Free college test prep levels the playing field


Mark-Yves Gaunin had a specific goal in mind when it came to his SAT score.

“I wanted to break 2,000 by my senior year,” said the Mar Vista High School junior.

He met that goal—and exceeded it.

“Instead I did it by my sophomore year.”

Mark was able to boost his score from 1,570 in a pretest to 2,040 thanks, in part, to two rounds of free SAT preparation he received as part of the Fischer Scholarship program through his high school.

The free test-prep program, which began in 2013, is made possible by William and Dolores Fischer, Imperial Beach residents who wanted to help improve the local community through education. Every semester, the scholarship selects up to 23 academically motivated students to take part in seven weeks of intensive SAT instruction, including a four-hour pretest on the first week followed by three hours every Sunday.

Wendy Hart, the Fischers’ daughter, said the program was born out of her parents’ desire to give back and their belief in the transformative nature of education, especially in underserved neighborhoods such as Imperial Beach. Hart said both came from modest backgrounds and worked hard, saving and investing their money wisely to amass a sizable nest egg.

Her father, who is 94, and her mother, who is 90, live nearby Mar Vista High, Hart said, so they pass by the campus regularly.

“Every time we’d drive by, my dad would say: ‘God, I’d like to do something to help those kids,’” Hart said.

While the Fischers toyed with giving out college scholarships, they ultimately decided they could have a bigger impact on the students and the community by offering in-person SAT prep—a luxury few Mar Vista High families could afford.

“My dad is practical, and he realized the SAT is something that was standing in the way of getting into college, and that these kids were striving against unbearable odds,” Hart said.

Susanna Vega, a guidance counselor at the school, said the majority of students get free or reduced lunch because their family incomes are so low. Also, few of the parents are college graduates themselves so they don’t know about or understand the importance of the SAT or college acceptance.

“There are no words for what this program does,” Vega said.

Still, finding someone to teach the prep classes was easier said than done, Hart said. She spoke with every test-prep company she could find in the region, and their services simply didn’t meet the needs of the students and families of Imperial Beach.

The various testing companies wanted the students to come to their facilities instead of being taught the course at the high school—a big stumbling block because few students would have the time or transportation to make the weekly trek. The companies also wanted to teach more kids, but with fewer hours of instruction; Hart was worried that would undercut the very mission of the scholarship program.

“I just didn’t think they were going to offer the kids enough,” she said.

By a stroke of luck, Hart said, she found out about UC San Diego Extension’s college test-prep offerings, which were being provided as part of its three-week Academic Connections precollegiate summer program. Hart quickly struck a deal with Extension to teach 20-plus students—all of whom must go through a rigorous application process—the ins and outs of taking the SAT.

With the help of the test-prep program, Hart said the majority of the students have achieved more than a 100-point increase in SAT scores, with many students making gains of 200 and 300 points.

One student had completely given up on college, Hart recalled, because he was an abysmal test taker.

“He was doing great work in the community and had great grades but could not take standardized tests,” she said. Through the Fischer Scholarship program, that student was able to increase his score by more than 300 points and is now at San Diego State University, Hart added.

In Mark’s case, Hart said, he begged to be in the program as a freshman. Because of the grade level, Hart said she and her parents were initially apprehensive because they wanted to focus the program on sophomores and juniors. She and her parents, who review each application, were ultimately won over when Mark provided a compelling list of reasons he should be allowed to participate.

On the first go-round, Mark boosted his score by 210 points, scoring a 1,780 on the SAT, but he felt he needed to improve further, so he applied for the Fischer Scholarship program again. Hart said, “He wrote a moving and emotional essay on why he felt he could achieve a much higher score with our help.”

Mark said he realizes the Fischer program has put him closer to his dream of attending a college with a strong engineering curriculum.

“It was definitely important because without it I would not have been prepared for the SAT. I wouldn’t have known what questions to expect,” he said. “Nowadays, your SAT score partly defines where you can go.”

It is for this reason, Hart said, the Fischers remain committed to funding the program because it is leveling the playing field “for this wonderful community of mostly low-income but extremely hard-working and high-expectation students.”

Because of the scholarship program’s success, Hart said she wished more people would invest in similar efforts. She said as far as she knows the program is unique and that there is no other philanthropic effort to provide high-quality test prep to low-income students in either San Diego or Los Angeles. Recently, UC San Diego Extension entered into a partnership with San Diego Unified School District to offer free SAT/ACT prep at 12 local high schools to help students who might not otherwise be able to afford test prep.

Hart said free test prep serves as a great equalizer in college admissions because it “brings up lower-income students to the level where they are armed with the same weapons and benefits” that more affluent students have available to them.

“With this program, little by little, we are changing people’s college choices and, in the process, their lives,” she said.

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