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Graduating senior Shannon Gonzales, 17, left, a student in the Puente program, poses for a photograph with Puente program counselor Danni Le in a classroom at Pittsburg High School in Pittsburg, Calif., Monday June 10, 2013. Gonzales will be attending UC Berkeley in the fall. An education initiative that encourages low-income seniors to pursue higher education hit a milestone this year at Pittsburg High School, with 44 of the 58 seniors enrolled in the Puente program accepted to a four-year college. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)

PITTSBURG -- An education initiative that encourages low-income students to pursue higher education hit a milestone this year at Pittsburg High School, with three out of four seniors enrolled in the Puente Project going to a four-year college or university this fall.

That's up from last year's rate of 45 percent and amounts to the highest percentage of Puente students accepted to a four-year school since the project was first launched at Pittsburg High in 1999. It is also significantly higher than the 14 percent of non-Puente seniors at Pittsburg High who have been accepted to a four-year school this fall.

The major difference in this year's results is that the Puente students did not have to change counselors as they had in previous four-year cycles due to counselors taking medical leave or leaving the school for one reason or another, according to counselor Danni Le, who works with Puente students.

"It's the consistency" of being paired with the same students throughout high school, she said.

The high school also had the highest number of Puente students -- five in all -- accepted to UC Berkeley among the project's 35 participating high schools throughout California, including seven other high schools in the East Bay.

Funded by UC Berkeley, the Puente Project was founded in 1981 by two Chabot College instructors who saw a need to provide support services to help low-income Hispanic students improve their academic skills so they could pursue higher education. The project has since been expanded to serve students from all ethnic backgrounds and is also active in 61 community colleges in California to help students stay on track to transfer to a four-year school.

In all, 44, or 76 percent, of the 58 graduating seniors in the Puente Project at Pittsburg High are bound for a four-year school, according to Le. The rest are going to two-year community colleges or vocational schools, which means 100 percent of Puente seniors are college-bound this fall. Nationwide, 66 percent of all 2012 high school graduates were enrolled in a two-year or four-year school in October of last year, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Students are in the Puente project from their freshman through senior year. Puente, which is the Spanish word for bridge, offers counseling, mentoring and a tailored two-year English program in the freshman and sophomore years that focuses on improving writing skills.

"That really teaches them to find their voice," said Eleazar Jimenez, who is the high school counseling training coordinator for the Puente Project at UC Berkeley's Center for Educational Partnerships. "They are on the same page of being college-ready, this idea of being university-ready down the road by the time they graduate."

Shannon Gonzales has received acceptance letters from eight four-year schools and has chosen UC Berkeley.

"For me, it's done a lot," she said. "You see how you grow and you see how everybody else grows. You grow together."

Building connections with other Puente students is also valuable after the freshman and sophomore English classes are over, she said.

Having the same teacher -- Steve Nordenstedt -- while taking those English classes is also helpful, she said.

Students also go on field trips to check out colleges, take the necessary course work needed to meet university requirements and work closely with Puente-trained counselors and instructors.

In addition to consistency, commitment is also a key component of Puente, according to Le.

"It's like a little family. Basically, we raise these kids for four years. My role is to make sure they stay on track. They know I am here for them," she said. "The student has to commit."

That commitment starts before they enter high school. Students who want to be in program are recruited while they are in middle school. Not everyone who applies is accepted. For this year's graduating class, 120 students applied for the 60 available Puente slots, said Le.

"The great number of Puente students who will be attending four-year universities this fall is the result of their willingness to invest in their own future. They really are largely responsible for their own success because they were the ones who decided to create networks and encourage and support one another," Nordenstedt wrote in an email.

Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.

By the numbers
Below is the percentage of Puente graduates at Pittsburg High School who enrolled in a two-year or four-year college* in the fall semester immediately after high school graduation.
2012: 81
2011: 68
2010: 81
2009: 82
2008: 90
2007: 100
2006: 82
2005: 100
2004: 92
2003: 96
*Many Puente graduates enrolled in two-year schools had been accepted to four-year schools but opted to attend a two-year school for a various reasons such as financial restrictions, family responsibilities and cultural norms.
For more information about the Puente Project, along with a list of participating high schools and community colleges, go to www.puente.net or call 510-664-9190.
Source: The Puente Project