By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Samuel Roman and Sebastian Sanchez listen to fellow students' presentations.
They stride confidently to the front of the class like business executives of the future, giving PowerPoint presentations to fellow classmates and teachers at Rancho Minerva Middle School in Vista. The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade boys are poised and self-assured when asked questions about the subject matter or about the special effects they used to make their onscreen presentations zing.
All of the boys are Latino and enrolled in a unique class designed to motivate them to stay in school, be successful and take pride in their heritage. Their PowerPoint presentations are about a book they have just finished, Taking Sides by Gary Soto, in which the protagonist leaves a school in the barrio for one in the suburbs, and then struggles with his Latino identity.
The classes, held before and after school, are taught by Vista Teachers Association (VTA) members at four middle schools and two high schools in the Vista Unified School District. The curriculum was designed by Encuentros Leadership of North San Diego County, a nonprofit that wants to reduce the dropout rate among Latino boys. The classes, however, are open to all students, not just Latinos.
“We had to do something,” says Joaquin Aganza, a VTA member and school psychologist who helps oversee the program, piloted in 2005. “In our district one out of every two students is an English learner or reclassified; 53 percent of our K-12 enrollment is Hispanic; 63 percent of all district expulsions are Hispanic males; and 66 percent of our district’s dropouts are Hispanic males. Last year, 70 percent of Hispanic males were below proficiency on the California Standards Tests.”
The program gets its name from the book Encuentros: Hombre a Hombre, which translates to “Encounters: Man to Man.” It was written by Francisco Reveles, a CSU Sacramento professor and California Faculty Association member, for the California Department of Education. This text was the inspiration for middle school curriculum designed for Encuentros Leadership by Dr. Zulmara Cline, a former literary professor at CSU San Marcos who now works in the CSU chancellor’s office as an associate director for teacher education programs.
Encuentros students read books that relate to their culture, such as Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul. They learn computer skills, since many lack access to technology at home. They take field trips to nearby college campuses and are encouraged to think optimistically about the future.
The standards-based curriculum asks students to reflect on such questions as: Who are you? Where did you come from? Where are you going? The boys talk about goals, challenges and possibilities that exist outside of the barrio. They are encouraged to have big dreams — beyond working in fast-food restaurants and service jobs. Encuentros also holds an annual career expo for students to learn about various professions.
“Those who teach the classes serve as role models,” says Aganza. “And we also bring in guest speakers, such as Latinos who are successful in business, science, engineering or academia.” Guest speakers have also included teen moms or others sharing first-hand accounts of making poor choices.
“We want to open up their eyes to reality,” says David Prieto, who has taught the program for three years at Ranch Minerva Middle School. “Sometimes what they see on MTV taints their perception of reality. They think they can bring that type of behavior to school and into the classroom and that everyone will be OK with that. We talk about being respectful to parents, toward family members and others.”
“I like Encuentros because it helps kids connect to school and to their community,” says Alfred Loza, who teaches the class at Washington Middle School. “They can see that the school places value upon their culture and their story. And they feel empowered to express themselves and take chances.”
Guadalupe “Mario” Santiago, whose students were showing PowerPoint presentations, says the class offers students the tools to resist peer pressure.
“We talk about the ‘crab bucket’ syndrome a lot: If one crab tries to get out of the bucket, the other crabs will grab on so he can’t get out. Sometimes they are afraid to be labeled a ‘schoolboy’ because it can have a negative connotation in certain subgroups. In this class we tell them it’s OK to be a schoolboy. It’s OK to be successful in school. And you can still retain your cultural heritage and be proud of who you are.”
The boys are expected to be leaders within their own schools and change the attitude of other students through their own positive example. According to students, it seems to be working.
“We are encouraged to graduate and to be professional,” says Israel Gutierrez, a seventh-grader. “We get to know each other and support each other.”
“It helps us appreciate who we are,” says eighth-grader Sebastian Sanchez.
Encuentros students have shown academic improvement, according to data from Rancho Minerva Middle School. The average GPA of 28 students went from 2.66 to 2.91 after participating in the program in 2008-09, and the average participant’s GPA exceeded students not in the program. The absentee rate for participants decreased.
“Encuentros has also helped me to get better grades,” says seventh-grader Juan Avila. “In language arts and social studies I had F’s, but I have brought them up to C’s.”
“It’s good to be in here and learning instead of other places where there are drugs and gangs,” says Jose Sanchez. “It’s taught me to be respectful and be a good person.”
Administrators are so pleased with the program that they recently renewed their commitment to continue it, despite declining state revenue. Recently the Vista School Board approved the Encuentros curriculum as a non-departmental elective class for Vista’s high schools. It is scheduled to begin as a class in fall 2010 and is currently being evaluated for meeting the University of California A-G entrance requirements.
“We appreciate the district’s confidence in the program,” says Aganza. “Secondary school can be a real turning point for Latino boys and is often when we lose them. The demands of the language become harder, they may feel they will never catch up, and they may wonder why they should invest energy in school. The goal of this program is to offer a robust intervention that targets academic achievement and builds a productive school attitude among Latino males. Through the Encuentros program, we are doing that.”