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Helping Latino High School Youth Make Something of Themselves: Lessons from El Puente

Best Practice brief #1

JosĂŠ R. Rosario Professor of Education Center for Urban and Multicultural Education School of Education Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis 902 West New York Street Indianapolis, Indiana 46402 317 274-6819 317 274-6864 (Fax)

Felipe Vargas Research Assistant Center for Urban and Multicultural Education School of Education Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis 902 West New York Street Indianapolis, Indiana 46402 317 278-1408 317 274-6864 (Fax)

October 2005

How can schools help Latino students make something of themselves? This is an ethical question critical to the development of the Latino community generally. In The Ethics of Identity (2005), Kwame Anthony Appiah, tells us that we all share an ethical obligation to create a life for ourselves. We create a life for ourselves, Appiah says, by working with and working on what we have been given. Like the rest of us, Latino immigrants are burdened with this same question, particularly in a land they often experience as unfriendly and unconcerned about their futures. If schools want to help Latino youth succeed, there is much we know about how they can go about doing it. The kind of “best practice” that helps Latino youth make something of themselves are programs that: •

have adequate funding and provide comprehensive services, including case management;

provide services in Spanish and consciously and explicitly incorporate Latino cultures into the program;

actively involve parents in the academic experiences of their children, value parents as an asset and a resource, and are sensitive to family circumstances and traditions;

explicitly provide tools and opportunities for youth development and involve youth in the process;

have a dedicated and professional staff with a significant Latino presence;

involve the community as a support system to help youth achieve their goals;

create an authentic sense of community among participants through mutual caring and support.

Drawing on lessons from the El Puente Project, a three-year demonstration program that sought to build on this “best practice,” this brief summarizes how Latino high school youth can be helped in making something of themselves in education settings they often experience as unfriendly and unconcerned about their futures. A threeyear demonstration program based in Indianapolis, Indiana, El Puente, which is Spanish for “the bridge,” brought together the Hispanic Education Center (HEC), a 501(c)(3) community-based organization, and the Center for Urban and Multicultural Education (CUME), a unit of the School of Education at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis. In reporting on the results of this partnership, we demonstrate that Latino youth will respond positively to caring efforts that aim to help them succeed.


This brief is based on data collected during the course of El Puente’s development and implementation. While much of the data was obtained through participant observations, interviews, field notes, case studies, and program documents, some of it came in the form of quantitative measures (i.e., test scores, GPAs, course failures, and attendance rates) requested from the local school district participating in the project.1


What is El Puente? El Puente started in May 2001 as a three-year demonstration to show how care and support can make a big difference in helping Latino high school youth stay in school and on the right track to success. Convinced that a life is created out of the material conditions and circumstances made available to one (Dworkin, 2000; Margalit, 2002; Appiah, 2005), El Puente offered immigrant Latino youth academic and other support so they could remain in school and be well prepared for a post-secondary education if they wanted one. We were quite conventional in assuming that high school graduation and access to college provides a most promising path to a productive and flourishing life in our market economy. Program goals and components El Puente’s mission to support Latino youth in making something of themselves, through educational enrichment and advocacy, was guided by four goals: (1) increase parent involvement in supporting students’ secondary and post-secondary goals; (2) increase student leadership skills and engagement in school and community service; (3) increase student academic performance and social preparation for college or post-secondary education; and (4) increase student understanding of cross-cultural communication and globalization. Pursuit of these goals sought to provide Latino youth with challenging contexts and opportunities, the kind that would help them develop confidence and capacity to complete high school and acquire access to post-secondary schooling. The project was particularly concerned as well with engaging Latino youth in developing the leadership and civic engagement skills required to strengthen and contribute to the growth and vitality of their local community. El Puente was designed to support as many as 200 high school students and their families with comprehensive services embodied in four major components: youth leadership, academic preparation, parent involvement, and cross-cultural exchange. In youth leadership, the aim was to convince students that they had a powerful role to play in shaping their own lives. We sought to engage them in recognizing and valuing the advantages of developing one’s full potential, owning up to one’s rights and responsibilities, demonstrating respect for oneself and others, and contributing to the development of one’s community through service to others. Overall, we envisioned empowering high school Latinos to empower themselves. Academic preparation and cross-cultural exchange were meant to complement leadership development by expecting and rewarding scholarly achievement, graduation from and learning beyond high school, and understanding and appreciating human diversity in language and culture. Parental involvement was intended to support and reinforce the other three. We knew what “best practice” has been telling us for quite some time now: 3

