December 30, 2021
The moment had finally come for Kiana Portillo, a senior at Downtown Magnets High School in Los Angeles.
She had worked so hard and overcome so much to get to this point: an abrupt move from Honduras to Los Angeles as a fifth-grader, merciless teasing over her limited English and heavy Spanish accent, financial hardship and the emotional void left by an absent father.
But supported by teachers who tutored her over lunchtime and fed her intellectual hunger, Kiana had built a standout college resume: mostly A’s and rigorous courses heavy in math and leadership roles, including co-founding the school’s first feminist club.
Now she was about to submit her application to the University of California. But she couldn’t press “submit.” She froze at her laptop. Worries filled her mind.
Was she good enough?
The 259 seniors in Downtown Magnets’ class of 2022 don’t take college for granted. They are the children of low-wage cooks and waitresses, parking valets and factory workers, caretakers and security guards. Their parents are mostly immigrants who landed in Los Angeles from Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, South Korea, the Philippines, China — largely unschooled in how to navigate the U.S. college admissions process and unable to hire the pricey consultants and tutors enlisted by some well-heeled families to help their children gain an edge.
They represent the new generation of students reshaping the face of higher education in California: young people with lower family incomes, less parental education and far more racial and ethnic diversity than college applicants of the past. And Downtown Magnets, a small and highly diverse campus of 911 students just north of the Los Angeles Civic Center, is in the vanguard of the change.
Last year, 97% of the school’s seniors were accepted to college, and most enrolled. Among them, 71% of those who applied to a UC campus were admitted, including 19 of the 56 applicants to UC Berkeley — a higher admission rate than at elite Los Angeles private schools such as Harvard-Westlake and Marlborough.
This month, the Downtown Magnets applicants include Nick Saballos, whose Nicaraguan father never finished high school and works for minimum wage as a parking valet but is proud of his son’s passion for astrophysics.
There’s Emily Cruz, who had a rough time focusing on school while being expected to help her Guatemalan immigrant mother with household duties. Emily is determined to become a lawyer or a philosopher.