A Bright Idea

For 20 years, a charter school on the UC San Diego campus has changed our community, one student at a time.

On a rainy September morning in 1999, Cecil Lytle, the provost of Thurgood Marshall College, watched from his office window as a line of yellow school buses lumbered up the rise and parked in the turnaround in a eucalyptus grove. Slowly, cautiously, sixth, seventh and eighth graders in uniforms of dark blue shirts and khaki pants walked down the bus steps and clustered next to their buses. They were the first students of The Preuss School UC San Diego, the new college preparatory school that opened that day in temporary trailers at Marshall College. Doris Alvarez, the new school’s principal, stood in the rain and welcomed them. She pointed to a path and urged them to walk up the hill to the buildings at the top. A few students went, but most stayed by their buses.

Then 15 or so cars wound their way up the rise. Inside were parents who had seen their children off in Southeast San Diego and then followed them 21 miles to the campus. “They were sending their kids to a place they’d never been,” Lytle remembers. “A place they’d heard had a lot of smart people. Those families believed that something good was going to happen. They trusted us—maybe more than we’d earned at that point.”

They climbed out of the cars, found their kids and held them close. Some of them cried. Then, one by one, they let them go. Students, some still with tears, turned and walked up the hill to their new school. The parents stood in the rain and watched until the last student entered and the door shut behind them.

Twenty years after that rain- and tear-soaked morning, the Preuss School has rewarded those first parents’ trust. Preuss students have demonstrated that they, many of them immigrants, all from low-income families and whose parents have not attended college, can achieve academically as well as any student population in the country. A rigorous college-focused curriculum prepares students to thrive in college, and each year more than 90 percent of its graduates are accepted at a four-year college. Eighty-two percent of graduates enroll in UC or Cal State; about a third will come to UC San Diego this year. It’s been called one of the most challenging high schools in the country; Newsweek named it the top transformative school three years in a row. And it is here on campus, changing the lives of all those who pass through, who in turn change the lives of others.

(Back row L-R) District superintendent Alan Bersin, founding principal Dr. Doris Alvarez, Chancellor Robert C. Dynes, donors Peggy and Peter Preuss, MA ’67, and Marshall College Provost Cecil Lytle help a crew of students dig into the site of The Preuss School UC San Diego in 1998.

Prop 209 showed the need

“We looked at the university as a social engine,” says Lytle, Preuss’ co-founder and champion. “Universities have always been that.” In 1996, the University of California badly needed a social engine. California voters had passed Prop 209 that year, which amended the state constitution to prohibit state institutions from considering race, sex or ethnicity in public employment, contracting and public education. UC Regents likewise ruled that race and ethnicity could no longer be used in admissions decisions. African American undergraduate enrollment at UC campuses dropped by 33 percent; Hispanic enrollment fell 16 percent.

Lytle argued that a college preparatory school for underserved students, located on UC San Diego’s campus, would make a powerful statement that these students were welcome at the University of California. He envisioned the school as a laboratory: just as UC’s agricultural stations developed innovative agricultural practices, Preuss could be a lab for developing educational best practices for urban schools.

With support from the Office of the President and the San Diego community, Lytle and his collaborators persuaded the Faculty Senate to approve the new school. It was founded in 1998 and chartered through San Diego Unified School District. UC San Diego provided land, but no funds to build or equip a school. One of the university’s first graduates, Peter Preuss, MA ’67, with his wife, Peggy, made the founding gift of $5 million toward construction of the new school. The balance of $9 million was raised in less than six months, and the new Preuss School buildings opened on east campus in the fall of 2000.

Looking back, Lytle says, “My one disappointment is that we didn’t build 10 of them.”

Giving back, paying forward

Jacqueline Kennedy ’08 rode the bus that rainy morning, and in 2004 she was part of Preuss’ first graduating class. She  remembers her teachers and mentors with stories of the ways they widened her world, from learning to write papers to her first time eating sushi. “My time at Preuss was a true awakening of how inequitable the world is and how you have to work hard just to get to the starting line. I saw Preuss’ commitment to getting us to the starting line.” Now at the Center for Health Equity in New York’s Department of Health, she honors that commitment by working to help underserved communities have a better shot at the starting line in health care.

Likewise, in her service learning class, teacher Jan Gabay asks her students to think about how they will give back to their neighborhoods and to the students who come after them. When they finish college, will they come back to live where they grew up? How will they pay forward what they’ve been given?

“We consider it a privilege to help children reach their potential and we believe that all children deserve an opportunity to do their best.”

— Peggy Preuss, in support of The Preuss School UC San Diego’s founding, 1998

Indira Hood-Esparza, Preuss 2011, UCSD ’15, M.Ed. ’16 has been thinking about these questions since she was a student. She says,“Preuss made me want to give back. There was such a sense of community. Our teachers said, ‘We’re in it to win it. We’re in this together.’ Preuss was one of the biggest impacts in my life.” At High Tech High in Chula Vista, where she now teaches, she says, “I build community into everything I do.”

When she started at UC San Diego she found she could handle the work. “I’d learned how to work like that at Preuss.” She wants more students to have the academic preparation and the opportunities she had at Preuss. Ultimately, she’d like to see a second school, located south of I-8 and better athletic facilities for current students, like a full-size soccer field.