the project would be stronger with parent engagement and support. Population Served During its three-year demonstration phase, El Puente reached 201 families, slightly more than it projected. Approximately 140 of these families were connected to the two target high schools, and 61 were connected to the target middle schools. This total represented 6 % of the total Latino students enrolled in the city school district (3571); 41% of the total Latino students in the target high schools (345); and 32% of the total Latino students in the middle schools (193). A breakdown of the gender and distribution of students who were still active in the project when demonstration ended is shown in Table 1. Most of the students, which represented

the bulk of all those recruited over the three-year period, came from families where parents were employed fulltime (78%), had not graduated from high school (80%), and whose net income was less than $19,520 per year (77%). A large majority of the students (68%) also came from families whose country of origin was Mexico. Table 2 shows the country of origin of all students enrolled over the three years. Much to our surprise, over 95% of the students served by the project turned out to be “undocumented.�


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What did El Puente Accomplish? Puente tried to demonstrate that much of the literature on what works for Latino students makes sense: that with authentic caring, academic and emotional support, the right guidance, parent involvement, and clear expectations Latino students will rise to the occasion to meet the challenge of how to go about constructing a life for themselves. Were we right in our assumption? Data on student retention and attendance at post-secondary programs and institutions indicate we were. Retention After its first year, El Puente’s attrition rate was near 50%. In years two and three, the rate dropped to less than 5%. As shown in Table 3, of the 140 enrolled in El Puente, 85 were still

in school when demonstration ended, and 56 of these were still active in project activities. Twenty-three (23) of the 140 either transferred to other in-state (15) or out-of-state schools (7), or returned to their country of origin (1); 31 graduated from high school; and 1 was expelled from school and dismissed from the project. Only 19% or 27 students enrolled left the project for reasons other than transfers or moves (i.e., work, family responsibilities at home, or project activities did not meet their needs). None dropped out of school, and, while they perceived the schools as tough environments with a long history of violence and racial tension, all those who reached their senior year while in the project graduated. Attendance at Post-Secondary Programs and Institutions Keeping El Puente students in school and getting them to graduate was not easy. But perhaps the most difficult work was helping students secure access to post-secondary institutions. What made this particularly challenging was the immigration status of many of the students the project served. Since the majority of them (over 95%) were “undocumented,� securing the financial resources necessary to cover college costs was a major obstacle for them. Nevertheless, all students who reached their senior year while in the project graduated, and most went on 5

to pursue a college education. In 2003, for example, all ten El Puente seniors graduated, three with honors. Of the ten, five enrolled at a local technical college in Indianapolis, one returned to Mexico to work, one started a family, and three were working to save resources to enroll at the local technical college, whose changes in residency requirements made it more affordable for non-permanent residents.2 In 2004, twenty graduated. Of the twenty, four went on to private universities, four to four-year public universities, eleven to two-year technical schools, and one went to work. While only one of the graduates qualified for financial aid, ten received modest scholarships from private sources. Most, however, went to work full-time to cover costs.


What do we make of these results? In Hopeful girls, troubled boys: Race and gender disparity in urban education (2003), Nancy Lopez explains her educational attainment in terms of two stories or “narratives.” The first accounts for success as a function of individual characteristics, such as family background, good character, intellectual capacity, strong self-esteem, and hard work. Lopez refers to this explanation as the “commonsense” view of success. It is a view that comes natural to us, perhaps because it is so well grounded in research and narrative accounts of why some Latinos and other racial minorities overcome obstacles to make something of themselves, to succeed, as we typically define the term, and others do not (see, for example, Garcia, 2001; Reyes, Scribner, & Scribner, 1999; Rodriguez, 1982; Comer, 1988; Suskind, 1998; Thomas, 1967; Valenzuela, 1999). El Puente’s results fit nicely within this first explanation. Students were surely not blind to the central role individual characteristics play in making a life for oneself. As one student put it, the key was to have “faith”: “You just have to have faith, you know. You can be anything you like if you just believe in yourself. You can accomplish anything.” Latino immigrant youth are not blind to the ethical imperative of what to make of themselves. But neither were El Puente students blind to Lopez’s second narrative. To explain educational attainment, this narrative looks beyond individual characteristics to such factors as educational opportunity and social and material conditions. The life one has constructed for oneself makes sense, according to Lopez, as long as one combines the two narratives, the one that speaks to individuality and the other that speaks to structure. In the case of El Puente, both narratives help account for the results. The narrative of individuality El Puente’s narrative of individuality reduces to three primary factors. The first is self-selection, which speaks to how students came to participate in the project. The other two confirm findings from the psycho-cultural literature on why Latino students succeed and defy the odds. They refer to the characteristics or traits of the students who elected to participate: a predisposition to succeed and a resiliency to persevere. Self-Selection Students chose El Puente for a variety of reasons. Some chose it because it gave them something “fun” to do; others because their parents, siblings, or friends encouraged them to; still others because of the program opportunities it offered. But not a single student enrolled because he or she had no other options. All enrolled out of choice, and the mere fact they did sets them apart from others: they saw value in constructing a life according to the terms we set out for them. It is likely students performed well because they possessed the right traits, as some 7

