June 22, 2008

Exclusive Prep Schools Recruit Latino Youth From California’s Central Valley

FRESNO, Calif. _ Anali Serrano left her Tulare County, Calif., home at 15 to get the education she wants.

The 10th grader from Sultana traveled 3,000 miles last year to attend The Lawrenceville School, an exclusive private high school in New Jersey that was founded in 1810.

Lawrenceville is targeting the Valley to recruit academically-talented Hispanic students.

Two attended last year, and two more are scheduled to join them in the fall.

Call it a trickle, not a trend.

But it shows that Hispanics _ one of the nation's fastest-growing ethnic groups _ are becoming important to elite private schools that often groom the nation's future leaders. George W. Bush, John McCain and Barack Obama attended such private high schools, also known as prep schools.

Anali _ who hopes eventually to attend Harvard University and become a lawyer _ said she researched Lawrenceville and decided she could achieve her goals and grow personally there.

"It has students from all over the world, and that's not an experience you have every day," she said. "Actually, it's unbelievable."

But leaving home wasn't easy.

She missed her mother's cooking _ she was afraid to try the school's vegetarian enchiladas _ and she called her parents every night before saying her prayers and going to sleep.

"I love my mom and dad, and they said, 'We're not going to hold you back.' They told me if I want to fly, I should go for it," said Anali, now 16. She plans to return to Lawrenceville for 11th grade.

Anali's father, Salvador Serrano, is a farmworker. Her mother, Guadalupe, is a homemaker and baby sitter. Anali received a full scholarship from Lawrenceville of about $40,000 to cover tuition, room and board, travel expenses and books. Some students, such as Anali, live on campus and others are day students.

Both Lawrenceville and the Valley students stand to benefit from the recruiting push, a school official said.

The school gets a more diverse student body. Nearly two-thirds of Lawrenceville's 800 students are white; 3 percent are Hispanic, and that's an increase from several years ago, said Vicky Martinez, associate dean of admission.

The students attend smaller classes _ typically there is one teacher for eight students. Seminar-style instruction requires rigorous thinking, preparing graduates for the nation's most prestigious universities, Martinez said.

Anali repeated her sophomore year at Lawrenceville to get used to the rigorous curriculum and because the school usually has more room for 10th graders than older students.

She earned almost straight A's at her former school, Dinuba High, and A's and B's at Lawrenceville, though she had to work harder there, especially on her writing. Lawrenceville provided one-on-one help from a professional tutor.

Socially, Anali said, she felt accepted: "The whole point of going to a school like Lawrenceville is being able to learn from people of different backgrounds, and it makes you grow as a person."

She made friends with students born in Ukraine and China, as well as Hispanics from Turlock, Calif., and Texas. Lawrenceville students come from 34 states and 27 countries.

Martinez, a former resident of McFarland and graduate of Princeton University in New Jersey, recruited Anali. Martinez has been in the Valley for a couple weeks to talk to prospective students and their parents.

Because the nation's richest and most influential people send their children to schools such as Lawrenceville, she said, "We have to have Latinos who are right there with them."

Martinez, 29, attended Princeton after participating in a program run by Parlier educator Martin Mares. Since 1992, he has encouraged students throughout the Valley _ many of them Hispanic _ to take classes and earn grades that will get them into Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale. About 100 have been admitted to or graduated from those schools or other East Coast colleges, Mares said.

He helps Martinez recruit by telling students with top grades about Lawrenceville. Martinez then phones or e-mails them, or visits them when she makes twice-a-year recruiting trips to California.

Mares also has started making a stop at Lawrenceville while taking student on annual trips to tour Ivy League schools.

Prep schools started recruiting Hispanic students 10 years ago after focusing on other under-represented groups _ primarily blacks _ beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, said Pete Upham, executive director of The Association of Boarding Schools.

The schools want their student bodies to look more like the general population, he said.

Some Hispanic families, however, are reluctant to let their children leave home.

"It's not uniform, but Latino families tend to have an emphasis on family togetherness that makes going to a boarding school a definite challenge," Upham said.

Abel Sandoval of Parlier _ who is scheduled to attend Lawrenceville in the fall _ said his mother told him he couldn't go.

Fifteen-year-old Abel summed up his mother's feelings this way: "Abel is going away. Abel is on his own. Abel's in the world. It's going to be dangerous."

Abel attends Sunnyside High School in Fresno so he can be in that school's Doctors Academy, an academic program that encourages students to become doctors or other health care professionals. Abel _ who wants to be a cardiologist _ said he has a 4.0 grade-point average at Sunnyside.

He received a full scholarship to attend Lawrenceville. His father, Salvador Sandoval, is a farmworker crew chief and his mother, Ofelia Sandoval, is a homemaker.

After recruiter Martinez reassured Abel's mother that he would be safe, she agreed to let him go. Martinez said she lives on the Lawrenceville campus and provides extra attention to Hispanic students. Faculty members also live in the dorms and remember students on their birthdays and other occasions, Martinez said.

Ofelia Sandoval now believes going East is for the best for her son.

"There's no opportunities here," she said in Spanish.

Abel said he expects to feel intimidated attending a new school where a majority of students are rich and white. But, he said, he will get over those feelings at Lawrenceville, and that will help him later.

Said Abel: "When I get to college, it won't be challenge."


(c) 2008, The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.).

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