students are challenged academically and empowered to think critically.
“We also offer art
, music and physical education,” Barton says, “subjects that are increasingly cut from other schools, yet have been shown to improve students’ educational outcomes.”
Results show the Preuss model is working. All 96 students in the Class of 2013—Preuss’ tenth graduating class—have been accepted to a four-year college or university, and many of the school’s more than 800 graduates have gone on to attend colleges and universities such as Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Columbia, Cornell and Dartmouth as well as all of the schools in the University of California system.
Preuss’ success stories are many. Amanda Esquivel, Marshall ’09, is one such example. After graduating from Preuss and receiving her undergraduate degree at UC San Diego, Esquivel completed her masters in marriage and family therapy at the University of San Diego. She now works with a program that helps prevent escalating juvenile delinquency by providing services to youth on probation in San Diego County.
Another Preuss graduate, Jawid Habib, Marshall ’11, spent the last summer working in Herat, Afghanistan. Now a third year law student at UCLA, Habib worked as an intern with Afghanistan’s first and only female chief prosecutor, Maria Bashir, in her efforts to educate the public and apply the Elimination of Violence Against Women law.
Seven Years’ Sacrifice Pays Off
Raised in Encanto in southeastern San Diego, Preuss senior Fernando LeFort grew up speaking Spanish as his first language as neither of his Mexican-born parents spoke much English. He began learning English in kindergarten but struggled for a while in school.
In the fourth grade, his teacher told him about The Preuss School and insisted he apply. He applied and was accepted for the sixth grade.
“Preuss really raised the bar on what I expect from myself and what my family expects,” he says. “If I hadn’t gone here, I think I would have finished high school, but I wouldn’t have had a goal. I’d probably just start working instead of going to college.”
But he admits the road was tough. The coursework was very challenging and Preuss’ longer school day combined with seasonal soccer practice often meant he wouldn’t get home until 6:30 or later each night. Add to that approximately three hours of homework and Fernando usually wouldn’t get to bed until 11 p.m. or later.
Now, Fernando will be the first one in his family to attend college. Accepted to eight colleges in California and throughout the country, he will attend Lehigh University in Pennsylvania this fall where he will study mechanical engineering.
While he’s looking forward to the east coast experience, he hopes to one day return to San Diego so he can give back to his family and his community.
“I have a great appreciation for Preuss and what it’s done for me,” he says. “I owe the school everything.”
Laura Margoni is a communications officer at UC San Diego.
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