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'Juntos' program preparing Latino students for high school and beyond

Young Parents Network looks to combat Hispanic dropout rate

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CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s Sunday afternoon and a half dozen middle school students are gathered with their parents for a class in the basement at Olivet Presbyterian Church and Mission in Cedar Rapids.

They aren’t being graded, but how a grade-point average factors into a college application is discussed, as are topics like extracurricular activities, community service projects and high school expectations.

The group plays games like “Dos Verdades y Una Mentira” — “Two Truths and a Lie” — to make the lessons entertaining. Spanish is spoken for the majority of the two-hour session.

This is “Juntos” — or “Together” — a class offered by Iowa State University Extension that aims to teach Latino families how to navigate Iowa’s school system and students how to be successful in high school and beyond.

Bigger picture, program officials hope to make gains in keeping Latino students from dropping out of high school. The annual dropout rate for Hispanic students was 4.7 percent in 2014-15, according to the Iowa Department of Education. The overall dropout rate for that year was 2.5 percent.

“They leave their high school maybe because they don’t have any motivation, maybe because they don’t have enough money to go to college, maybe they don’t have very good grades,” said Monica Vallejo, Hispanic program specialist at Young Parents Network in Cedar Rapids, which has partnered with ISU Extension to offer the program. “We need the motivation, we need to do something. This program can open minds (for) a lot of Latinos.”

THINKING AHEAD

Rafael Jacobo, a member of the Latino adviser committee at Young Parents Network and the Cedar Rapids Community School District Board of Education, said the committee wanted to focus efforts on middle school students to encourage them to think about high school, college or other career opportunities at an earlier age.

“What occurs in middle school has a huge bearing on what happens in high school and what happens in postsecondary education,” Jacobo said. “We’re not going to say that a college or university is open to everybody. The idea is to provide all of the information so students and their parents can decide early on and continue down that path.”

After receiving a $25,000 grant from the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation for Juntos and two other programs, the Young Parents Network was able to get started. Another grant from Rockwell Collins helped to train 10 facilitators, the majority of which are volunteers from the Cedar Rapids-based company.

The class is free and sessions typically take place on Saturday or Sunday for a couple hours over a five- to six-week period. Sunday’s class was the third in this session.

The first round of classes has been so popular, Vallejo said Young Parents Network is considering holding a second session next fall.

A FAMILY EFFORT

At Sunday’s event, students sat next to their parents, many of whom speak English as a second language. Part of what makes the program so successful is having parent involvement in their child’s education, Vallejo said. For most of the parents in the group, Iowa’s school system is a complicated transition from the educational experience they are used to.

“When you go to another country and don’t know the language, you don’t know what you need to do,” Vallejo said. “When you go in to talk about report cards or go into teacher conferences, (they might say), ‘Your son’s wonderful. He is a very good student. He is very polite.’ You think your son is doing wonderful. He’s doing great for that moment. You don’t know what’s going on next year.”

Other topics discussed during Sunday’s class included credits and how honors classes can set a student up for Advanced Placement classes, which could qualify for college credits. Jose Juarez, a student at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, also gave advice to the students about how to be successful in high school, telling them to plan ahead and set study hours.

“School is your first job,” Juarez said. “You’re probably going to want to get jobs and make money and start saving up. School is the most important thing. It’s the thing you have to put most of your time into. You’ve got to get used to studying.”

Vallejo agreed.

“If you are more educated, you get a better life,” she said. “Why do you want to drop high school and work in a factory when you have the potential to go to college and have a better life later?”

CHANGING EXPECTATIONS

Julissa Govea, a seventh-grader at Mount Vernon Middle School, absorbed the message and said she now plans to sign up for honors classes, perhaps allowing her to take Advanced Placement classes in high school. Govea and her parents also are committed to her attending college and Govea plans to find out how she can apply for scholarships.

“I’m thinking about being a lawyer or an architect or engineer,” Govea said.

Govea’s mother, Elizabeth, said she is thankful for Juntos. Because Elizabeth graduated high school and college in Mexico, she’s not familiar with Iowa’s schools.

“I want my daughter to have the same experience I have,” Elizabeth said. “We want to learn how to encourage our daughter to follow steps to be successful.”

Jacobo said this is only the beginning of the influence a program like Juntos can have.

“I envision that we have students who will make their way through the program,” he said. “By the time they’re in high school, they can come back and speak with students. I think Cedar Rapids is well on it’s way.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8516; makayla.tendall@thegazette.com

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