Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Summit Explores Solutions for RGV's Low HS Grad. Figures

Approximately 50 percent of the residents of the Rio Grande Valley aged 25 and older have not earned a high school diploma, much less college credits. Of that 50 percent, approximately one half have earned a ninth grade education.

“When you are confronted with this data, it is startling and causes serious concern,” said Dr. Shirley A. Reed, South Texas College president. “That is why we continue to host our annual Summit on College Readiness. Collectively, we have to do more to stress the importance of education, because the journey to college must begin the day a child is born. Our region will simply not continue to prosper if we don’t develop a high skill, competitive, and educated workforce, which includes all deep South Texans.”
More than 260 attendees from all levels of education from across the region, state and nation gathered in late February to face the hard facts at STC’s summit. 

“We are making progress,” Dr. Reed told the crowd, “but we cannot rest. There is much more to do to make a dent in the numbers and those numbers start with the power of one. There is so much power in the number one. We believe that if we can change one life, that will have a ripple effect. And that one life will pay it forward to positively change another. One institution can set the example for others to follow. One community can make education its primary focus and change a generation. That’s the way we will see that 50 percent number decrease down to one percent and then none.”

Attendees heard from a variety of presenters, but of particular interest were two gentlemen shedding light on a new phenomenon, the disappearance of Latino males from college campuses. Dr. Victor Saenz from The University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Luis Ponjuan from The University of Florida told the audience that the roots of the problem are based in societal and cultural expectations of Latino males.

“While there is a lot of focus on getting Latinos into college and earning degrees, there isn’t a lot of focus specifically on Latino males,” said Dr. Ponjuan. “The economics of going to college make it hard on this target group. The reality for these students is that they have to give back to their families and so they need to work. There is also a social status in graduating from high school, going straight into working at a ‘good paying job’ and giving back to the family. They may think they have hit the jackpot, but we all know that route is just a quick pay out. There is also a feeling that the students don’t belong in the educational setting. There is no feeling of engagement. We have to focus on bringing them opportunities to feel like part of our educational community, both in and outside the classroom.”

But amidst the discussions of the need for improvement in pushing Valley children to the college degree finish line, attendees also heard one story that provided a lot of encouragement. They heard from a student in the McAllen High School AVID Program, which focuses on accelerating student learning by using research-based methods of effective instruction and acts as a catalyst for systemic reform and change. Jonathan Arteaga had attendees on their feet after he told how he has overcome gigantic obstacles to become a current honors student and future college graduate.

“I was a thug and a gangster through my freshman and sophomore years in high school because I wanted to feel accepted,” explained Arteaga. “I surrounded myself in an environment that made me believe college was impossible. A counselor told me about a program she said could change my life. I got in the program, but continued down the wrong path. My teacher told me I needed to start making the right choices – to shape up or get out of the program. That I had to look at the bigger picture and not throw away my life.

“I thought long and hard about my decision and I chose to stick with the program,” he continued. “And through the experience, I learned that asking questions and stating my opinion is vital to learning. Now I am in cross country, wrestling, show choir, taking AP classes, and dual enrollment classes through STC. I’m in the top of my class and am a member of the National Honors Society.

“But, I live in a two bedroom apartment with six other people,” he added. “I spend most nights sleeping on a couch and the situation can take a lot out of you. I went through many other obstacles and it’s tough, but fate has something else in store for me. I will go to college and become a lawyer. Your students can be just like me, but you have to plant that seed of hope and encouragement in their hearts. You have to believe before you can see.”

Once again, the participants left with new, thought provoking information to help further improve the regional education pipeline.

“STC is committed to improving access and opportunity for all Valley students and our hard work with our educational partners isn’t about patting each other on the back and lauding our results,” said event organizer and STC Interim Dean of Community Engagement Luzelma Canales. “We are here to face the facts and see how we can improve. There is always a chance to be better at anything.

“But, it’s also important to show that this summit and all the programs we have put in place with our community partners are working,” concluded Canales. “The number of students who come to STC and require some kind of developmental education has steadily dropped to 30 percent of our student population if you exclude dual enrollment students. If you look at STC’s total enrollment, including dual enrollment students, only 20 percent of STC students need to participate in developmental education. This is significant progress over the last decade. These courageous conversations are working and more and more of our Valley students are coming out of high school college-ready. We are holding ourselves accountable because we know that the livelihood of our children and our children’s children depends on it.”

For more information about South Texas College’s annual Summit on College Readiness contact Luzelma Canales at 956-872-6760.

Photo caption: At STC’s annual Summit on College Readiness from left are STC Interim Dean of Community Engagement Luzelma Canales, McAllen High School AVID Program student Jonathan Arteaga and STC President Shirley A. Reed.

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