Helping Latino kids develop their dreams

Program: A Hispanic group and faculty at Oakland Mills middle and high schools are trying to help Spanish-speaking students succeed.

November 05, 2003|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When the Spanish-speaking population of Oakland Mills Middle School jumped from 20 to 40 children last year, school counselor Roberta Shawver decided it was time for action.

About the same time, Murray Simon, president of the local Hispanic organization Conexiones, noticed a disturbing trend: a high dropout rate among Latino students.

Before the 2002-2003 school year began, Shawver contacted Simon with an idea. She said she and other teachers realized "these kids had some kind of unique needs that we wanted to address and help them to be more successful at school and more comfortable at school."

With the help of Conexiones, the middle school began a pilot program for Latino children that now offers adult mentors, academic tutoring and encourages parental involvement.

Tonight, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick will honor Simon with an Achievement Initiative for Maryland's Minority Students (AIMMS) award for his work.

With help from Simon's group, Shawver began inviting Spanish-speaking and Hispanic professionals to talk with the youths, asking them to relay "a little bit of their journey with the kids. Where they came from, how they accessed education for themselves and developed their own plan for their lives," she said.

"What these kids needed was to find out how they could become successful as students, first of all, and then as citizens - to develop a dream for themselves and for the future," said Shawver.

This year, community liaison Diana Thesing initiated a similar program at Oakland Mills High School. Thesing also teaches Spanish and English for Speakers of Others Languages (ESOL) classes at the high school. "It is about connecting the Latinos to the community and make sure that they finish high school and go on to another step in life," she said.

Important link

That connection to the community has become more important, according to Oakland Mills High Principal Marshall Peterson, because of increased enrollment of Hispanic students. He expects the school will double its Latino population in the next few years. His hope is that Conexiones will continue to work with the school and "partner with us in meeting the superintendent's goals of closing the achievement gap [for minority students] by 2007," Peterson said.

Inviting speakers is one way to combat the dropout rate. "The goal is for them to talk to them about what it is to be Latino in the United States and to grow to have their dreams accomplished. ... for them to see that they can do something with their lives," Thesing said.

`It helps a lot'

Oakland Mills 10th-grader Yvonne Mercano, 15, recently joined the school's Latino club. "It's really good that they're doing things like this. It helps a lot. You get information" about careers and scholarships, she said. "It's very interesting because sometimes you meet other people who are from different places. You make more friends. Everybody just helps each other out."

Not all Hispanic students are suffering academically. Thesing hopes to create a network of Latino students at Oakland Mills High, encouraging Spanish-speaking students to tutor each other. "Because some of them are great students and they can pass that to other kids who need help," she said.

For students who do well in school, Conexiones sponsors a scholarship fund. Simon said he noticed in 2001 that awards at high school graduation ceremonies "were being given to lots of other students, but Hispanic students were notably absent." The next year, Conexiones honored 11 Hispanic students with cash awards and certificates of excellence for academic achievement. The Columbia Foundation has given the group seed money "to get going on our organization and on this project of a combination of tutoring, youth development and parental development," Simon said.

Parental development is the third component of Conexiones' partnership with the schools. As community liaison to Oakland Mills middle and high schools, Thesing is in touch with parents and working with them to participate in the school community. She said she meets with parents monthly.

`Support from the home'

"I'm trying to get support from the home," she said. "Right now, they feel isolated because of the language," but Thesing is working to improve communication between home and school. Having parents encourage their children to stay in school is one of her goals.

"Our basic vision is that every Hispanic student will finish high school," Simon said.

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