PATTERSON — Mariah Herrera, 5, and Kylie Guenther, 6, can see themselves at Stanford. They already have the outfits. Fifth-grader Carson Stonebarger, waving a Cal flag, could be a University of California at Berkeley grad one day.
Youngsters at Patterson's Las Palmas Elementary aim high, adopting top-notch colleges to call their own for a year under the No Excuses University program. Across town, Apricot Valley students do the same, two of 19 schools statewide to aim for college starting in kindergarten.
"It's really a mind-set," said Las Palmas Principal Dianne Harris. "It's changing the culture of the staff. We have to believe in students, and if we label them in elementary school, they're not going to get there."
"There" meaning college. Three-quarters of Las Palmas students are low-income. More than half still are learning English. Safe to say, not all of the first-graders cheering for Stanford on Thursday will be going there.
But it's a start, said Harris, who came to the school in 2011 after seven years as an administrator at Patterson High.
"I realized a lot of my (high school) kids weren't going to college. Their minds were made up before they came through the door," she said. Harris decided to focus on the younger set.
"You can walk on our campus and ask any student where they want to go to college," she said. "We know they may not go to UCLA they're in the fourth grade. But we know they'll go somewhere because they're thinking about it."
Colorful college banners hang outside classroom doors. Students and teachers break out into school fight songs.
"I love that my girls want to go to college, even my kindergartner," said parent Shiloh Allen.
Behind the college T-shirts and cheering, however, serious change is under way, Harris said. What she calls the "big, hairy, audacious goal" is "that every single one of our students will hit 'proficient' at some point in their time here."
The push is for every student to set a goal to move up one achievement level every year, from below basic to basic to proficient and beyond. "That's achievable," she said, one step after another up the ladder.
"We talk about the reason why, if they didn't do something. Is it they can't do something, or is it excuses? And most of the time, it's just excuses," Harris said.
Getting everyone on board has its challenges, but the majority of her teachers and staff have become believers, she said.
Patterson Unified Superintendent Phil Alfano said the school community coming together is the key. "It's one thing to raise test scores," he said, "it takes an entirely different level of commitment to transform expectations for all stakeholders."
But for kids cheering on their colleges the day before spring break, anything was possible.