Cathie Anderson

College Track keeps freshmen on path to be university grads

Students of color are gaining entry into the nation’s colleges and universities in increasing numbers, but they aren’t graduating at the same rate as their peers.

While the reasons for this vary for each person, an underlying issue for most is that none of their relatives is a graduate. They don’t have one person to consult or lean upon when they encounter financial obstacles, academic challenges or, occasionally, discouragement from faculty.

Since 1997, a nonprofit known as College Track has been filling that gap. Founded in the Bay Area, it opened a Sacramento site in Oak Park last year. Every year, College Track invites high school freshmen to apply for its tutoring and mentoring services, and it chooses 60 of the applicants to support until they get through college.

“A lot of organizations working on college access are now beginning to understand that the conversation had stopped there, assuming that if students get into college, they would persist,” said Shasta Weiss, the development director for College Track Sacramento. “That’s just not true. What we’ve shown is that with continued commitment, a long-term commitment of eight years, they actually do graduate. Our students graduate at a rate of 2.5 times their peers.”

And, if they get that college degree, they have a better shot at achieving financial success. On average, college graduates earn $1 million more than those who have only a high school diploma over a lifetime.

Geronimo Moreno, a 15-year-old sophomore at Sacramento High School, told me that he wasn’t sure what to expect when he joined College Track, but he thought maybe the experience would be good for his résumé some day. He has been both surprised and motivated by the degree of encouragement and the academic support he’s received from the staff.

“All the staff, they’re so, like, into your life,” Moreno said. “They always want to know what you’re up to, so they can get you on track and make sure you stay on track. They make sure you’re always productive. That’s what surprised me; like, sometimes even teachers aren’t always like that.”

Asked to name one College Track staffer who has been a key influence. Moreno points to Thomas Muñoz, director of the organization’s Sacramento site, because he helped him develop his communication skills and to understand how to seek help.

Sac High sophomore Tori Nichols, 15, told me that the staff has been instrumental with helping her learn how to balance her extracurricular activities and homework. They closely monitor her grades, she said, and they hold her accountable for doing what it takes to improve them.

That is the real gift of this program, accountability, said 38-year-old parent Akosia Robinson. Teens feel like they’re not only letting the staff down, but they’re letting each other down if they don’t bring their “A” game.

Robinson, who is African American, tried but failed to get an engineering degree from Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md., so she’s intimately aware of the academic challenges awaiting her children. Her son, Cameron Thomas, and her niece, Seffani Robinson, both began participating as freshmen in College Track this year.

Robinson also praises College Track for pulling its instructors, known as fellows, from the ranks of local college students. Because these young people are so close in age to the teens, she said, her son can see someone who has made the leap to college and who wants to reach back and give others a hand.

One fellow, Nelson Sagastume, started off as a College Track student back in 2008. He’s now a senior mechanical engineering student at the University of California, Davis. He heard that College Track was launching a Sacramento site while attending a College Track graduation ceremony in his hometown of East Palo Alto.

“I wanted to be a math tutor, because I had a great experience in College Track and I had great tutors,” the 21-year-old Sagastume said. “I especially remembered my history tutor. … I was in their shoes many years ago, and now I’m here trying to help them out, so they can be in my shoes one day.”

We try to make our time here not about doing homework but about addressing gaps in learning and understanding that have occurred previously.

Thomas Muñoz, director of College Track’s Sacramento site

At the College Track site in Oak Park, just around the corner from Old Soul and The Guild Theater, students participate in what Muñoz calls study squads. As much as possible, Muñoz said, each squad is composed of a teaching fellow working with students from the same academic class taught by the same teacher in the same period.

“We try to make our time here not about doing homework but about addressing gaps in learning and understanding that have occurred previously,” Muñoz said. “The fellows also work closely with teaching faculty at the high school to discover what’s coming down the pike.”

Muñoz said College Track focuses on the whole student, encouraging them to pursue extracurricular interests such as the arts or sports and to volunteer their time in community service. The teens, he said, have done a lot of work in the clothes closet run by Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services.

Freshmen in College Track will apply for their first scholarship before their first year in the program ends, Moreno and Nichols said, and they will get their first run at taking a practice college entrance exam. It’s all part of preparing students for college, Muñoz said, and they will receive many more lessons in how to prepare academically and financially for school.

Muñoz, a Watsonville native, left a job as a middle school teacher last year to run College Track’s Sacramento site. He has degrees in political science and psychology from UC Davis and a law degree from the University of San Francisco.

“I started out really excited about this idea of going to law school,” Muñoz said. “I wanted to be an advocate for employees. … I got into my third year of law school, and I realized this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I went back to what gave me the most joy in my life.”

That was his work tutoring children in an after-school program while he was attending UC Davis, he said. He will start accepting applications for the next class of College Track students later this fall – and he will be relocating his program to a larger home at Broadway and Alhambra as it welcomes a third class next year. For more information, call 916-287-8624.