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Workshop Showcases Latino Student Success Programs

by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Not long after Dr. Elsa Nunez assumed her role as president of Eastern Connecticut State University in 2006, she saw a need to enroll more Latino students who were unlikely to go to college but still had the potential to succeed.

Her quest led to the creation of the school’s Dual Enrollment program, whereby guidance counselors from nearby Hartford High School helped identify the students that Nunez had in mind.

Although their fellow students at Eastern didn’t know, the students were then enrolled in developmental courses at Quinebaug Valley Community College and took at least one course at Eastern, with the hopes that eventually they would enroll at Eastern on a full-time basis.

They also lived on campus, got campus jobs and stipends so they could go out for pizza and other things just like other students.

Consequently, Latino enrollment grew by 50 percent since the program launched five years ago. And not only are more Latino students enrolling—they are graduating as well, program officials say.

Those involved in the Dual Enrollment program had a retention rate of 70 percent versus 76 percent for the campus overall.

“The fact that the retention rate is only 6 percent lower is really remarkable, because (the students) came from the most challenging backgrounds,” said Rhona Free, vice president of academic affairs and head of the Dual Enrollment program at Eastern.

Free shared the story of the program’s success on Wednesday at the Accelerating Latino Student Success (ALASS) Workshop. The host of the workshop, the Washington-based Excelencia in Education, is a national policy and research organization that works to improve educational outcomes for Latino students.

Her talk came as part of a panel discussion titled “Growing Latino Student Success,” which highlighted several programs that are beneficiaries of SEMILLAS, a grant program offered though Excelencia with funding from the Wal-Mart Foundation and the Kresge Foundation. Semillas is a Spanish word for “seeds,” and the acronym SEMILLAS stands for “Seeding Educational Models that Impact and Leverage Latino Academic Success.”

The purpose of the discussion was to focus on ways to sustain, replicate and expand such programs despite tough economic times.

The Dual Enrollment program has not been without its share of challenges, Free said.

For instance, the parents of many students viewed student loans strictly as a debt instead of an investment that will more than likely reap returns. Or they would pressure the students to return home and babysit or go to work to help their families.

“We hoped we would not find what we had heard,” Free said of a common observation that, among Latino families, family obligations often take precedence over post-secondary education. “We hoped it was a myth,” Free said. But it wasn’t.

Consequently, Free said, Nunez, the president at Eastern, will start to hold special meetings with parents of students in the program to emphasize the importance of not interrupting their children’s college experience, especially during exams.

Free also said, due to fiscal constraints, coordinators of the Dual Enrollment program are forced to target resources toward students who are likely to succeed in the program. Data show those students exclude students who placed in ESL in writing, and those who can’t knock out their remedial courses in one semester.

 

“We just don’t have the resources that they need,” Free said.

Still, the program has made a measurable impact on the graduation rate among Latino students, raising the six-year rate from 42 to 58 percent and the four-year rate from 23 to 31 percent, according to statistics Free shared at the workshop.

Other panelists at the “Growing Latino Student Success” panel included Rudy McCormick III, director of Early Academic Outreach and the College Academy for Parents at the University of Arizona.

McCormick said the initiatives are meant to engage Latino families and inform them about the higher education process when their children are still in middle school so that they take the right courses in high school in order to make it to college.

The importance of reaching students while they are still young came up repeatedly throughout the ALASS workshop.

At a panel discussion titled “Using Strategies for Latino Success in STEM,” Dr. John Fernandez, executive associate director of the School of Engineering and Computing Sciences at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, lamented the paucity of Latinos in the STEM workforce. Specifically, he said that, while Hispanics make up close to 20 percent of the U.S. population and are rapidly growing, they make up only 4 percent of the STEM workforce, meaning their current numbers would have to be increased 400 percent to achieve parity in the field, which he said will bring in a better income and thus in term enable them to lead a more enjoyable life.

Fernandez recommended doing more at the K-12 level to get Latino students interested in STEM careers.       

Workshop attendee Carlomagno Ontaneda, assistant director of recruitment at the Educational Opportunity Program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, echoed those concerns.

Taking the floor during a Q&A session, Ontaneda noted how his institution works to expose students to STEM careers starting in the fourth grade. By the time students reach high school, Ontaneda said, “it’s too late” to introduce them to STEM careers.

“We have to do it earlier than that,” he said.

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