For years, Mission High has been associated with gangs more than grades.
Nowadays, however, improved test scores and high GPAs at the school, which has been underperforming for years, have renewed its reputation. The outcome: More than 80 percent of its graduating seniors have been accepted into two- and four-year colleges, according to Principal Eric Guthertz.
“This is a counterweight to all the negativity surrounding this school about scores and grades. Mission High can support students the way few schools can,” said Amadis Velez, who teaches expository writing.
“There’s a change happening at this school — and it’s being led by students like these.”
Among that 80 percent are students belonging to Mission High’s large immigrant population.
Take Diana*, for example, an undocumented immigrant who came here from Mexico at the age of 18. Family members warned she was too old to start high school, but at the insistence of her co-worker, she soon found her way into the halls of Mission High.
She is now 21, and headed to San Francisco State University with a $15,000 scholarship from 826 Valencia.
Part of successes like Diana’s lies in classes taught by Velez. Out of the 26 students in his class, including Diana, all have been here for less than four years, coming from countries like El Salvador, Yemen, Thailand and Greece; all started out as English-language learners.
Next fall, 22 of these students will attend four-year universities, among them UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz and Santa Clara University. Two will be off to City College of San Francisco to study culinary arts and automotive technology. One will return to India for college, and the other has chosen to continue working at a restaurant in the Castro.
While Velez said most of his students had the desire to go to college when they first started his class, “a lot of them seriously questioned whether it was possible. All of them needed support to make it happen.”
Velez made sure they got that support by dedicating class time to filling out college applications and writing personal statements. But now that acceptance letters have come and gone, students need a different type of assistance — monetary help.
Ten of those in Velez’s class are AB540 students, meaning they qualify for in-state tuition but not government loans or financial aid.
When several students found out they were accepted to college after checking their email in Velez’s class, “they were crying, yelling, so happy,” he said. But, “that lasts a day. And the next day financial realities set in and they’re doing a mental calculus of how they can make it a reality.”
One student’s dream was to go to UC Davis. She got in but couldn’t afford tuition, so she will be attending SF State instead.
Despite some disappointments, Velez said many of his students have good financial aid packages and/or have received private scholarships. Principal Guthertz said the number of Mission High’s students that received Meretus Scholarships and Maisin Scholarships is nearly double that of students from other high schools in the district.
Guthertz fondly recalled the story of Jakob*, an undocumented student in Velez’s writing class, who received a full ride to Santa Clara University.
When Jakob found out he had won the other 826 Valencia scholarship for $15,000, he turned it down; he was going to ask the organization if his best friend, another Mission High student, could get it instead. Turns out, she was 826 Valencia’s next choice.
While figuring out a way to pay for school is a major challenge, so will be the transition from a nurturing high school environment to the enormities of college. Velez has prepared them by dedicating his class to discussions about social issues that affect them, like drug and alcohol use, and most especially, their identities as immigrant students and the challenges they may face.
Diana said the one thing she’s scared about is that her professors won’t care for her the way her teachers at Mission High do. But she’s excited to finally be going to school with people her age.
Velez’s efforts began a few years ago, when he helped two students after school and during lunchtime with their college applications. He’s amazed at how many students he was able to help this year, and said he plans to share his lessons with other teachers at the school.
Diana said she almost went to City College because she didn’t have the encouragement to go to a four-year university. She is the first in her family to go to college, so her family didn’t help her at all when it came to decisions about higher education.
“All the support I’ve gotten about going to college has been from this school.”
*Names have been changed.