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Published in Print: March 20, 1991, as Texas Project Spurs Poor Hispanic Youths To Gear for College

Texas Project Spurs Poor Hispanic Youths To Gear for College

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San Antonio--When Joanne Guajardo was just months away from completing high school, in early 1989, her father thought the only way she could find the money for college was to join the military.

"It was the only commercial that you would see on the TV," Miguel Guajardo recalled recently. "All the time. Constantly. 'You can get money for college if you join the armed forces."'

Then Mr. Guajardo learned about a workshop on student financial aid, designed especially for Hispanic parents. Held at a church here and conducted by other Hispanic parents and Hispanic educators, the workshop unraveled the intricacies of the federal-aid system.

"You're very intimidated when you're looking for federal financial aid and you don't know the process," Mr. Guajardo said. "Now that we know about this paperwork, it's a lot easier every year."

"Let's face it," added Mr. Guajardo, who now leads such workshops himself. "Otherwise, Joanne wouldn't be attending college right now."

The financial-aid workshops are just one component of an initiative called the Hispanic Student Success Program. Beginning its second three-year phase this year, the project here is described as the country's most comprehensive education-assistance program tailored specifically to elementary and secondary Hispanic students.

Sponsored by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, the program annually involves more than 20,000 students, parents, volunteers, and teachers in this historic Texas city, its organizers say. The vast majority of the students come from low-income backgrounds and have parents who did not reach the 6th grade.

The program, according to students, parents, and educators, has lifted the self-esteem of Hispanic parents and students alike, brought some of the city's most at-risk students back into the educational fold, and encouraged both high- and low-achieving students to set their sights on college.

It has served as the model for similar college-access programs around the country, and has spawned the National Hispanic Student Success Program, a network of precollegiate-assistance projects that by the end of 1992 are expected to be operating in Los Angeles, Miami, northern New Mexico, and New York City.

Antonio Rigual, president of the four-year-old HACU, which is based here and works on behalf of U.S. colleges with large Hispanic enrollments, said he hopes the project will improve the college-going chances of low-income Hispanic students.

"You can't look at [improving access to college] the day the students walk up to your doorstep, because, if you do that, you lose 50 percent of your students," Mr. Rigual said.

"In many ways," he added, "our institutions were not the aloof kind of institutions that say, 'That's their problem.' It was almost as if our mission was an outgrowth of the member institutions."

As HACU was taking shape in 1986, officials with the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts, which traditionally had funded brick-and-mortar projects in higher education, were looking to provide money to increase college-going opportunities for minorities.

The Hispanic Student Success Program seemed the perfect vehicle.

Pew's $2.1-million grant for the program's first three years was "one of the largest and most impressive" of the charity's grants for elementary and secondary education, according to Helen Cunningham, who served as the first program officer for the grant. It was the first time Pew targeted Hispanics in education, she added.

Although the evidence so far is anecdotal--a thorough research effort on the program will begin later this year--HACU leaders maintain the program is working. Officials at Pew agree, having just renewed the grant for another three years.

Among the encouraging signs noted by project officials:

High-school and junior-high students and their parents have made higher education a goal after learning how to navigate the federal-aid and college-admissions processes, and after visiting area colleges--for many students, their first visit to a college campus.

Hundreds of at-risk students who nevertheless exhibit superior leadership skills have learned to channel their energies toward school- and community-related activities, while straight-A students who lack leadership skills have become more outspoken.

The marks of students in grades 2 through 5 have risen after the pupils' attendance at tutoring sessions in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Parents whose low educational attainment otherwise made them feel intimidated by schools and school administrators have begun taking a stronger interest in their children's education and have learned to bring their concerns to the attention of school officials.

And, perhaps most important, teachers and administrators, as well as parents and students themselves, have begun to consider more Hispanic students as "college material."

"The greatest challenge [in setting up the project]," Mr. Rigual said, "was not in the merits of the program as perceived by the superintendents, but with the middle-level managers in school districts that can either facilitate or block" its operations.

"A lot of our early time and energy was spent trying to overcome those blocks," the HACU president said.

Now, Mr. Rigual said, schools are requesting his group's participation. "We believe this is a process with a snowballing effect," he said.

