Growing up in East Palo Alto — a Bay Area city once best known as the murder capital of the nation — Mar Y Sol Alvarado realized the importance of doing well in school.

Unlike many of her classmates, Alvarado managed to connect the dots between her aspirations and her reality. She graduated from nearby Menlo-Atherton High School with a 3.9 grade point average, nearly perfect, earning a full-ride scholarship to nearby Menlo College, a four-year business school. But when she arrived on campus, she discovered her nearly perfect academic record really hadn’t prepared her for the rigors of college work. Suddenly, the A student was struggling, not understanding her homework, and bringing home B’s and C’s.

“I was ashamed to realize how many times I had to read the same section over and over to comprehend,” recalls Alvarado, now 30. By the end of her first semester, she had a 2.5 GPA and she was reeling from her fall from academic grace. She remembers calling her former high school counselor and crying about how difficult college was.

“I felt so lost,” she says.

Alvarado is not alone. About half of first-year college students discover that, despite excellent GPAs and getting into college, they are not ready for continued studies after high school, according to The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Taking college-prep courses, earning high school diplomas, and passing state high-school exit exams — none of it is sufficient to ensure that these students are actually ready for college work.

“I felt dumb. I felt like I didn’t fit in,” Alvarado says.

It may not surprise us to hear that many less-than-stellar high school students struggle when they get to college classes. But Alvarado earned top marks in high school. Shouldn’t the A students at least be assured of college readiness?

Achievement gap in action

Not in the harsh world of persistent educational achievement gaps. Alvarado, a Latina from a low-income family where the first language was not English, was the first in her family to attend college. Alvarado’s high school, Menlo-Atherton, offered rigorous college prep classes and other educational opportunities that prepare students for college — but Alvarado didn’t take them. She might have, she says, but didn’t even know about the honors or AP courses.

Though she started high school as an ESL student, Alvarado applied to a computer academy within the school for a “tech edge,” she says. “I thought it was college-level prep, but no …”

Despite her impressive transcripts, she found herself on the wrong side of the achievement gap, the term for the disparity in academic performance between disadvantaged students and their more privileged peers. It’s a phenomenon that’s more common — and persistent — than most people realize. While Alvarado hasn’t been a student at Menlo-Atherton High School in years, the school’s current GreatSchools Rating, which is an above-average 8 overall but a below-average 3 for low-income students, shows things may not have changed all that much.

To bridge the gap, Alvarado, like 41 percent of Hispanic students, had to enroll in remedial classes in college. Remedial classes — designed to catch up struggling college students by building core skills in English, writing, reading, or math — have become an increasingly common roadblock for low-income and minority college students. Forty-two percent of African-American students and 31 percent of white students require remedial classes in college.

For students who require remediation, college is longer and more expensive. Students usually can’t enroll in classes that count toward their degree until they pass their remedial classes. What’s more, some critics have suggested that most remedial classes fail to achieve their goals; they fill students up with information, but don’t build the critical-thinking skills necessary for college-level learning. Perhaps this is why nearly 50 percent of students fail to complete their remedial classes, according to a U.S. Department of Education study. Perhaps most alarming, only 17 percent of students who took remedial reading and 27 percent of students who enrolled in remedial math received a bachelor’s degree. Many students drop out — or never show up — when faced with remedial classes.

Alvarado is among the positive percentages. She took a semester off so she could return to Mexico and resolve her U.S. legal status. She then returned to college and loaded up with a hefty 18 units of remedial courses at Menlo College and eight units at a local junior college in a single semester so she could catch up to her peers.

In the end, Alvarado’s persistence and hard work earned her two bachelor’s degrees, one in business and one in international business. With dogged determination, she managed to graduate in four years. In 2010, she earned a master’s degree in sociology at San Jose State University.

Costs of remedial classes

Most students are not so fortunate. In addition to the added costs of remedial classes, they must take more time to get through college, running up the tuition debt and keeping them out of the job market. Many acquire the debt without ever getting to the finish line.

“These students are much less likely to get the degree at all,” observes Alfred Poor, author of 7 Successful Secrets That Every College Student Needs to Know. “Some students have difficulty making it through the developmental classes. Even if they do make it through, this extends their college career, which means more time and more expense.”

So what can be done?

The key, experts say, is parents making sure their children’s school is able and invested in helping their children succeed. Parents must make sure their kids have access to classes and skill-building experiences.

If kids are to succeed in college, they need to take college prep classes, not just bring home decent grades in regular classes. They need to be comfortable reading complex texts and learn to persist in figuring out math problems that challenge them. “When parents get involved in the child’s education, and come to the child’s school, the child does better,” says Dr. Patrick Coggins, a professor of education and multicultural education at Stetson University in Florida. This doesn’t mean putting in PTA hours but instead helping your child pick classes, meeting with academic counselors, and knowing that they are doing their part to succeed — by attending classes and turning in homework for example.

For parents whose kids are already facing the prospect of remediation, experts suggest using community college as a bridge to four-year college. Community colleges can be a big help for underachieving students, says Coggins. “If a student didn’t do well in high school, when they come to college, they’re going to struggle.” Community college provides a less jolting transition into higher education with familiar surrounds of home and classes closer in size and style to high school.

When parents can’t help with academics, they can help by connecting their child with teachers, tutors, counselors, or potential mentors. Alvarado, who has seen too many neighborhood friends get low-paying service jobs, get pregnant, or not finish high school, agrees. For Alvarado, a sixth grade math teacher who cared, a high school counselor she talked to regularly, and other mentors at her high school made a world of difference. They gave her an understanding and encouraging person to call when a 2.5 grade point average that first semester of college made her feel like her world was crumbling.

“They encouraged me to do well in school, to do well in college, to make homework a priority,” Alvarado says.

Now the program director at Catholic Charities Youth Club, an after-school program in East Palo Alto, Alvarado understands the full cycle of the college-bound achievement gap. She helps students navigate the educational system, learn to study, find advanced placement classes, and plan for college. The students in her program pledge to be the first in their family to graduate from high school and go on to college.

“We want to give them the opportunity,” Alvarado says. “We want to show them that there’s a difference between a career and a job.”

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