Woman’s Mission: Keep Hispanic Youths in School

TORRINGTON Conn.

Maria Gonzalez spends Friday evenings in a church basement, surrounded by 30 teens chattering in a mix of English and Spanish, because she has assigned herself a mission: to improve graduation rates and college attendance of Torrington and Winsted’s Hispanic youth.

Gonzalez, 50, hauls around a briefcase full of pamphlets about local colleges, job training and healthy relationships. Everywhere she goes, whether to a community meeting or to Wal-Mart, Gonzalez explains what she is doing to people she runs into. She asks community leaders and college professors: “Will you talk to my kids?”

She fears immigrant teens may be unaware of resources available and believe college is out of reach. Gonzalez gives them the push they might need to succeed in school and continue to college.

“Do something so you don’t have to be stuck in a factory,” she tells them. “You have the opportunity. Take advantage of that.”

Gonzalez started her program, which she calls “Youth Opportunities,” in January with a grant of a little more than $3,000. That money has almost entirely run out, spent on things like tutors, buses to college fairs, and a Torrington Twisters game this summer.

She plans to apply for more money but even without funds, she says, “I’m not going to stop.”

The national Hispanic high school dropout rate is 21 percent, compared to the national average of 10 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan Washington-based research center on the nation’s Hispanic population.

Additionally, students of color, those from low-income backgrounds and first-generation students are less likely to prepare for, apply for, enroll in and complete postsecondary education, according to the center.

Hispanics more commonly than their non-Hispanic White peers have parents without high school diplomas, low family income and siblings who drop out. They are also more likely to be held back in school, have a C average or lower, change schools, and become pregnant in high school, according to the center.

The basement room at Trinity Episcopal Church where Gonzalez and the teenagers meet Friday nights is not particularly inspirational: a few tables, metal folding chairs and brown wall paneling. Yet these gatherings come alive with students laughing and talking, the work of a couple devoted tutors and a steady lineup of guests.

Gonzalez is familiar with the challenges faced by new immigrants. She moved at age 17 with her family from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx, N.Y. In 1991, she moved from New York to Winsted, when hers was one of just a handful of immigrant families in town.

She now lives in Torrington with her two daughters, ages 12 and 22, her granddaughter, 3, and her husband of two years, Jose Abreu. She works as a case manager and supervisor at New Opportunities in Torrington, a branch of a Waterbury-based social service agency.

In her work at New Opportunities, Gonzalez sees five to 10 Hispanic students around high school graduation each year who are not sure what to do next and who end up in factories or in training for a vocation, she said.

“They’re going through the whole system, finishing, then going to a factory,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of (the students in Youth Opportunities) are in middle school. If we can start with them, we can get them ready so when they go to take college placement tests, they can get in. I hope we can continue and at least be able to have them ready for college.”

In Torrington, 11.6 percent of the city’s public school students were Hispanic in 2007, up from 5.7 percent five years earlier. More than 10 percent of the city’s students spoke a language other than English at home in 2007, up from 6.4 percent five years earlier.

Danny Diaz, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Torrington Middle School, who would like to go to Harvard and also be a professional baseball player, has a clear idea of why Gonzalez is running the group.

”People in Torrington think that Hispanics are up to no good,” he said. “She’s trying to change that.”



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