of the research literature suggests (see, for example, Ford and Harris, 1996; Garcia, 2001; and Valenzuela, 1999). Two that stand out in particular include a predisposition to succeed and a resiliency to persevere. Predisposition to succeed and resiliency to persevere By predisposition to succeed we mean a student’s inclination or personal desire to perform well and achieve personal goals. Resiliency to persevere describes a student’s unwavering determination to confront and overcome obstacles that appear to interfere with the pursuit of personal goals. In Garcia’s (1999) words, resiliency describes the “ability to succeed regardless of challenging or threatening circumstances. Resilient children,” he adds, “are able to do well in school despite family, community, or social circumstances that are not congruent with academic success” (p. 146). Students who chose to participate in El Puente and worked dutifully to stay on track appear to share both traits. The case of Jaime Santana typifies what we mean. Born in Puebla, Mexico, Jaime joined El Puente in his freshman year. When he was eleven years old his parents moved without him to Chicago, Illinois, in pursuit of “a better life for themselves and their children.” When the day came for Jaime to follow his parents, he received a bus ticket to the Mexico-Arizona border. From there he negotiated a price with a coyote for safe passage into the United States. On the first day of the journey, he and others traveling with him were stopped and robbed of everything they owned. They continued on their way only to be caught by immigration officials and returned to the border, where he rested with a group of paisas before trying again. While his second try failed, the third proved to be a blessing in disguise. After two days in the Arizona desert, one with no food or water, he was picked up by a family and taken to a holding house where arrangements between a coyote and his parents were made. By the time Jaime arrived in Chicago, he was twelve years of age. His new environment proved much different from his rural Puebla. He was beaten up soon after arriving and forced to join the local Latin Kings street gang, in part for safety, but mostly because that is what most of the other newcomers he knew had done to survive. A year later, he was happy to hear some good news: his father was moving to Indianapolis. Jaime had always “just gotten by in school.” Now in his senior year, he is an officer in NJROTC with a 3.9 GPA. Along the way, he learned to fight and how to survive. He was determined to make something of himself, “to be,” as he put it, “somebody.” He now attends Indiana University and majors in telecommunications.


The narrative of structure In their study of school dropouts, Gary Wehlage and his colleagues (1989) point to several practices that contribute to student engagement and high school completion. Chief among these is the ability of school personnel to create communities of support that demonstrate concern for how students perform in genuine, effective, and caring ways. In their assessments of what works for Latino students, Valenzuela (1999) and Reyes, Scribner, and Scribner (2001) reached similar conclusions. El Puente’s narrative of structure confirms these findings. Functioning as a support system, the project provided students with opportunity and a safe haven, a space where they could feel secure and emotionally safe, as familia or family. For Angela, El Puente was for the person “who really needs help to learn and become someone in life.” “It is good,” she said, “because…they care about you. El Puente is not for people who just don’t care and just want to have fun and do whatever they feel. They help us want to work hard because nobody can take away our education.” In the view of Cesar, “El Puente helps students stay in school, graduate, attend a college or university…it advocates for our social development and helps us become leaders.” To a project graduate now completing his associate degree, “El Puente is a family that will always support you and be there when you need it.” Cristina left Upward Bound and decided to join El Puente because she “felt more comfortable among Latinos and the project provided a stronger sense of family.” She also thought “it was good to get involved, and they seemed like they cared…they monitor you, they call you whenever they have new meetings and things like that. Specially, they call the parents…because my counselor or nobody that spoke English never called my parents, not even my teacher. I liked it because they helped my parents out by teaching them to understand how the systems work in school, like how to understand the credits that need to be earned and all that. It’s great because they always knew what’s going on in school. El Puente was always there when I needed information, like on scholarships and so forth.”


