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Mentoring helps immigrants' children aim for college

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009; C01

The tour bus pulled into Gettysburg College with a loud wheeze. Graciela Rodriguez, 12, stepped off and blinked for a moment at the white columns, brick facades and emerald lawns.

Graciela's parents had barely graduated from high school in El Salvador. Until recently, Graciela herself, who was born in Silver Spring and lives in Riverdale, had never set foot on a college campus.

Yet as she and the other eighth-graders in the group explored Gettysburg, where tuition runs $38,690 a year, their attitude was less that of awestruck visitors than of enthusiastic prospective students.

"Yes! This is where I'll be!" Graciela, who would like to study medicine, exclaimed when the guide announced that they'd entered the science building.

"Wow, really?" she said thoughtfully when told of the school's low professor-to-student ratio.

The Pennsylvania college was the seventh the kids had visited on their three-day tour, and by now they had completely absorbed its intended message: The question is not whether you're going to college. The question is where.

Although 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 who are getting the college educations they need to enter the middle class. In fact, one in five of these "second-generation" Hispanics graduates from college -- a notable achievement given that so many of their immigrant parents, mostly Mexicans and Central Americans, entered the United States without finishing high school.

Their success stories are important, researchers say, because they point the way forward for a generation that will play an outsize role in the country's workforce.

Those who study high achievers say they often have a natural affinity for school and an innate drive to succeed. Many also have parents who set lofty goals for their children and find ways to compensate for their unfamiliarity with American schools.

But mentoring programs also can play an enormous role in helping Graciela and millions of children like her make it to college -- particularly if those efforts are sustained over time.

"When you're looking at low-income kids whose parents don't have the experience and the skills to help them navigate through the system, any single intervention at any one point in time is not going to solve it," said Patricia Gándara, a researcher at the University of California at Davis, who has studied Latino students. "We need to think about providing a supportive network for these kids from preschool all the way on through high school."

The federal program that funded Graciela's college tour is a useful example. Known as GEAR UP, it provides more than $300 million a year to local school systems to run college prep programs that begin when low-income students are in middle school and continue until they finish high school. Since 1999, the program has served more than 10 million students, and more than 60 percent have gone on to college, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

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.

"Yeah, that's, like, a good thing," interjected Yenifer Martinez Carrillo, 14, one of Graciela's closest friends at William Wirt.

"They're going to be asking us for jobs some day," added Graciela. "It's all worth it."

The brief taste of dorm life also whetted the girls' appetite for college, and touring campuses such as West Virginia, Slippery Rock and Pittsburgh this fall only cemented that feeling for Graciela.

"Before, I guess I wanted to go to college, but I didn't really think about it much,' " said Graciela, who recently turned 13. "This has made me a lot more serious and focused. I know I need to do the work. I want to get rid of my C's."

To help her do that, she's taking a college-readiness class offered every other day in place of social studies. The teacher lays out basic study skills -- how to take notes, how to prioritize -- and will follow the GEAR UP students to high school next year, where she'll help direct them to advanced classes, ensure that they prepare for the SATs and connect them with sources of financial aid.

Several days after the college tour, Graciela took a sheet printed with blocks for each hour of the day to her desk and started filling it out with crayons. Her study skills teacher Sharee Williams circled the room, a wry smile on her lips.

"We want to see how you are spending your time," Williams told the class. "Some of you will begin to understand your report cards when we break it down."

The exercise made Graciela realize that she was spending three hours playing games and chatting with friends on the computer and only one hour on homework. "I'm going to spend at least an hour and a half on homework now," she said.

It's one of many steps she's taken since starting GEAR UP. She's also making a point not to bring drawing paper into her math class so she won't be tempted to doodle, for instance, and carefully filing her notes in a binder so she can find them when it's time to study for a quiz.

For all Graciela's good intentions, her progress has been uneven. Her shaky grasp of last year's math concepts has made it all the harder for her to absorb this year's lessons, and by the close of the first quarter, she was failing. She also missed assignments in subjects she's usually good at, such as social studies and language arts, lowering her grade to a D and C-plus, respectively.

But this quarter, she said, "I'm trying a lot harder to juggle my assignments better. I'm really paying attention in class. I'm doing the work more."

And the experience of previous GEAR UP participants offers reason for hope.

Karla Maldonado, who was in a GEAR UP program run by the District school system between 2002 and 2008, didn't even consider going to college until her sophomore year at Roosevelt High School. A well-behaved but indifferent student, she assumed that she'd follow in the footsteps of her older brother, who went as far as high school before getting a job in construction with their Salvadoran-born father.

Then Maldonado's GEAR UP coordinators arranged for her to visit one of Penn State's campuses. She'd been on similar trips since middle school. But this time was different.

"I don't know how to explain it, except that I fell in love with the place," Maldonado said. "I knew this was somewhere I had to be."

Once college was her goal, she made the most of all the advice and resources. Her GEAR UP counselors were "like a second set of parents to me," Maldonado said. They set her up with free SAT-prep classes and a summer math program that enabled her to enroll in AP calculus her senior year.

Programs not protected

Such AP classes helped smooth Maldonado's transition to Penn State, where she's now a sophomore majoring in finance and earning mostly A's. Her parents pay about $8,000 of the $27,000 cost of tuition, room and board, and GEAR UP showed her how to cover the rest with government grants, loans and a university scholarship.

Even as researchers and Latino leaders take heart in the successes of efforts such as GEAR UP, they often bemoan their lack of reach and consistency. The program that was so instrumental to Maldonado's success no longer operates in the District. And once Graciela's program runs its course, there is no reason to assume that it will be renewed.

Graciela, at least, seems determined to get the most out of it. She's taken advantage of free tutoring in math and is slowly getting the hang of it. And although she still adores her Hello Kitty backpack, lately Graciela has been bringing another bag to school: a tote emblazoned with the blue and yellow logo of West Virginia University.

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