Schools fight ‘hope gap’ among Latinos | PostIndependent.com

Schools fight ‘hope gap’ among Latinos

Jennie Trejo
jtrejo@postindependent.com

Wake up at 7 a.m.; go to high school from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; go to football practice from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.; go to work from 7 p.m. until 2 a.m.; go to sleep; repeat.

That was the schedule Aguie Hernandez, an 18-year-old from Glenwood Springs, maintained during his senior year of high school. With time management crucial to his success, Hernandez learned to do all of his homework during school hours so that he could keep his college dreams alive while working full time to support himself, his family and play sports.

These are not characteristics of a discouraged youth. In fact, most would argue that these are the traits of a highly motivated youth. Hernandez is one of the hopeful Latino students that the Roaring Fork School District churns out every year.

Yet Hernandez understands why many of his Latino counterparts from Aspen to Parachute would report feeling less hopeful than their peers nationwide, which showed up in the results of the 2015 Student Gallup Poll. The poll, given by the Aspen Community Foundation as part of its Cradle to Career initiative, serves to measure hope and engagement of students. It is divided by district, grade and race, and given to everyone from fifth to 12th grades in Garfield and Pitkin counties.

White students in the region matched their national peers almost exactly in the poll's assessment of being "hopeful," "stuck" or "discouraged." Fifty-one percent of white students from Aspen to Parachute graded out as hopeful, with just 16 percent discouraged. Regional Hispanic students, though, lagged white youngsters and Hispanics nationally. Just 38 percent of Hispanic youth in our area were hopeful, compared with 47 percent nationally, and 23 percent were discouraged, compared with 19 percent nationally.

Historically, it is difficult to measure social emotional traits among youth, said Valerie Carlin, deputy director of the Aspen Community Foundation. To do so, the poll makes "hopeful" statements, such as "I have a great future ahead of me," and has students rate them from 1 to 5, 1 being "strongly disagree" and 5 being "strongly agree."

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"One of our goals is to ensure that all children develop social and life skills for success and happiness," Carlin said. "The poll seemed like the best tool to get at the 'How do we know these children have the tools they need to be successful?' question."

The hope index is also significant because research shows that it is a better predictor of college success than grade-point average or ACT and SAT scores, said Gretchen Brogden, who is program manager for the initiative.

For these reasons, the poll is used as an additional measurement that schools and other partners are using to track progress and see whether or not they are making an impact on youth success, as well as which direction to go in next.

Brogden said that this is the third year that the foundation has tracked results of the poll in our region next to national outcomes.

"We continue as a region to be pretty on par with national numbers," Brogden said. "The surprising piece is the gap between our Latino and our Anglo students. That information brought a lot of questions into the room, and the community is starting to look at that and say, 'What's that about?'"

It's a loaded question with layers of complexity in the answer. No two students are ever going to come from the exact same circumstances; however, there are some overarching themes that play into the cycle.

'BIG, LEAKY PIPELINE'

Yesenia Arreola, who is currently the coordinator for the Trio Upward Bound Program in Re-2 but has also served as a youth outreach coordinator for Colorado Mountain College in the area, has experienced the school system firsthand from both ends. She graduated from Roaring Fork High School before pursuing higher education and returning to the valley in order to provide student services and support that were not available to her.

"I'm very passionate about this because of the growing population in our towns," she said. "In some of our local communities, we have 70 to 80 percent Hispanic/Latino kids in elementary and middle school, and so I have been trying to figure out why our college graduation rates are not where they should be. It's like there's this big leaky pipeline from ninth grade to high school graduation."

From her professional experience, Arreola believes that two main components are necessary to instill hope and therefore success in students: experiential learning and role models.

"Latino students don't typically have the role models readily available to teach them that the path is possible, especially in rural towns," Arreola said. "They might have seen family members begin to navigate college, but they are not always able to access professionals that look like them and have the same culture or background."

Arreola stresses the importance of having a person who resembles the students' lifestyle and experiences so that students can imagine themselves in the same position.

'NOT SUSTAINABLE'

"It is a very common thing that our schools, our school boards, our government officials and all the top professions do not resemble the community that they serve," Arreola said. "It's an upside down approach."

"This is not the responsibility of one sector, but the entire community needs to concentrate on all the sectors they serve, otherwise we are stuck with a thriving higher class of citizens and an oppressed minority population, which is not sustainable. "

The other piece of the puzzle is the exposure that a student receives. Students who come from low-income and working-class families often do not get exposed to the same level of vast career opportunities and choices.

"For Latino students, the majority of the exposure they get is in school," Arreola said. "So many of them will say they want to be teachers or nurses. If they don't see other possibilities ahead of them, they're going to think those as the only feasible options."

Arreola uses a headlamp analogy to describe their situation. The headlamps are showing them enough to see that they can graduate high school, but everything past that is in the dark and therefore taught with role models and experiences.

MENTORS CRITICAL

The poll backed up the information about mentors, showing that students who had a mentor figure in their life ranked higher on the hope index than those who did not.

The Aspen Community Foundation is working closely with area school boards and other partners to help provide more mentors for all students in the region.

The two counties' school districts have a few college preparation programs, with Pre-Collegiate in Re-1 and Trio Upward Bound in Re-2. The problem with them is the limited space.

"A program such as ours can only hold 60 students, but that is between three schools including Coal Ridge, Rifle and Grand Valley, so that's really only about 20 per school when each school has 300 to 400 students," Arreola said.

Because of the limited numbers of official mentors, the Aspen Community Foundation and school boards are working to get residents more involved with students.

Rick Holt, the chief academic officer for Re-1, said that the schools have implemented a Crew program aimed at allowing more students to have close relationships with adults.

According to the school board's website, Crew works as dedicated time in built in to students' schedules to focus on character skills and social emotional learning. These relationships help build a sense of belonging in the schools.

"We work to expand the definition of mentorship because we know that anytime students interact with adults there's potential there," Brogden said. "We want to provide adults with tools so that they can help these students develop."

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