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Mentoring helps immigrants' children aim for college

While there is mounting concern about the large number of U.S.-born children of Hispanic immigrants who drop out of high school or get pregnant as teenagers, there are also hundreds of thousands getting the college educations they need to enter the middle class, a notable achievement given that so many of their parents entered the U.S. without finishing high school.

Graciela, who attends William Wirt Middle School in Riverdale, is participating in a Prince George's County version of GEAR UP that will offer 1,400 mostly African American and Latino students college preparation.

David Curry, a vice principal at William Wirt, said he picked students who get mostly B's, rather than A's, to participate.

"The purpose is to steer those students who may not necessarily already be headed to college," Curry said.

Plenty of potential

Graciela was a natural candidate. A tall, soft-spoken girl who decorates her bedroom with posters of brooding boy vampires yet still carries her schoolbooks in a Hello Kitty backpack, she has plenty of academic potential. Inspired by Discovery Channel documentaries, she's wanted to be a doctor since the third grade. She devours phone book-thick fantasy novels for fun. She looks forward to school and isn't shy about answering questions in class.

But Graciela also confronts serious obstacles. Chronically disorganized and prone to doodling, she is easily distracted in classes that stump her, like math. Her stay-at-home mother speaks no English and can't help her daughter with homework. Her father's unpredictable schedule as a carpet installer makes it almost as difficult for him to pitch in. With work increasingly scarce, he's also found it impossible of late to make the mortgage payments on the family's two-bedroom, brick ranch house, let alone save for college.

And apart from the vague sense that college is important, no one in the Rodriguez family has much of an idea how to get there -- what classes you need to take in high school and how to do well in them, what the SATs are and how to prepare for them, what financial aid packages exist and how to apply.

Indeed, although they were upset with Graciela for getting a C in math last year, her parents decided against sending her to free summer classes that could have offered her rigorous extra instruction.

"Maybe if the school had held a meeting to explain what it was about, rather than just sending a paper home," Veronica Rodriguez, 36, said regretfully in Spanish. "But we were thinking it might just be a waste of time, and it would be better for Graciela to focus on being with the family. . . . As a parent, it's so hard because we're not informed. We're not adapted to the system here."

Like many parents Curry approached, Rodriguez and her husband were initially reluctant to let Graciela sign up for a GEAR UP enrichment camp in July at St. Mary's College of Maryland. One family refused to send a child. Another student simply failed to show up.

But sitting in the Gettysburg College cafeteria, Graciela and several other Latina girls described their five days at St. Mary's as "life-changing."

Yesenia Obando, 13, an eighth-grader at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, said the summer self-esteem workshops have helped her ignore friends who want her to skip school with them.

"They be calling me a nerd, but I don't mind," she said.

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