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Latino Students Get Clearer Signposts

Santa Ana conference tackles language and cultural barriers to higher education.

September 18, 2006|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

When Gloria Montiel and her family moved to Santa Ana from Guerrero, Mexico, she was 8 years old and spoke no English.

Today, the 19-year-old is a sophomore at Harvard University with plans to teach English literature to high school students after she graduates.

To go from her crowded Riverview Park neighborhood to the Ivy League, Montiel had to find a way to pay for her education and overcome pressure from her loving but traditional parents, who wanted her to stick close to home. She also had ignore plenty of naysayers, including a close friend who told her that "Mexican girls don't go to Harvard."

"A lot of people don't know these opportunities are available to them," Montiel said. "It kind of makes me sad."

To help address that disconnect, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans is holding a conference in Santa Ana this week. The focus is to help Latino children across the nation break down the barriers that Montiel faced, increase Latino family involvement, eliminate the achievement gap between Latino students and their classmates, and boost access to college.

It's the second regional conference on the initiative, which was created by President Bush in 2001. Santa Ana was chosen because of its sizable Latino population and its school district's success in building alliances with community groups, higher-education institutions, charities, local governments and corporations.

"We want to build partnerships to create networks through which we can disseminate useful information," said Adam Chavarria, executive director of the White House program. "The aim of all this is to work with the organizations that are working with parents and families and youth."

Latino and African American children throughout the nation struggle compared with their white and Asian classmates. Among Latino students, one in three don't complete high school and 9 in 10 don't graduate from a four-year university or college, according to 2003 U.S. Census Bureau data. It's an issue of particular importance in California, where Latinos make up nearly 48% of the student body.

Educators say this achievement gap is created by several factors, including large numbers of English-language learners, poverty and, often, an unfamiliar public-school system that intimidates Latino parents from being more active in their children's schooling.

"The key for us is to identify early any needs that our students have and meet them," said Jane Russo, interim superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District, where Latino students account for 92% of the enrollment. "English acquisition is key; parental education is extremely important."

To increase parental involvement, the district created Los Promotores five years ago. The program, supported by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, educates parents about the public school system, from how to read a report card to graduation requirements to financial-aid eligibility for college. Parents who go through the training are expected to spread the word in the community.

"Everywhere where we find parents -- the laundromat, the church, at the park, at parties -- we start talking to them," said Rosa Harrizon, a mother of two girls in the district and a student-service specialist for the group. She is speaking at the conference. "It doesn't work when a Promotores says I'm going to come teach you something -- they feel like offended. If we do a dialogue, sharing information about myself, that works 100%."

Harrizon, who immigrated to Santa Ana three decades ago from the state of Jalisco in Mexico, first contacted the group three years ago.

"The education system here is very different from my country. I was confused. I never finished high school because my dad, he's very old fashioned, he thought a woman had to stay home," she said. The training "helps me to understand that I have to be more involved because the system, the life here itself, is different from my experience, my childhood."

Latino parents, she said, face special obstacles in getting involved with their children's education, including language and intimidation that makes them hesitant to approach educators.

"Latino parents always think the teacher is right. We try to share sometimes the teacher is not right," Harrizon said. "I tell our parents you are the lawyer of your school; who is going to care more about your child?"

The district has also opened higher-education counseling centers in its high schools to help ease the college-application process. The centers, which include student workers from local colleges and bilingual employees, are open late one night a week so working parents can drop in. During the application season, scores of families visit the center.

"Usually, the parents are apprehensive," said Mike Munoz, higher education center coordinator at Saddleback High School. "Sometimes they're afraid to let the kids leave the community to go on to higher education."

Montiel's parents said her parents fell into that category.

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