The Hispanic Student Success Program was one of HACU's first undertakings. Its components range from tutoring sessions for 2nd through 5th graders to counseling assistance for community-college students interested in transferring to four-year schools.

Students in junior high school are visited by volunteers and Hispanic role models who suggest career options and stress the importance of staying in school. Students also have the opportunity to develop leadership skills in special summer programs.

High-school students learn about the federal financial-aid system, visit local colleges, and go on field trips to galleries and museums they would otherwise be unable to take.

"They've taken those kids and said, 'Look, college is a very real and viable possibility,"' said Jan Gallagher, director of research and development programs with the Harlandale Independent School District, one of a dozen districts in San Antonio.

"These programs are things that I need," Ms. Gallagher continued. ''I needed someone to hold a 'Keeping Options Open' night in every middle school. I needed someone to take an interest in at-risk kids."

The program organizers, she said, "came in and said, 'What can we do to help you?"'

On a recent field trip to Incarnate Word College here, 42 Harlandale High School freshmen and sophomores witnessed firsthand the day-to-day workings on the campus--from computer-science laboratories to music studios to the laid-back atmosphere of the student lounge.

"We got a good, hard look at the school," said Gabriel Lara, a 9th grader.

Lisa Suarez, a Harlandale High and Incarnate Word graduate who is the college's assistant director of admissions, led the tour.

The college official suggested in an interview why she was an appropriate guide for the occasion.

Ms. Suarez recalled that at first she herself had not planned to go on to college, because her high-school counselors told her she was best suited to become an executive secretary. But a computer-science teacher "saw in me characteristics the others didn't," she said, and encouraged her to pursue higher education.

Now, Ms. Suarez tries to impress on the students who visit her through the Student Success Program that she has been in their shoes.

"We're planting seeds, and as [the students] grow older, at least that seed is there," she said. "Hopefully, someone else will mention [college] again later on, and every time someone mentions it, it waters the seed."

Although the students visiting Incarnate Word College this particular day generally are high achievers, said Naida Segura, a counselor from Harlandale High School, most come from low-income families whose financial problems will make it difficult to pay for a college education.

This awareness of students' family backgrounds underlies the program's efforts to reach out to parents. Besides offering financial-aid information, program leaders actively encourage parents to take educational concerns to school administrators and to further their own schooling if they feel inadequately educated.

HACU officials even talk to expectant mothers on the importance of a healthy diet and a secure home life to a child's education.

"If [parents are] dropouts, it's hard for them to be role models for their kids, and they pick that up," said Rose Valdez Jackson, who coordinates parental involvement with the program.

"The thing about [building parents'] self-esteem," she said, "is there are many things, because of their experiences, that they can pass along to their youngsters."

That an organization representing higher-education institutions made the education of elementary and secondary students one of its primary efforts is almost unprecedented.

But at at the time of the project's inception, many institutions belonging to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities already were making contacts with elementary and secondary schools, said Mr. Rigual, because they were aware of the poor educational attainment and dropout rates among Hispanics.

HACU, which has 75 paid member schools, works to advance a total of 112 higher-education institutions nationwide with student populations at least 25 percent Hispanic.

In developing the Student Success Program, the association chose to work within 6 of San Antonio's 12 independent school districts.

Statistics provided by the Texas Education Agency paint a bleak picture of the economic and educational lives of the students in those half-dozen districts, where at least 74 percent of the students are Hispanic.

The number of compensatory-education students in the 1989-90 school year ranged from 60.5 percent in the Southwest Independent School District to 91.7 percent in the Edgewood Independent School District, which gained national attention for its successful challenge of the state's system of school finance.

Of 1,052 Texas school districts surveyed by the tea, with the wealthiest district ranked at number 1,052, five of the six Student Success Program districts ranked between ninth and 32nd. The sixth was ranked 379th.

In the six districts, 1987-88 Scholastic Aptitude Test scores for seniors ranged from 706 to 790, well below the state average of 879. Dropout rates in the 1988-89 academic year ranged from 5.1 percent to 11.9 percent, while the rate statewide was 6.1 percent.

"When you are hungry and homeless or live in substandard housing lacking heat and electricity and those things the middle class takes for granted," Mr. Rigual said, "some things are deferred for the immediacy of other needs."

