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English Program for Latino Students Puts Words to Actions

July 20, 1986|DAVID FERRELL | Times Staff Writer

When Cymbeline Ponce took a high school class in literary analysis, he was exposed to all the great writing he could ever hope to read.

But it wasn't much help to a young Latino student who struggled through class essays and short-story assignments.

"I got a D," he said. "I just didn't get interested."

That is changing, though, at El Camino College in Torrance, where Ponce and other Latino students are getting a second chance to master basic writing and grammar skills.

As part of the Puente Program--named for the Spanish word for "bridge"--Ponce is crossing cultural barriers that seem to doom many Latino students in more traditional English classes.

Making School Interesting

Papers in this class are not merely turned in and graded. They are discussed in groups by students who later revise them and discuss them again--and then revise them a little more. Once a semester, students interview Latinos who have forged successful careers.

Writing about those, students learn more than how to write. They learn how to make it.

"It's made school more interesting," said Ponce, a 19-year-old political science major.

He now has his sights on a four-year college education. "It's pushing me to achieve my goals."

The Puente Program, offered at El Camino and nine other community colleges in California, is a relatively new but successful approach to motivating Latino students, said Ray Talavera, a counselor who helps run the 35-member class.

Cushioning the Barriers

Founded on a philosophy of encouragement and cooperation, the class is aimed at minimizing the negative reinforcement that often leaves Latino students struggling to keep pace in other classes.

"We cushion the barriers," Talavera said. "Under this approach, we look for the positive. We try to win the confidence of the students. Later you can work with the negatives--you can say, 'Your grammar is weak in this area,' and it doesn't destroy the student."

Students are encouraged to write about Latino-oriented subjects that will hold their interest. The group discussions help them develop writing skills by talking about how their papers can be improved--and then making those improvements.

"Students read their papers twice," instructor Sallie Brown said. "After the first reading, the others can only say what they liked about the paper. After the second reading, they ask questions about things that might have confused them--'What did you mean by that (sentence)?' 'How old were you then?' "

Not Jeopardized by Cuts

The class began this spring at El Camino, where the two-semester program fulfills the requirement for basic English composition. It 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 the Legislature would have allocated $368,000 for the training of Puente Program instructors as part of a yearly two-week workshop in Berkeley.

Those funds would have been the state's first major commitment to the program--which now operates almost exclusively on private grants--and would have helped train enough instructors to expand the classes from 10 community colleges to 14, said Patricia McGrath, a teacher at Chabot College in Hayward who began the program as a pilot project four years ago.

But in recent budget actions, Gov. George Deukmejian deleted funding for the Puente Program, saying it duplicates other minority training programs already paid for by the state.

'Most Effective Program

The cuts were described as a costly blow by Torres, who said public support for the project has been so strong that he may introduce a separate funding bill early next year--just to pay for the Puente 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," Torres 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, according to statewide reports received by Torres' office, Bonbright said.

Positive Results

Later evaluations of those students showed 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 average for all community college students, Latino or otherwise, Bonbright said.

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