In Latino culture, the quinceañera is a traditional rite of passage for 15-year-old girls entering a new stage in life. Taking a cue from the quinceañera, adding a few cultural and educational twists, some Tucson high school students are engaged in another kind of rite of passage: preparing for college.
At Desert View High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District and at Cholla Magnet High School in the Tucson Unified School District, two small groups of students, including boys, are participating in a school-sanctioned club called Quince para mis Quince or Fifteen for my Fifteenth.
The idea, said Elizabeth Arnot-Hopffer, is to allow the students, all 14- and 15-year-old freshmen, to focus on 15 activities in the school year that promote college as a goal. The clubs "create a college-going culture," said Arnot-Hopffer, associate director of the Tucson GEAR UP Project at the University of Arizona.
GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is a federally funded program, administered through the UA's Office of Early Academic Outreach, aimed at boosting the number of college-bound students.
At three other high schools where GEAR UP is active, the students are in clubs focusing on marketing and service learning. Pueblo Magnet students are working with students from Hollinger Elementary and Wakefield Middle schools. Students at Tucson Magnet work with the Ben's Bells Project, which promotes public service, and Sunnyside students are learning marketing skills.
At Desert View High School, on East Valencia Road on the South Side, seven girls meet after school on Thursdays to plan activities. Karen Rosales is the students' GEAR UP college coach.
The activities they have done include drawing school wall posters with college-bound messages and helping clean up the campus.
But the club's big project is an end-of-the-year dance to raise money for a diabetes charity. In a community that is primarily composed of ethnic minorities, diabetes is common.
"Everybody knows somebody who has diabetes," said one of the girls.
Another common thread in the club is that the students, if they get into college, will likely be the first in their families.
Dulce Barnes, 14, said her mother wants her to go to college. But her mother doesn't have the experience to help Dulce get through the maze of applying for admission and financial aid. Dulce said the club gives her that needed support.
The girls each have their own reasons for joining the club. GEAR UP doesn't require students to do so. But club members understand that participating in high school activities helps their chances of getting into college.
"I want to get more of the experience of what college is like," said Yesenia Franco, 14.
At Cholla, on West Starr Pass Boulevard, students in the club had pizza last week at their meeting. Their college coach, Erica Hawkins, is a UA grad from the Navajo Nation and the first member of her family to graduate from college. She reminded the students to bring their parents to that evening's parent meeting.
GEAR UP parents are invited to the school twice a semester to learn about college selection and applications.
After the reminder, the club got into planning one of its activities.
Hawkins asked the 12 students to write words of advice to middle-school students who will attend high school in the fall.
The club members were quick with their sage advice. Hawkins read their messages aloud.
"Don't give up." "School pays off big time." "Do your homework" and "Keep up your grades," Hawkins read.
Hawkins thanked the students for their positive messages and then she read her two favorite responses.
"Listen" and "Respect teachers."
Arnot-Hopffer said one aspect of GEAR UP is that the activities, while focused on the future, keep the students grounded in the present. It should keep them in school, she said.
Victoria Soto and Charles Escobar, both 14, enjoy GEAR UP and their club.
It keeps them concentrating on the bigger picture and the roles they need to play, they said.
"My parents tell me to go to college so I can get a good job and have a house," said Charles.
Victoria, who plays violin in a mariachi group, feels the club has boosted her maturity and personal skills needed for college.
"It's helped me keep up my grades," she said.
The students are already looking forward to next year. As the club's weekly meeting ended, the students asked Hawkins if the club will continue next year when they are sophomores.
She said "yes," but the students added that the club will have to change its name.
Simple, said someone.
"We'll call it the Sweet Sixteen Club."
DID YOU KNOW
The entire freshman classes at Cholla Magnet, Desert View, Pueblo Magnet, Sunnyside and Tucson Magnet high schools, a total of about 3,600 students, are part of the GEAR UP Project.
The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, and its goal is to increase the number of low-income, first-generation, minority students to enter college and succeed.
The students joined GEAR UP in the summer of 2006 when they were entering the seventh grade. GEAR UP coaches will work with the students through their high school graduation in 2012.