Enrique summarized student sentiments this way: When I first arrived, I was extremely quiet. I had two jobs and hardly spoke to anyone. But now I speak more and get along with

everyone in El Puente. I joined El Puente

because I wanted help setting goals, choosing a university, and obtaining scholarships. The young people who join El Puente need to want to do well. That’s the only way to get ahead, get a career, and meet one’s objective. For me, it is not the idea of realizing the American dream, staying here, and overcoming barriers. It is about returning to our country and working so that the people won’t have to leave

their families. The solution is not to

bring people here while your country is left without meaning. El Puente helps [us] have an open

mind towards the world we live in, which is always changing. El

Puente is very

concerned and involves us in our history and culture, so that we can come to know who we are and where we’re headed. After the first year, El Puente’s attrition rate was near 50%. In years two and three, the rate dropped to less than 5%. Students who perceived the project as helpful and supportive tended to stay. Those who perceived it solely as a “hang out,” an opportunity “to be with friends and have fun,” tended to leave. Not a single one of the twenty-one who did not stay long graduated.


Can these results be replicated? We believe the results of El Puente can be replicated if the following principles are followed: 1: Identify needs and abilities early. Latino youth exhibit a wide range of skills and abilities that need to be identified as soon as they enter high school. Those with weak academic skills need special intensive classes in which skills can be directly taught bilingually/biculturally. Those with strong skills need to be placed in a more challenging curriculum. Students with special needs often go unidentified. This requires working more closely with school counselors to identify and place students in appropriate classes. 2: Highly structured activities work best. Highly structured activities conducted mostly in Spanish, that are intellectually and emotionally challenging, have the greatest impact. Students learning English in a content class taught in English are usually intellectually under-stimulated. Specially-designed courses are needed to motivate, challenge, and enable students to use a variety of learning strategies in their content courses. 3: Volunteer tutors have limited effectiveness. Effective academic tutoring requires consistent attendance, clear objectives, and well-qualified, assertive tutors. Bilingual/bicultural tutors are typically more effective than English-only tutors. 4: Have clear standards. Clear, written set of behavior and achievement standards help raise students’ and parents’ expectations and guide intervention strategies. The adoption of a parent and student handbook did much to reduce the high attrition rate experienced in the first year of El Puente. As noted earlier, the rate dropped from almost 50% to less than 5%. 5: Work closely with school personnel. Close work with school personnel is needed to integrate students into the life of the school. It is important to help school personnel engage students with their classes/teachers and with extra-curricular activities, guidance, testing, and tutoring services of the school. Sponsoring activities that integrate Latino students into the life of the school are also crucial. Students need challenging, structured, supervised after-school activities. 6: Communicate with and help parents network. Close communication with parents and helping parents to network with each other is critical. Parents welcome home visits and activities that provide them with opportunities to share and network among themselves. 7: Establish communities of support. As research amply demonstrates, communities of support are essential to encouraging and promoting academic achievement. Any project that seeks to make a lasting impact on Latino youth cannot afford to ignore this long-standing and irrefutable finding. 11

8: Organize and mobilize design teams. School design teams are effective mechanisms for generating ownership and mobilizing support and resources for school change. We learned this from the project’s involvement at one of the target schools through the creation of a learning center with the mission of serving the diverse needs of Latino students. A design team composed of key stakeholders facilitated the center’s development and broadened support for the venture. 9: Working with first generation immigrant families is labor intensive. Immigrant newcomers bring unique and diverse needs to a project. Their limited literacy skills and fluency in English, and their unfamiliarity with the nation’s culture and institutions, complicate their lives and impede their access to resources. To serve them effectively requires ample time, support, and consistent and structured service. It is not sufficient to provide them with information, to expect them to assimilate it, and then to wait for them to act on it. That is a common presumption that the El Puente experience and other research cannot confirm. 10: While important, home visits may not be sustainable in the long-term. Home visits were an important part of El Puente. We relied on them for family outreach as well as parent training. They helped secure the trust, support, and confidence needed to operate the program. Without this component, we risked diminishing the project’s impact. Yet, we realize this component is not sustainable in the form we implemented it. It would indeed be rare to find a high school with sufficient resources to dedicate a full-time person to visiting families. Much more realistic is for a full-time person to serve multiple schools. 11: Students and parents need a voice. Giving students and parents voice in their struggle to make something of themselves is critical to project development. We found it effective to engage students and parents in project decision making through the creation of student and parent councils at the target schools. These councils advised project staff in program matters, represented El Puente Project in school and community affairs, and provided leadership and support in project activities. The effect of these groups on building shared ownership, as well as on the degree of parent and student participation in project affairs, was significant. 12: Be aware that Latino students are often much too reluctant to engage opportunities. While Latino students want to make a life for themselves, they are also reluctant to take advantage of educational opportunities— whether tutoring, mentoring, or workshops. In our case, this was particularly the case with program options available to them during the summer. Often students were reluctant to participate because of fear, desire to pursue work or other experiences instead of academic activities, or responsibilities at home. Helping students experience 12

