Students from Animo Leadership Charter School at their graduation.
Photo courtesy of Ánimo Leadership Charter School

How the College Scandal Affects Those Who Can’t Buy Their Way In

At Inglewood’s Ánimo Leadership Charter High School, university-ready students react to the admissions controversy.

As students return to school after a summer away from class, Inglewood’s Ánimo Leadership Charter High School aims to prepare its students for university. Students at the charter school enroll in a “College Readiness” course as early as their sophomore year, where they write drafts of their personal statements and study for the SAT and ACT exams required for entrance to most institutions of higher education.

“[Going to college] was a goal that my parents had for me when I was younger and it stayed on my mind,” says Jasmine Rizo, an aspiring journalist who recently advanced to the second round of the Princeton Summer Journalism Program. “They don’t push me anymore. I push myself to go. I want to go.”

Students like Rizo demonstrate their commitment to Ánimo Leadership’s ethos and to their own future. Some Ánimo Leadership students opt to take community college courses to lessen the academic and financial load they may face as full-time college students. Others are active on campus, participating in sports, student government and a host of student organizations.

The work pays off. Ánimo Leadership is listed as one of U.S. News & World Report’s 2019 Best High Schools, ranking No. 23 out of 2,494 high schools in California.

But for some students in South Los Angeles, college prep can only go so far when competing with another kind of student: rich kids.

The recent college admissions scandal revealed that dozens of parents paid up to $6.5 million to get their kids into prestigious institutions including USC, Stanford and Yale, working with admission advisors like disgraced Newport businessman, William “Rick” Singer.

At Ánimo Leadership, where 94% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch due to economic need, students are reacting to the admissions controversy. “There’s a sense of favoritism … If they’re going to favor people with money, then I’m going to be the least favored,” Rizo says.

“[Going to college] was a goal that my parents had for me when I was younger and it stayed on my mind. They don’t push me anymore. I push myself to go. I want to go.”

Jasmine Rizo, a student at Ánimo Leadership Charter High School in Inglewood

Ánimo Leadership families simply do not have the capital to consider buying their kids’ way into college. Even if they could, parents say they wouldn’t.

“My parents … prefer me putting all the hard work and effort to get something,” says Angel Santos, a senior at Ánimo Leadership involved in both the debate club and weightlifting with hopes of attending Stanford, Brown or Duke University. “If you get something really easy, there’s almost no point because you didn’t work for it. It’s not the same. When you work for it, at the end, you’ll be proud of it.”

Reacting to Inequity

Santos’ classmates agree. They aim to push themselves to be not just competitive college applicants, but well-rounded people as well.

Take, for instance, Litcy Valdivia, Ánimo Leadership’s recently elected senior class president. She volunteers in Mexican orphanages during the summer breaks and hopes to attend Stanford or the University of Pennsylvania once she graduates. She’s currently working to position herself as a competitive applicant by improving her SAT scores.

When Valdivia heard Olivia Jade Giannulli, daughter of convicted college cheater Lori Loughlin, claim that she was “literally never at school,” she was baffled.

“It frustrated me because we do so much,” Valdivia says. “Minorities do so much to further their education because they want to become something greater than their parents were. That’s the goal in life. They didn’t have to try, and she’s just going to party. You can do that anywhere else. Our families get second jobs so they can pay the minimum, and she didn’t have to stress about how to pay.”

Rizo, Santos and Valdivia enter the college application cycle in the next academic school year, but getting in is only half the battle.

Anthony Jack, Harvard University sociologist and author of “The Privileged Poor,” says staying in college is another hurdle for disadvantaged students.

“The distance between a good public and a bad public [high] school is a mile. The distance between a public and private [high] school is 10 miles,” says Jack, who considers public high school students who demonstrate high economic need, like those at Ánimo Leadership, doubly disadvantaged when they enroll in college.

The college transition for these students includes a hidden curriculum, a system of unwritten rules and unspoken expectations that students who attended private high schools don’t need to acclimate to. “Academic life is inherently social,” Jack says. “It’s not just about the work. It’s about how do you play the game.”

Playing the College Game

While in college, one way students “play the game” is by attending office hours, not just to meet academic needs but to build relationships with professors who may eventually write strong recommendation letters. Jack found that a cohort of disadvantaged students did not know what office hours were — confusing them instead for times when professors were unavailable — let alone how to capitalize on them. He says that if high schools make small incremental shifts like calling parent-teacher conferences office hours, then it slowly removes the hurdles these students face when they begin university life.

“The indictment is the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “It’s a part of this process that peaked above the surface and showed itself. I count what these parents did in the same process as paying for the tutors, paying for the essay writers, paying for the neighborhood they live in and finding ways to keep people who don’t make as much as them or who don’t look like them out of those neighborhoods. I put this in the same category of choosing what schools you send your children to, enacting school board policies at the school to make sure that it stays in the in-group, in the family. This is opportunity hoarding. It is a process that extends over the lifetime.”

While the scandal highlighted the sobering reality of those with and without privilege, it did not diminish Ánimo Leadership students’ drive to go to college. Instead, it’s proving motivational. “My attitude didn’t change towards college. I’m going to go regardless,” Valdivia says. Rizo echoes the sentiment, but says she feels like she has to work harder for it.

“I count what these parents did in the same process as paying for the tutors, paying for the essay writers, paying for the neighborhood they live in and finding ways to keep people who don’t make as much as them or who don’t look like them out of those neighborhoods.”

Anthony Jack, Harvard University sociologist and author of “The Privileged Poor

For one student, the scandal reinforced not just the desire to go to college, but the desire to uphold his family name with dignity. “I want to go to college because both my parents never made it past high school … I’d be one of the first in my family to actually go to college,” says Jose Velasquez, Ánimo Leadership’s recently elected senior class vice president with sights set on attending UC Santa Cruz. “This will be an amazing experience for not only me, but for my family. I carry my family’s last name … I’m carrying their pride.”

Jack, who is also a first-generation college graduate who studied at Amherst College, has a message for these students as they enter this new chapter of their lives.

“Be unapologetic about your accomplishments, your successes and your triumphs, especially when other people try to make you feel bad for them,” Jack says. “When somebody tries to call you an affirmative action baby, when someone’s trying to say that you only got in because you are black, brown, and/or poor, be unapologetic in everything that you have done to get you to that point.”

Los Angeleno