"It is in that context that we need to operate these programs," he said.

The harsh realities of students' lives are not easily overcome, suggested Norma Davila, who coordinates college visits and career seminars for participants in the program.

"We go in to school and tell them to stay in school and go to college," Ms. Davila said, "but sometimes we're the last people they want to see. You can see it on their faces."

"With all they go through--teen pregnancy, drugs, what's going on at home, and their low incomes--it's no wonder they can't concentrate on school," she added.

The project includes four distinct programs for precollegiate students. They are:

The Academic Year Enrichment Program, which targets students in grades 6 through 12.

HACU officials arrange for 6th through 9th graders to visit college campuses and listen to guest lecturers from the local Hispanic community speak about career options. Students at the senior-high-school level not only visit campuses, but also receive assistance in preparing for standardized admissions examinations and completing applications for admission and financial aid.

Enrichment Centers, which provide tutors for pupils in grades 2 to 5 who need extra help. Students are recommended by teachers or parents; the children may, for example, be working below potential or have a special deficit in mathematics. Most have problems with English, said Carmen Muniz, who coordinates the tutoring.

Excel, or Experience in Creative and Effective Learning, a six-week summer program for 250 students in grades 4 and 5. In studying the history and culture of San Antonio, the students work in groups and are allowed to drive the curriculum. HACU officials say the purpose of the program is to foster cooperation, respect, and discipline.

The Leadership Development Summer Program, which enables 7th graders to spend a week on a college campus developing skills in leadership, communication, negotiation, and working in groups. Many of the students chosen for the program have been identified as "troublemakers" who nonetheless are peer leaders.

The programs were developed after Mr. Rigual and Cesar Trimble, the vice president of HACU, toured the country to review existing precollegiate programs for at-risk youths. They also enlisted an advisory board to study what worked best in overcoming such students' school problems.

Like Mr. Guajardo, other parents here express praise for the Hispanic Student Success Program.

Sarah Martinez said while her friends were nervous about sending their children to middle school, she was not because her daughters had attended the project's summer programs. Other parents with children in the project, she added, became more willing to speak with school administrators about their children's education.

"I owe a lot to those programs," Ms. Martinez said. "Both of my daughters adjusted well."

One daughter, Valerie, spent the summer of 1988 in the excel program. The following year, she participated in the leadership-development program.

The programs not only helped her identify teaching as her career goal, Valerie said, but also enabled her to work better with others and become more outgoing.

"Now I'm more outspoken," she said. "I don't get as shy around people anymore."

Others report similar results.

On a recent day, 15 pupils were working with five tutors at an Enrichment Center at Christ the King Church, located in the San Antonio Independent School District.

One 3rd grader, at the center for the first time, shyly worked at her spelling with a tutor. On a recent statewide standardized exam, she performed poorly.

"She's been having a hard time, but she's doing a lot better than that dumb test projected," said Ms. Muniz, the tutoring coordinator. "Her mother thinks that if she has a tutor, she'll be doing better."

The centers, located in churches, libraries, and community centers, provide the environment needed to bring students up academically, Ms. Muniz said.

HACU officials hope that by reaching at-risk students at an early age, the children will feel more academically inclined later on.

Norma Arroyo, a 7-year-old 2nd grader at Ogden Elementary School who attends the center at Christ the King, appeared happy to be receiving the extra attention, which recently helped her get a perfect score on a spelling test.

"They teach me a lot, and they help me with my work," she said. "I can get 100 on my work."

News like that coming from Norma and other children like her is encouraging to Mr. Rigual, but he wants to be out of business soon. The HACU president said he hopes that programs offered through the Student Success Program will eventually be run by the school districts he works with.

"Right now, the dynamics within the system don't allow for innovative things like this to happen," Mr. Rigual said. "We want to see how those programs can be co-opted into 'hard money' systems."

A shift of responsibility directly to school districts "has to be done," he emphasized.

"We need to find the key to that," Mr. Rigual said, "because otherwise [the program] will be a lengthy flash in the pan, but a flash in the pan nonetheless."

Vol. 10, Issue 26, Page 1, 14-15

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