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Early Identification Brings Early Success

Small program makes big impact on minority students, community

Soon, Veronica Covarrubias will be the first person in her family to earn a master’s degree.

She’s already the first in her family to receive a bachelor’s degree, or a high school diploma. Getting an education was a struggle with little support from her family. “My mom wasn’t really into my education because she didn’t understand it,” she said.

Speaking to the School Board Tuesday, Dec. 17, Covarrubias said her achievements would have been impossible without the Early Identification Program, a partnership between George Mason University, Arlington Public Schools and three other area school systems.

The EIP is one of the most successful minority achievement programs, but limited space and scarce funding from public education also make it one of the smallest. Just 20 Arlington students are allowed to enroll each year. Tensie Cadenas, the director of the program, says the need far exceeds the space.

The EIP’s goals are to increase the percentage of minority students attending college by helping students heighten academic goals and improve performance in school. The program targets “first generation” students – the first children to grow up in American school from a family of immigrants – and students from single-parent homes, like Covarrubias.

The program has its successes; 410 students have graduated from the program, 95 percent have enrolled in college. When they get to colllege, EIP students earn higher grades on average than the county as a whole.

EDUCATION BECAME MORE than a career opportunity for Covarrubias

“The program was like a second mom,” she said. One of the EIP’s main goals is to improve student-parent relationships. For students to enroll in the program, parents must sign a participation contract and attend “Strengthening the Family” workshops, where trained facilitators lead discussions, group activities and roleplaying exercises that help parents and students understand each other.

Covarrubias has seen first-hand the changes EIP can bring about. “Before the program, the kids just don’t care… because they don’t believe they can do it,” she said.

Marcus Alston, a senior at Wakefield High School who spoke at last week’s school board meeting, said he was one of those students. Outside of school, Alston was surrounded by people with no ambition, he said. Growing up in that kind of environment, he never thought about doing anything different with his own life.

But EIP staff and tutors showed him what college was like, and they convinced him that he had the ability to succeed in school. That guidance, he said, convinced him to work hard and become “a somebody instead of a nobody.” Alston is applying to college now, something he never imagined before EIP, and plans to study computer science.

The EIP’s influence cannot even be measured, he said. “It’s more than important. Without the program I would not be the person I am today,” he said.

EARLY IDENTIFICATION IS important because students need help preparing for college before they even reach high school, said Cadenas. Children in immigrant families face particular challenges. “Most of them are not familiar with the education process in this country,” she said.

That’s why students begin the program at the end of seventh grade. For three weeks each summer, tutors prepare students for the following year’s classes. Preparation means the difference between being intimidated by academics and entering class with confidence, said Alston.

Students in EIP must attend weekly tutoring sessions after school for the first part of the school year. If they keep their grades up, the sessions become optional, but the assistance functions as a safety net, further boosting students’ confidence. “It was always good to know that the tutoring was available,” said Covarrubias.

LONG TERM GOALS of Arlington Public Schools make the EIP especially important, said School Board member Frank Wilson.

On average, black and Latino students lag behind their white and Asian counterparts on current standardized test scores, and school board members have said that eliminating that achievement gap is one of their main priorities.

What’s needed, Wilson said, are long-term solutions. “The achievement gap isn’t going to go away overnight,” he said.

One of the primary reasons is that minority students are less likely than white students to receive academic encouragement at an early age. By targeting students who would be the first generation to receive a college education in their families, the EIP is helping to build a community where minority students have that exposure.

For Wilson, there is a personal attachment to the EIP. Like many of the program’s participants, Wilson was also the first in his family to attend college. Once he had that opportunity, it changed the course of events for each successive generation, he said.

When his children attended high school, “the question was not if they were going to go to college, but where they were going to go to college,” he said. “[Going to college] means you value education and you can pass it on to the next generation,” he said.

Wilson is a supporter of George Mason University’s Early Identification Program, a partnership with area school districts, that works to overcome those barriers. The program provides tutoring, workshops and other educational opportunities to students who have the ability to go to college but are not living up to their potential. It targets minority students, particularly those who have received little or no exposure to the economic, academic and cultural benefits of education.

Covarrubias was one of those students. The EIP gave her the confidence to succeed, and changed her life she said. After graduating from GMU in 2000, she returned to work as the tutoring coordinator for the EIP.