The University of California at San Diego doesn't just help a local school. It owns one. The Preuss School, on the university's eucalyptus-scented campus, is the nation's first charter school created by a university and dedicated to serving poor, minority students.
What's special about Preuss can be seen in a visit to a ninth-grade geometry class. While teacher Jerry Lederman leads the class from the blackboard, Rachel Ismerio, a 20-year-old psychology major at UCSD, serves as tutor, floating from desk to desk to make sure no one falls behind. And if plotting axis points begins to get dry, the class can turn into a 3-D graphics seminar, with the students using the UCSD supercomputers to create complex designs. Eliana Rucobo, 14, a precocious child of Mexican immigrants, says, "When I first came here, I had doubts about myself. Now I have gained confidence to go after what I want"--which is to become an architect.
The idea for Preuss came in the wake of California's 1998 ban on affirmative action, which caused UCSD's minority enrollment to drop a quarter. The university looked to recruit minority students through the traditional methods--faculty visits, fancy websites and brochures--but had little faith that these efforts would yield much.
So UCSD started from scratch, donating land worth $8 million and securing $13 million in private donations to build Preuss and prepare its prospective minority students. The state and local school district agreed to pay staff salaries and operating expenses. The school opened in fall 1999 with 150 sixth- through eighth-graders (out of 500 who applied), all of whom are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches--and are set to be the first in their families to graduate from four-year colleges. By 2004, Preuss will serve 700 students in grades six through 12.
The school is also meant to test how best to teach underprivileged kids. Yet the plenitude of educational gifts heaped upon students at Preuss--small classes, a rigorous curriculum, tutors--makes it hard to isolate which reforms matter most. But students like Rucobo don't mind, and the test scores of the first class of Preuss students have already risen more than 10%.
--By Andrew Goldstein. Reported by Jacqueline Savaiano/San Diego