Affirmative Reaction

Even with Proposition 209, there are proven ways to help minority kids get to college

Most people know that this year's drop in minority enrollment at the UC Berkeley law school is what brought Jesse Jackson to California last August, spouting ugly charges of "ethnic cleansing" in the universities. But the most interesting facet of the Proposition 209 debate may be the number of thoughtful people in both camps who will tell you that affirmative action isn't strictly about skin color.

"I think in the forefront of the debate is the idea that, oh it's race," says Ronald Takaki, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley who supports affirmative action, believes that racism in America is structural, and has debated against people like Charles (The Bell Curve) Murray. "I'm saying that underneath race, a more powerful factor is class."

Robert Pickus, a Prop. 209 supporter who runs the World Without War Council from a shaky old tree-shaded house in Berkeley -- the same house where Tom Wood and Glynn Custred drafted Prop. 209 -- agrees. "After 30 years [of affirmative action], the entrance of blacks into the middle class has gone up, but the ghetto situation has gotten worse," he says. The real debate over affirmative action, he says, has been clouded with "passion tied to good principle," expressed by people who earn a living at race-card games.

"It has nothing to do with race," he says. "It's got to do with class."
Proposition 209 bars the California government from using race and gender preferences in contracting, hiring, and public-school admissions. Beneath all the racial rhetoric, the intellectual debate over slashing preferences has always boiled down to whether they attend to the country's deepest equity problems. Jesse Jackson's answer is yes, because in terms of equal opportunity, America "isn't there yet." But UC Regent Ward Connerly's answer -- and the answer that Proposition 209 requires California to face -- is no:

"Our policies in the past have been giving preferences to middle- and upper-income black and Latino kids who are the sons and daughters of professional people," Connerly claims, "using as a rationale the notion -- albeit false -- that these policies are benefiting low-income people. And so we want to focus on genuine policies that benefit the poor, and get them in a position where they too can go to college."

All right, Ward. How?

Since 1980, when busing became an issue in San Diego County, Mary Catherine Swanson has been running a college preparation program called AVID for so-called disadvantaged students. The acronym stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, and the program's goal is to make C-level students eligible to attend the University of California by tutoring them in their weakest subjects and training them in standardized test-taking.

In 17 years, AVID has moved from Clairemont High across San Diego County, north through most of California, into six other states and about nine foreign countries where American soldiers and diplomats have kids in government schools. On the strength of a small (600-student) study by an outside group that shows impressive numbers -- 92.8 percent of the students enroll in college and 89 percent are still there after two years -- AVID was first offered state money by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1996. (Wilson vetoed it as a potential budget item for four consecutive years before that, declaring it too expensive.) Most of AVID's money still comes from the counties and school districts that offer the program.

A typical AVID class is a small group tutorial dedicated to improving each student's weakest subject. It counts as a high school elective. The students take notes in all their classes and examine their notes during the tutorial by asking and answering questions. Homework, in an AVID class, is to digest what's happening in every other class. The students not only put what they learn into writing but also take, for free, standardized-test preparation courses.

Richard Maggi is assistant principal of curriculum and instruction at Galileo High School in San Francisco, which is offering AVID for the first time this year. Of all college preparation courses in the state, Maggi says, AVID is the only one that helps average students -- as opposed to gifted or failing students -- "see themselves as college-bound."

"We cite it in our report as an outstanding model," says Dennis Galligani, chief staff to the UC Regents' Outreach Task Force, which has just finished a massive report on how the UC system can help underprivileged kids get into its schools without using the preferences banned by Prop. 209. The report recommends that the state should give $18 million to AVID and similar programs.

Ever heard of it? Probably not. College prep programs have been flying far, far under the radar of the Prop. 209 debate, but they represent the kind of affirmative action California has left, now that preferences are illegal. Two of the state's largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Francisco, are virtually AVID-free. (Both districts have other, scattered college prep programs.)

Galileo High School and Luther Burbank Middle School (also in San Francisco) are launching AVID for the first time this year, mainly as a result of Gov. Wilson's decision to fund it. The state money helped AVID set up a regional office in Contra Costa County. The program currently serves 20,000 kids statewide and costs about $2.5 million.

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