Sahar Abdulla, Preuss class of 2018, starts at Cal Poly Pomona this fall, where she’ll have to decide whether to major in urban and regional planning or political science. She’s sure that without Preuss’ help, she wouldn’t have made it to that starting line. She was born in Sudan, and after her father was the target of three assassination attempts, her family fled to Egypt, where they stayed nearly two years in a refugee camp. She was seven when they arrived in the U.S.; when she started second grade in San Diego, she spoke no English.

At Preuss she was goalkeeper for the varsity soccer team, and she interned at a stem cell lab at Sanford Burnham Prebys Institute. “I look at what I’ve had at Preuss, and I know there are thousands of kids who haven’t had such a good opportunity. I feel like Preuss needs to get a little bigger, or maybe open a school in City Heights, so more kids who want to could go to college. I want more people from my background to have that same opportunity.” 

Each day, more than 800 Preuss students are brought to campus from all across San Diego County, often traveling over an hour each way.

Changing students, changing families

Students are the ones who ride the bus and go to class, but support from their families is an essential element in their success. Sandra Gutierrez, Preuss’ volunteer coordinator, runs the school’s Parent Academy, whose goal is to help parents feel comfortable with the school and to get to know each other. It meets monthly, usually with more than 100 parents in attendance. They learn the school’s expectations for students, how they can help them in the process, who the office and counseling staff are and how they can volunteer. The parent support specialist offers classes in parenting as well, and parents can take classes in nutrition and financial literacy.

Maria Martinez-Rendon, who’s had three children at Preuss, is a quiet, thoughtful woman, a volunteer in Preuss’ library, in its office and with its PTA. She and her sons, Eduardo, who’s in seventh grade this year, and Luis, Preuss ’11, talked about the difference Preuss has made for their family. Eduardo and Luis sat on each side of her and translated for her. Luis draped his arm across the back of her chair.

“What I wanted most,” Maria said, “was for my children to get a good education. It wasn’t always easy. We have a big family in San Diego, and we’ve had to miss a lot of family gatherings because the kids had homework and school projects. It was what they needed to do.”

Luis followed his sister, Tania, to Preuss. She graduated in 2009, went to the University of Redlands and now works as a paralegal. Luis went to UC Davis and now is completing his certification as a biology teacher. “Preuss has helped our whole family have a better life. We have a lot of cousins. Tania and I are the only ones who’ve gone to college.”

Before Eduardo started at Preuss, he was worried. “I’d been with my friends since kindergarten, and now I was going to a new school with kids I didn’t know. But there’s really good teaching, and I liked it that kids in my class were serious about school the way I was, and they wanted to go to college. Some of them had been bullied, like I was. I like being in a school where there’s no bullying.”

Luis says Maria always urges other parents to apply to Preuss. “Es lo mejor; it’s the best. We have had less time with our kids, and a lot we’ve spent together was with the kids working on their homework,” she says, looking at her sons as her eyes fill. “Vale la pena. It’s worth it.”

The Preuss School UC San Diego consistently ranks as the top-serving school in San Diego County and has also been named “top transformative school in the nation” by Newsweek.

A model for urban schools

Educators and policymakers from around California and across the country who are looking to create opportunities come to study Preuss’ model. Few of them have the resources to implement the full model, but most school districts emulate some parts of it, especially the Advisory program. Berkeley and UCLA both opened schools that feature many aspects of Preuss’ program, as well as Harvard and University of Pennsylvania.

Preuss’ achievement touches everyone who serves there. As a UC San Diego undergrad, Jason Babineau ’07 tutored at Preuss, and the experience changed his life plan. “The adverse situations that these students had gone through, but who were still striving, who were still achieving, who still woke up every morning and got on the bus, inspired me. It broke my heart too, because it didn’t make sense that they didn’t have the opportunities I had as a kid.” He became a teacher and last year was appointed principal of San Diego’s Hoover High School, where 90 percent of the students live below the poverty line. He’s focused on providing the resources his students need to get to college, and making sure every student feels connected to the school—practices he saw in action at Preuss.

Also within San Diego, Cecil Lytle points to Preuss’ inspiration for the remaking of Gompers, a once-troubled middle school, into Gompers Prep, a college preparatory public school that draws on many of Preuss’ practices. He sees Gompers’ success as carrying Preuss’ model to the next level: deploying it in an urban school that cannot be selective about admissions and lacks the funding and the cadre of volunteers that Preuss enjoys. Indeed, the push to transform the school came from Preuss parents who also had children at Gompers. “The key was the parents,” Lytle says. “They would not let Gompers fail. They knew what the ingredients were. They’d seen it here.”

Preuss co-founder Bud Mehan has also thought a lot about how Preuss’ model could influence urban school systems. “One challenge both Preuss and Gompers face with some of their incoming students,” says Mehan, “is that not all of them are prepared to jump right into a college prep curriculum. What if there were a K-5 school that prepared kids for that?”

The education that Preuss offers its students is only part of its achievement. It also molds students—and often their parents—to become the thoughtful, informed citizens that Mehan envisioned, committed to giving back to their communities. Giving back starts with the recognition that their life-changing education is an experience that too many of their peers don’t have access to. Students, parents and alumni know firsthand how unattainable the starting line can be, and how great the need for good education is. So when they think about Preuss’ future, they set the bar higher for their school and for its supporters. Expand. A second school. A K-5 school. Maybe 10 schools.

Or as Eduardo Martinez-Rendon says: “My hope for all future students is that they complete their dreams.”