In her first try at college-level English composition, Olga Zaldivar skipped classes, struggled through papers and ultimately abandoned the course before taking the final exam.
But she figures she was lucky to flunk. It gave her a chance to start over in the Puente Program, an unusual bilingual education project now in its second year at Cerritos College.
"That was one 'F' I will never regret," the 24-year-old student said.
In the Puente Program, named for the Spanish word for "bridge," Zaldivar and other Latino students are getting a second chance to master basic writing and grammar skills. The course is taught over two semesters and designed to bridge cultural barriers that often doom Latino students in more-traditional English classes, Cerritos College counselor Marcelino Saucedo said.
Students are freed from rigid composition assignments and allowed to write about topics that interest them. Papers are not merely graded and returned but discussed in groups by students who later revise their own papers and discuss them again--and then revise them a little more.
Talks With Latino Leaders
As part of each semester's work, students go into the community to interview Latino leaders who have forged successful careers. And then they write about those.
"It was really a different class," said Bertha Olivares, a 20-year-old Whittier resident who, because of the program, has begun planning for a four-year college education. "It helped me a lot with my writing. It built my confidence. Little by little I just got interested."
The Puente Program, offered at Cerritos College and nine other community colleges in California, is founded on a philosophy of encouragement and motivation, rather than rules and roadblocks, Saucedo said.
"In the past, (education) has always been punitive," the counselor, one of two instructors for the 30-member class, explained. "You turned in a paper and the teacher put red marks all over it. Our process is cooperative. We show the students how to write. We'll put questions marks on it: 'Would you expand on that?' 'What does that person look like?' They develop their papers.
"They take great pride in their papers."
Scheduled for Fall
The class is scheduled to be taught again this fall despite state budget cuts that have jeopardized plans for a statewide expansion of the program. A budget proposal sponsored by state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) and approved by both houses of the Legislature would have allocated $368,000 for the training of Puente Program instructors as part of a yearly workshop in Berkeley.
The funds would have trained enough instructors to expand the program from 10 community colleges to 14, said Patricia McGrath, a teacher at Chabot College in Hayward who began the effort as a pilot project four years ago. Until now, she said, the training workshop has operated almost exclusively on $370,000 in private grants and about $40,000 in support from University of California, which provides office space to help administer the program.
Instructors attend the two-week workshop with the blessing of their community colleges and then teach the program when they return to their schools, McGrath said.
In state budget cuts announced last week, Gov. George Deukmejian deleted funding for the Puente Program, saying it duplicates other minority training programs already paid for by the state.
Torres, however, said public support has been so strong that he may introduce a separate funding bill next year for the program.
"It's probably the most effective program we've ever had in reaching out to Mexican-American children and getting them into colleges and universities," he said in an interview. "The success rate has been phenomenal."
Torres' office has received hundreds of letters endorsing the program--from students, parents and community leaders, including Deputy Mayor Grace Davis of Los Angeles, said Beth Bonbright, an aide to Torres in Sacramento.
Since 1982, more than 500 students have enrolled in the program, based on reports received by Torres' office, Bonbright said. Later evaluations of those students have shown a significant increase in writing skills, grade-point averages and course-completion rates, she said. About one-fifth of the students enrolled in the initial pilot program are now reported to be attending four-year colleges, and an additional third of those students are still in school and planning to transfer to four-year programs.
Both figures are well above the averages for all community college students, Latino or otherwise, Bonbright said.
"It's clear this program benefits a certain group of community-college students . . . who heretofore have been without the right kind of guidance," she said. "(It) needs to be expanded and maybe replicated on a grand scale."
Start of Program