Samohi student Daniel Franco is awarded a certificate by SMMUSD school board member Oscar de la Torre for completing the Young Collegians program on Monday at the Doubletree Hotel. (photo by Photo Courtesy Smmusd)

FOURTH STREET — Monday night, in front of an audience of family, friends, faculty and administrators, 15 high school seniors walked across a stage at the Doubletree Hotel to mark the end of a grueling academic career.

“I’m excited,” said Bryan Hurtz, a graduating senior. “It’s been a long four years.”

These and the rest of SMMUSD seniors will get their accolades on June 21, when they leave high school for the wider world beyond. Many of those students will walk having always known they would be going on to get degrees in higher education.

The young men and women at the Doubletree did not.

All 15 students that attended the special ceremony, as well as one that could not be there, represent the first graduating class of the Young Collegians program, a collaboration between Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and Santa Monica College.

The program takes students having difficulty in their freshman year of high school, usually with a C average, and supports them through a rigorous academic program that exposes them to college-level courses during their summer breaks.

Young Collegians get to use the opportunity to rack up college credits, and get a taste of what it means to be on the track to a four-year university education.

If they stick to their guns and really utilize the program, they can earn up to 14 credits, all of which can be transferred to colleges state and nationwide.

Achieving that goal means not only rising to the occasion to complete advanced coursework, but also giving up three summer breaks and balancing sports and summer jobs with up to two classes each summer intersession.

The Young Collegians program was the brain child of former SMMUSD superintendent Dianne Talarico, who died in May after a battle with lung cancer.

Talarico entered the district with the goal of closing the vast achievement gap between low-income students, students of color and their white counterparts, said Dr. Sally Chou, the district’s chief academic officer.

“These aren’t the kids with high motivation, who knew where they were going and whose parents had the resources behind them to get to college,” Chou said.

Instead, they’re the kids that needed a little bit of inspiration to achieve all the things that their teachers, and Talarico, knew they were capable of.

“Her dream was to make sure they would have the opportunity to advance in many different ways,” Chou said.

Chui Tsang, the superintendent and president of SMC, worked with Talarico to design a program compatible with both organizations that would give students a taste of what it meant to go on to higher education.

That program involved taking one and three-unit courses in the summer at SMC, getting information on how to pay for college and touring campuses of universities like UCLA, USC and SMC.

“We’re two very different districts,” Tsang said. “It took leaders in both saying that we wanted to do something very special here.”

The graduation ceremony on Monday represented the culmination of three years of efforts from the students, instructors, staff and various non-profit foundations that helped support the project.

Seeing the first round of students come to the end of that process was “inconceivable,” said Peggy Harris, director of curriculum and instruction at the district.

“For all associated with Young Collegians, this is an amazing dream and a magnificent journey,” Harris said.

She encouraged the students to be proud not only of their accomplishments, but of their courage in being the first to take on the program.

“No matter how many Young Collegians come after you, you were the pioneers,” she said.

The 16 students that graduated from the first year of Young Collegians will all go on to two- and four-year universities, including SMC, UC Davis, CSU Northridge and even schools as far flung as Five Towns College in New York.

Many of them will be the first in their families to attend college.

That’s the case with Hurtz, who plans to sign up for fall semester at SMC to study business.

“It’s an amazing experience I gained from this,” he said. “I’ll be the first one to go beyond high school.”

Likely, he won’t be the last. Hurtz’ younger brother is one of the up and coming students in the Young Collegians program, along with nearly 100 other students that will be enrolled in the coming school year.

After the first year, where only 23 signed up and 16 made it through, Young Collegians developed a name for itself, said Rosa Serratore, the coordinator of secondary curriculum at SMMUSD.

“The word is out now,” Serratore said. “When we have a parent meeting, 100 families get invited because each of the counselors get to recommend a certain number of kids. There’s potential here.”

The potential that Talarico saw in a program that catered to only 16 children three years ago now sees classes of 35 each.

Even though she is gone, Talarico will get a chance to touch the lives of future collegians as much as she influenced the first.

Donations will be welcomed for a memorial scholarship dedicated to graduates of the Young Collegians program in her honor.

“It’s her legacy,” Chou said.

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