in a vital and self-affirming way that the fulfillment of aspirations depends on their academic effort, discipline, work habits, resiliency and perseverance to overcome obstacles was perhaps the greatest developmental challenge for students and El Puente staff. This was especially true for students whose educational background was weak, whose family experiences did not support educational aspirations, and whose habits of mind were not academicallyoriented. We had to revise curriculum activities continually to maximize student engagement and learning, as well as to create opportunities to work with school personnel to address the challenge during the school day. 14: Increase the supply of bilingual professionals. Needless to say, the demand for educational services in the nation’s increasing Latino community requires an adequate supply of bilingual professionals who are wellprepared and properly credentialed. Finding highly trained and knowledgeable bilingual personnel to staff El Puente was perhaps the most formidable obstacle we faced. Much too often we were forced, to the detriment of project development, to employ out-of-state bilingual consultants unfamiliar with local needs, or to rely on local non-bilingual professionals who required the support of translators. Moreover, we found the bilingual professionals available to us lacking adequate experience and preparation to serve the educational needs of Latino youth and their parents. 15: Without weaving research into practice, the search for “best practice” is futile. It is wrong to think that the search for “best practice” will advance without weaving research into practice and weaving practice into research. This is not a call for more rigorous formative and summative evaluations of social programs; nor is it a call for action-research—or at least not as these two kinds of activities are typically understood. It is a call, rather, for staffing social programs with personnel who are knowledgeable about and sensitive to the need for research, and how that research must be weaved into practice. The search for “best practice” is essentially a search for research-based practice and practice-based research. This is a formidable challenge. While it is standard practice to require evaluation plans as a condition for program funding, there is also much reluctance to invest in evaluations that appear too costly. There is a naïve assumption that building research into programs can be done “on the run” and “on the cheap.” But our experience suggests otherwise. The search for “best practice,” as we define it, require substantive investments to realize.


(Endnotes) 1

For more details on the findings reported here see Rosario and Vargas (2004, 2005).


El Puente never envisioned reforming the residency requirements of Indiana colleges and universities.

But it did not take long after launching the project to see the need for intervention in this area. Since most of the students the project was attracting were “undocumented,” a condition that made them ineligible for in-state tuition, as well as state and federal financial aid, seeking changes in college residency requirements became inevitable. The project partnered with a coalition of “concerned citizens” who lobbied state colleges and universities for reform in their admissions practices. As a result, project students became eligible to pay in-state fees at the local technical college as long as they had: (1) attended one or more Indiana high schools for at least three years; (2) graduated from an Indiana high school or received a high school equivalency diploma in Indiana; and (3) signed an affidavit pledging to apply for permanent residency of the U.S. as soon as they are eligible. This change in policy has already affected hundreds of students across Indiana, an outcome the project never imagined pursuing or expected.



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and Hispanic parents. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. Reyes, P., Scribner, J. D., and Scribner, A. (1999). Lesson from high-performing Hispanic schools: Creating learning communities. New York: Teachers College Press. Rodriguez, R. 1982. Hunger of memory. New York: Bantam. Rosario, José R., and Vargas, Felipe. (2004). Latino High School Youth in Indianapolis: The El Puente Project in Retrospect. Indianapolis, IN: Center for Urban and Multicultural Education. Rosario, J. R., and Vargas, F. (2005). “Making Something of Themselves”: Latino Soul-Making in an Urban Setting.” Indianapolis, IN: Center for Urban and Multicultural Education. Santiago, D., and Brown, S. (2004). What works for Latino students. Washington, D.C.: Excelencia in Education. Suskind, R. (1998). A hope in the unseen. New York: Broadway Books. Thomas, P. (1967). Down these mean streets. New York: New American Library. U.S. Department of Education. (2000). White House initiative on educational excellence for

HispanicAmericans. Washington, D.C. U.S. Government Printing Office. Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. New York: SUNY Press. Wehlage, G., Rutter, R., Smith, G., Lesko, N., and Fernadez, R. (1989). Reducing the risk: Schools as communities of support. London: The Falmer Press. 15

We enrich, support, and advocate for the education of Latino youth.

El Puente Publications Copyright © 2006 by El Puente Project. All rights reserved. Permission to download and make copies of this publication is granted for personal and educational uses only.

A Partnership Project of the Center for Urban and Multicultural Education (CUME) School of Education Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) 902 W. New York Street Indianapolis, IN 46202 José R. Rosario, Ph.D. Professor of Education and El Puente Project Director



How can schools help Latino students make something of themselves? This is an ethical question critical to the development of the Latino com...