- Associated Press - Sunday, January 26, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - On the surface, it seems to defy logic: Encourage the city’s poorest students to apply to the nation’s most elite universities.

But Rick Cruz of the Houston Independent School District is staking his burgeoning career on the strategy. These top 100 or so tier-one colleges, including Ivy League schools, offer near-free rides to low-income, high-ability students to foster diversity on their campuses. With vast resources and a commitment to maintain their stellar rankings, these schools can provide students with the tutoring, mentoring and financial aid they may need to graduate.

Cruz, a 29-year-old Yale University graduate, is investing hundreds of hours into helping hand-picked HISD students apply to these schools - the same way a pricey consultant or expensive college-prep high school might help tip the scales for a more affluent student.

“It’s crazy good. I can’t think of anything we’ve embarked on that I’m any more proud of,” Superintendent Terry Grier said of Cruz’s program, called Emerge.

The Teach for America alumnus was a fifth-grade teacher when he started the nonprofit Emerge on his own time in 2010. Grier persuaded Cruz to expand his program districtwide, promoted him to assistant superintendent of college readiness in February and nearly tripled his pay overnight.

Grier provided Cruz with a $1 million budget to grow Emerge and vowed to clear any obstacle in his way. He told Cruz to ignore naysayers who criticize the program’s disproportionate use of tax dollars.

Parent Sofie Smith, whose children attended Davis High School, is among those who say it’s unfair for HISD to focus such tremendous resources on so few students.

“That is wrong,” she told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1eRkgcz). “Their job is to serve all of our kids. HISD should not have the luxury to just serve some.”

Cruz argues that these best practices are being spread across the district.

And Emerge’s early indicators are positive. This year, 27 seniors have early acceptance letters into elite schools. Many have financial aid packages worth $250,000 each over four years. Just a handful of students with these hefty scholarships offsets the district’s annual investment, Grier noted.

The goal is to eventually have at least 20 students from each of HISD’s 29 comprehensive high schools attend a top-tier university, he said.

“That’s 600 kids a year that will graduate and come back to Houston and join the job force,” Grier said. “There’s no question, we’re going to change Houston.”

Yet Cruz has had to contend with sideways glances from fellow educators uncomfortable with a young teacher moving up the ranks so quickly.

“In education, it’s more about tenure,” Cruz said. “It can make things difficult.”

Rather than focus on his own quick ascension, Cruz wants to share the stories of the 300 students in Emerge - the sweat-soaked boy who rides his bike more than 10 miles from DeBakey High School to Chavez High School to meet with Cruz and other Emerge students, the recent immigrant from Vietnam who called in tears because her father didn’t want her to attend an East Coast school, despite a full scholarship.

Cruz made a house visit to help convince the family to let Phuong Ta, 20, attend Tufts University. She is there now, majoring in American studies. She hopes to make a documentary about first-generation college students at top-tier colleges for her senior project. And she intends to return to Houston.

“Going to college far away from home is exciting, yet terrifying at times, especially when you’re a first-generation college student coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds,” she said.

Parents, many of them recent immigrants, tend to be skeptical. They’re reluctant to let their children move hundreds of miles away, to cities they will never be able afford to visit. Families - and the system as a whole - tend to push these youngsters into nearby community colleges and open-admission schools with dismal graduation rates, educators said.

About 9,600 seniors graduated from HISD in 2012. Of those, about 45 percent enrolled in a Texas college or university. For nearly 40 percent of those students, that meant attending either Houston Community College or University of Houston-Downtown, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The entire Houston district sent 429 students - just 4 percent of graduates - to Texas A&M; University and the University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s really abysmal. I was just flabbergasted,” Cruz said.

Students often flounder at community college and less-selective schools, racking up thousands of dollars in debt before eventually dropping out. Parents don’t realize that some elite colleges have policies that waive tuition and fees for students from families earning less than $65,000 a year.

Yet these institutions have had limited success in their push to become more diverse. Just 3 percent of students at top-tier colleges are from the bottom income quartile, while 74 percent are from the top quarter, Cruz said.

Anna Lugo, a former HISD teacher who helped Cruz start Emerge, said she sees the value these students have to top-tier schools now that she works as assistant dean of admission at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

“Their stories, combined with their strong academic and extracurricular involvement, make them highly sought after,” she said.

And these universities are able to pay for these students and to provide them the extra help they might need, experts said.

Cruz said he was warned when he first started expanding Emerge that students might not be interested. Instead, he’s been flooded with applicants.

A commitment to work hard is more important than a high grade point average, he said. The students receive counseling on what classes to take, advice on rounding out their résumés, coaching on how to apply and help in crafting their personal statements.

Emerge leaders took about 80 students on a tour of colleges in the Northeast last summer, visiting Ivy League schools like the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Brown and Columbia.

Upon their return, students attended a college-application boot camp of sorts at Rice University and completed an intense SAT prep class.

Chavez High School senior Carlos Perrett had big dreams of a career in politics before he was accepted into Emerge, but he wasn’t sure how to achieve them. Now he sees his path clearly: an all-expenses-paid, $63,000-a-year undergraduate degree from Pitzer College, a liberal arts school in Claremont, Calif., and then hopefully a law degree from Harvard. He’ll run for Houston City Council and eventually make a bid for governor. Emerge gave him the confidence to step outside his comfort zone - a huge leap for the son of a construction worker.

“It pushed you to want more. It’s just amazing,” the 18-year-old said. “It’s possible, and you can do it. You just have to put the work in.”

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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