A new study by the Southern Education Foundation has found that 51 percent of students in the United States are living in poverty and are eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-priced lunches for millions of American students.
The numbers are even more staggering for the Central Valley. According to data from the California Department of Education, 67 percent of students in Stanislaus County, 66 percent of students in San Joaquin County and 80 percent of students in Merced County are socioeconomically disadvantaged students.
The problems facing students in poverty are complicated and hard to overcome. Compared with their more wealthy classmates, students in poverty are less likely to attend college, get higher-paying jobs or even finish high school.
Local school districts have poured a lot of resources into making sure students have every opportunity to succeed despite their personal difficulties. Ceres Unified School District, where 80 percent of high school students are socio-economically disadvantaged, is one of them.
Central Valley High School, one of two traditional high schools in Ceres, has had some success and some challenges in the effort to increase student success.
The California High School Exit Examination, or CAHSEE, is the mandatory exam all students in the state must pass to graduate from high school. The test covers material all high school students should have learned by their sophomore year.
In the past few years, Central Valley High School has focused on improving its students’ scores on the exam. In the 2009-10 school year, 75 percent of economically disadvantaged students passed the math portion of the exam and 77 percent passed the English portion. In the 2013-14 school year, 86 percent of the disadvantaged students passed the math portion and 83 percent passed the English portion.
According to Amy Peterman, principal at Central Valley High, the school has created courses designed for students who failed certain sections of the CAHSEE exam. The success rate from these courses is very high and has led to the increase in passing rates on the CAHSEE exam.
The median income for someone with a bachelor’s degree is $46,900, while the median income for someone with just a high school credential is $30,000, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. While these statistics show the advantages of attending college, most economically disadvantaged students do not attend four-year colleges.
Many students living in poverty see college as a way to improve their lives, but gaining admission continues to be a challenge.
Arnulfo, a student at Central Valley High School who is economically disadvantaged, asked to keep his last name confidential. He is one of those students who views college as an escape route. “I’d like to attend California State University, Long Beach,” Arnulfo said. “Once graduating, I’d like to major in kinesiology and education so I can become a physical education teacher and coach.”
But for now, Arnulfo, who said he has a 2.1 GPA and SAT score of 1420, sees Long Beach State as out of reach.
The SAT and the ACT are exams that most universities in the country, including all of the public California universities, require students to take before applying to their college. It tests the students’ preparedness for university-level coursework.
The average SAT score, according to the College Board, which produces the test, is 1500. A majority of students in Stanislaus County are not achieving that. According to the California Department of Education, 59 percent of students in Stanislaus County who took the SAT in 2013 scored lower than 1500.
Central Valley High School has started to take a day out of instruction to give sophomores and juniors the chance to take a practice SAT test. The score from this test, the PSAT, allows students to focus on each individual area that they need improvement.
“This is not just a Central Valley (High School) issue,” Peterman said. “Our district superintendent saw the scores and noticed that our students need help in this area.”
In addition to offering the PSAT, Central Valley has chosen to use school funds to pay for an SAT prep course. “We offer prep courses to students whose PSAT scores show the possibility of improvement,” Peterman said. “We pay an outside agency to identify such scores, and they have a good record of improving students scores so they have good scores to submit to their colleges.”
SAT scores are extremely important in the admission process. For those hoping to attend top colleges, SAT scores must be very high. The average SAT score for students attending UC Berkeley, for example, is 2124.
Even for less prestigious universities, SAT scores are making university admission difficult for many local students. For example, UC Merced has an average SAT score of 1531.
Ceres resident Nick Mitchell is a member of The Bee’s Teens in the Newsroom program.