If you are driving east on Florin Road toward Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, you will pass under a pedestrian bridge that has a message permanently affixed to it: “If you dream it, you can do it.”
It’s the kind of message I have seen in neighborhoods where aspirations far surpass resources — and in that way it is fitting. More than three-quarters of students at Burbank qualify for free lunches. A fifth of students come from households where Hmong is the primary language. The school has one of the highest concentrations of Hmong students in the city.
It was here, last year, that school counselor Janet Spilman and teacher Katherine Bell dreamed up a scheme: They would get every eligible senior to apply to college — any college. “It wasn’t just the 4.0s,” Bell told me in December, sitting in the light-filled front office. “It was the 2.0s and everyone who was within one year … of being eligible” to apply. In the end, they wrangled about 400 students into the school’s two computer labs, sat them down and walked them through the application process.
The massive undertaking taught Spilman and Bell a lot about what was keeping students from making post-high school plans: Many Hmong students had no idea they were “college material.” Some said they had thought about college but no adult had ever spoken to them about it. Others fretted about the finances and negotiating with parents who expected them to remain home.
When Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard in 2014 over its race-conscious admissions policies, only one member of the organization was described in detail, a young man who, according to the lawsuit, deserves a seat at the university. He is the son of Chinese immigrants, attended one of the nation’s top high schools, was captain of the tennis team and got a perfect score on the ACT. By contrast, Hmong students at Burbank come from a community with a childhood poverty rate of about 40 percent statewide.