The Oregonian: Beaverton teacher gets kids thinking about college in kindergarten
Author: Wendy Owen
Posted: March 19, 2013

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

Holding his teacher's hand, 6-year-old Armani Villaescusa gazed in awe at Science Building 2 at Portland State University.

"It's way big," he said.

He and most of the other 73 Barnes Elementary kindergartners had no idea what wonders lay ahead: whale bones, solar panels, millions of books, a meteorite.

By the end of the two-hour tour, Armani looked a bit overwhelmed.

"My favorite thing is going into space," he said, referring to touching a meteorite.

Traditionally, college isn't much of a discussion item in classrooms until students reach middle school. But kindergarten teacher Karen Pérez-Da Silva  said that's too late.

"The earlier kids get exposed to the possibilities out there, and their parents too, the more likely they are to plan and achieve that goal," Pérez-Da Silva said.

That's especially true for minorities, she said.

More than half of the students at Barnes are Latino and many will be the first to graduate from high school and attend college.

Pérez-Da Silva, 39, is the quiet but authoritative voice behind the push to introduce the youngest students and their parents to college.

"Our kids need these experiences so they can see themselves here," she said.

Since she started at Barnes in 1998, Pérez-Da Silva has kept tabs on her students as they progress through school and has encouraged and helped them with their college plans.

Last year was the first time she took her kindergartners to visit a college. The children and their parents carpooled with Pérez-Da Silva to Lewis and Clark College on a Saturday. Later, the students visited PSU as well.

This year, she invited the rest of the kindergarten classes. During two days, 121 of the 5- and 6-year-olds traversed the halls of PSU, all holding hands, accompanied by an ample supply of adults to catch those who strayed.

"I like this college because my mom and dad went here," said Van Janson, who seemed at home on the campus.

But to many of the kids, it was like seeing the Great Pyramids.

"They're seeing a world they've never seen," said kindergarten teacher Ana Buthe, who brought her class this year.

For some of the kids, they want to work fast food because that's all they know, she said.

"This lets them know there is more out there," Buthe said. "Rocks from outer space."

Pérez-Da Silva takes little credit for the program, pointing to those who have partnered with her in the effort, including Ed Washington, the community liaison for diversity at PSU.

"We couldn't even get buses the first year," Pérez-Da Silva said.

Washington, 76, dug into his own pocket to help pay for the school buses to PSU. This year, Pérez-Da Silva is using award money the class received plus funds from PSU to pay for buses.

Washington not only leads the tours, but he also helps Pérez-Da Silva with a program at Barnes to assist former Barnes students with college admissions. The program is also supported by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Washington, who is African-American, said he knows the limitations that can be placed on minorities, and he wants to make sure the children know the opportunities that await them.

"You do what you can to give them hope," he said.

But he acknowledged the young age of the children. "At this stage in the game, it's show-and-tell, and they begin to believe it."

Victor Mena said he wished he could have visited a college while in kindergarten. The former Barnes student, now a senior at PSU, recognized his former second-grade teacher among the chaperones, and stopped to give the students a pep talk about how they could go to college, too.

Mena, who is Latino, will graduate with a degree in criminal justice and Persian languages. He has plans to join the FBI. The first time he visited a university was his freshman year at Sunset High, he said.

"Absolutely, it opened my mind," he said.

Later, Pérez-Da Silva's class wrote about their experiences at PSU to keep it fresh in their minds. She wants it to become a regular conversation for the kids.

As the tour wound down, 6-year-old Manny Oramas sat on the steps to the PSU library and looked around.

"I want to go to this school to be a scientist," he said