Anteater Academy graduates
Concepcion Perez (left) and Ana Karen Herrera, Anteater Academy graduates from Santa Ana's Valley High School, will attend UCI this fall. Steve Zylius / UCI

Editor’s note: The New York Times ranked the University of California, Irvine as the No. 1 school in the nation in a listing of colleges that do the most for low-income students. NYT website The Upshot compiled its 2015 College Access Index based on the share of students who receive Pell Grants; the graduation rate of those students; and the price that colleges charge both low -and middle-income students.

In 2010, Santa Ana’s Valley High School earned the unfortunate distinction of being one of the state’s worst-performing high schools. In response, campus leaders the following year worked with the University of California, Irvine’s Center for Educational Partnerships to create the Anteater Academy, a four-year college prep program and small learning community. Of this year’s first graduating class of 77 academy students, 73 were admitted to four-year universities – 50 of them at University of California, California Polytechnic and Ivy League schools.

The students were selected from those who had passed eighth-grade algebra, a predictor of college readiness, says Stephanie Reyes-Tuccio, executive director of the Center for Educational Partnerships. A goal of the program is to create a college-going culture among teens with the potential to succeed in school but who lack resources or support

“We really had to make Valley High something special so we could retain and recruit college-bound kids,” Reyes-Tuccio says. “We sent informational letters to parents and invited students to apply to the program, letting them know that this would be a rigorous college prep curriculum.”

Today, Valley High’s UC admission rate is equal to those of the district’s renowned college prep high schools, Segerstrom and Godinez Fundamental. Valley High faculty and staff collaborated with UCI personnel to reshape the entire curriculum, including adding Advanced Placement courses and changing the order in which classes are completed.

The Anteater Academy’s first graduating class comprised 77 students – 13 of them headed to UCI this fall. Matthew Conover / Valley High School
The Anteater Academy’s first graduating class comprised 77 students – 13 of them headed to UCI this fall.
Matthew Conover / Valley High School

Luis Esquivel, a 2015 graduate of Valley High and the Anteater Academy, will attend UCI this fall as a computer science major. He’ll be joined by 12 other students from the academy who have chosen UCI. In 2011, only nine students from Valley High School were admitted to UCI. This year, as the first academy cohort graduated, 38 students were accepted to UCI, a stunning 322 percent increase.

Esquivel was able to take advantage of after-school tutoring, scholarship workshops, and a wider selection of honors and Advanced Placement courses. He also participated in a tour of UC and Cal Poly campuses.

“I got a lot of help with tutoring, and my counselors made sure I was taking the right classes for college admission,” he says. “The spring break tour opened my mind to educational opportunities in California. It also gave us a feel for different campus aesthetics – from rural campuses to colleges in urban settings.”

Esquivel was thrilled to be accepted into UCI’s computer science program. “I really want to focus on software development,” he says. “I want to work on coding and learning programming languages, which should open me up to different jobs in the field of game development or software development.”

Esquivel is the youngest of six siblings and the first to attend college. For most of his life, he was raised by a single mom. “My brothers are really interested in video games and technology,” he says, “and I’m excited about one day being able to answer their questions about how it all works.”

A core strength of the Anteater Academy is its emphasis on cross-curricular teaching, says Matthew Conover, a math instructor and program coordinator. The students are enrolled in the same classes with the same teachers, who work together to create complementary labs and activities.

“This is important because it allows students to see that, say, math and science are connected rather than two subjects in isolation,” Conover says. “For example, we had the students shoot air-powered rockets one period, take down observations and measurements, and then during their next period, they worked on questions and problems related to both algebra and physics.”

Students in the academy attend college prep workshops, take practice SATs, and meet with UCI’s Early Academic Outreach Program staff to produce competitive college applications. Workshop topics include how to write a personal statement and how to select extracurricular activities. Parental involvement is encouraged by asking parents to sign a contract and commit to supporting their child’s goal of college readiness.

Valley High graduate Lizbeth Garcia will attend UCI in the fall as a public health sciences major. She thanks her teachers in the academy for keeping her on track and preparing her for college-level studies.

“What I love about the academy was that the teachers were extremely helpful when it came to homework, classwork and projects,” she says. “I took mostly honors and AP courses throughout high school. In the end, the hard work and sleepless nights were worth it; I wouldn’t have made it this far without my academy teachers and peers.”

Garcia hopes to become an emergency preparedness specialist and an advocate for mental healthcare. She credits skills she learned in the academy for helping her focus on scholastic and career goals.

“The academy taught me about communication, teamwork, good study habits and time management,” she says. “I know these skills will be useful when I start college at UCI.”

Andrew Banderas has taught social science and English at Valley High for four years. As an academy teacher, he collaborated with history teachers to develop complementary lectures on parallels between George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution.

Banderas is also in charge of organizing spring break college tours. His last trip involved visits to UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Stanford University, UC Davis, UC Merced and UC Berkeley.

Anteater Academy students pose by San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge during a spring break tour of college campuses. Matthew Conover / Valley High School
Anteater Academy students pose by San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge during a spring break tour of college campuses.
Matthew Conover / Valley High School

“When we visit the campuses, we always ask students if they could see themselves there,” Banderas says. “The reaction is usually mixed. Some students love Santa Cruz, while others prefer a more urban environment at UCLA.”

So far, students on tours have been able to visit biomedical engineering labs and meet with Hispanic alumni groups, as well as talk to undergraduates and sit in on lectures.

“The trip is also a really awesome bonding experience for the students,” Banderas says. “For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever left Orange County or Santa Ana. Their jaws just dropped as we drove up the California coast.”

As the program’s first cohort tackles college, academy leaders hope that alums will return to share their experiences with current students. Esquivel certainly plans to stay close to Valley High.

“I’m coming back as a calculus tutor at Valley High and will work 18 hours a week while attending classes at UCI,” he says. “I’m looking forward to giving back to my high school and perhaps inspiring the next generation of Anteaters.”