Brenda Andino dreams of becoming a naturalist, making frequent forays to parks near her Silver Spring home to study plants and animals. She hopes a new program guaranteeing college admission to graduates of Albert Einstein High School will help propel her on that career path.
Brenda, 14, who emigrated from El Salvador with her family two years ago, is one of 176 ninth-grade students at the Kensington high school who signed a pledge to attend school, complete homework assignments, ask for extra help and learn about the college admission process.
In return, the students will be guaranteed acceptance to a college.
"My parents say that in the future, I'm not going to be someone who takes out the trash or cleans up for a living. They say I'm going to be somebody," said Brenda, whose mother is a housekeeper and whose father is a truck driver.
Parents also make a commitment to encourage and monitor attendance and homework, contact teachers if necessary and discuss the importance of college with their children.
Einstein administrators are working out admissions agreements with colleges. The University of Maryland at Baltimore County is likely to be the first to sign on, reserving three places for Einstein students, according to Einstein Assistant Principal Patricia Hanson. UMBC has a strong visual arts program, which would add continuity to Einstein's visual arts magnet program.
UMBC is the only university to make a commitment to the program, but Einstein administrators say they are talking with Montgomery College in hopes that the school will contribute remedial classes. As the program matures and educators understand better what careers interest students, they will target schools with programs in those areas.
Einstein started the college acceptance program, the only one of its kind in the county, to help change the school's standing as an academic underdog. Last year, it had the second-lowest SAT scores of 21 county public high schools. And only 65 percent of its students head off to two- or four-year colleges after graduation, far below the countywide average of about 76 percent.
Hanson attributes the low academic performance at the school to the transient population in Wheaton, Kensington and Silver Spring. The school has a 30 percent "mobility rate," meaning that each year, 30 percent of the students move into or out of the school's boundaries. The rate is one of the highest in the county. "If you don't know where you'll be living or working in six months, school is somewhat taking a back seat to other pressures," Hanson said. "We have a lot of kids who just drift through high school without career goals. We want to raise expectations on the part of both students and parents that college should be a goal."
Students at the school come from 51 countries, and 200 of the 1,550 students are studying English as a second language.
The college acceptance program was launched with a meeting for Latino parents in Spanish and English. The pledges signed by students and parents were written in Spanish and English. About 30 percent of Einstein's students are Hispanic.
To help students prepare for the academic rigors of college, Einstein started after-school and weekend tutoring by teachers. Its Saturday Academy, in which students can drop in for up to three hours of help with classes, draws about 80 students each week.
If students attend classes and seek extra help but still need remedial classes once they get to college, the guaranteed college acceptance program will pay for the remedial work. Einstein administrators say they will try to obtain funding from Montgomery County and from the colleges and universities that they hope will sign up for the program.
The program also brings college recruiters to the school and sponsors seminars in time management. This month, Einstein graduates who attend college returned to the school to share tips on preparing for college. Hanson's goal is for all 440 ninth-graders to sign pledges for the program. For the first time, all students in ninth grade will visit local colleges.
In addition, starting in the ninth grade, algebra and English classes will include sample SAT questions to help prepare students for the test. All students will take the Preliminary SAT in their sophomore year during class time. "We feel that to be competitive in this job market, everyone needs more than a high school education," Hanson said.
Karin Chenoweth, a freelance writer whose daughter will attend Einstein next year, proposed the idea for the program a year ago while she was the PTA coordinator for Montgomery Blair, John F. Kennedy and Einstein high schools. She left that position when she began writing the Homeroom column in The Washington Post's Montgomery Weekly section.
"This is a way to hold both students and schools accountable," she said. "I think the program has gotten off to a slow start in that there aren't any colleges lined up waiting for the Einstein students. But they've got 3 1/2 years until the first students graduate, and it seems a lot of momentum is building with the activities that have been organized for the students."
Maya Brailsford, of Silver Spring, credits the program with helping her start thinking about what career she might pursue. "I want to be a lawyer, and I want to be an actress. I don't really know, but I do know it's important to go to college," she said. Maya, 14, attends the Saturday Academy to get help with geometry. She said the free pizza offered after the tutoring sessions gives her added incentive to attend.
The program will not award scholarships but will work with parents and students to find ways to finance a college education, a component of the program that spurred Estrellita Achacoso to encourage her son to sign up.
"Every night I try to ask Joe if he needs help with his homework," said Achacoso, who brought her family to Silver Spring from the Philippines in 1995. "I think the program has gotten him to be more serious with his studies."
Joe, 15, said the program is improving his grades, which may give him a better chance at a scholarship. He hopes to become a lawyer or a journalist. "Math is my worst enemy, so I go get extra help," he said.
"I know that maybe this won't ever happen, but I would really, really like to go to Harvard."