Summit Addresses Best Ways to Increase High School Graduation and College Enrollment Rates Among Hispanics

Washington, D.C. — To increase high school graduation and college completion rates among America’s growing Hispanic population, policymakers, funders and nonprofit leaders need to take a strategic approach and work in unchartered territory.

That was the advice that Jose Antonio Tijerino, president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, offered Monday at the second annual Grad Nation Summit staged by America’s Promise Alliance.

“Where’s the greatest need? I always say it’s with the fastest-growing, not the most-established,” Tijerino said during a session titled “Connecting to Post-Secondary Education: Knowledge, Access & Affordability.”

“The problem is most companies or funders don’t focus on the fastest-growing areas,” Tijerino said. “They focus on the easier areas,” he said, referring to cities with well-established Hispanic communities, such as Chicago and San Antonio.

The post-secondary education session drew about 130 individuals from among the two-day summit’s 1,400 attendees. The summit itself focused largely on the role that caring adults play in improving the outcomes of youths born into families of lesser economic means, but also touched on school reform at the local, state and federal levels.

Speakers included a host of CEOs from partner organizations and high-ranking Obama administration officials who all exhorted the audience — which ranged from program managers to practitioners — to do more to get America’s youth out of high school and into college.

A new report released at the summit says while the nation is making progress — it says in 2010 there were only 1,550 “dropout factory” high schools where less than 60 percent of the students graduate, or 457 fewer than there were in 2002 — significant work remains and the 50 states represent a mixture of both “leaders” and “laggards” when it comes to improving high school graduation rates.

As might be expected, differences emerged on what are the best ways to increase America’s high school graduation and college enrollment rates among disadvantaged youths.

Case-in-point, during his talk on helping more Latino youths get to college, Tijerino – who serves on the board of America’s Promise Alliance – said the word “mentoring” gets overused.

While voicing his overall support for the goals of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, an America’s Promise partner and an organization that pairs mentors with youths, Tijerino said: “Taking a kid out for pizza once a month as you check your Blackberry while eating pizza isn’t what’s going to work.”

A Big Brothers Big Sisters official who was at the conference said Tijerino’s insinuation that Big Brothers Big Sisters was a once-a-month-go-out-for-pizza program was inaccurate.

“We have an evidence-based model that doesn’t promote the kind of relationship described,” said Sandra LaFleur, senior director of Youth Outcomes for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, explaining that the organization strives to have mentors meet their mentees three to four times a month. She said they also focus on education-related outcomes and avoidance of risky behavior, among other things, that will ultimately enable more youths to enroll in college.

Youth service philosophy spats aside, the conference provided a platform for those who oversee youth-serving programs to highlight what they think are the best ways to make a dent in America’s dropout problem.

Tijerino outlined a foundation initiative called LOFT, or Latinos On Fast Track. In short, the program identifies and prepares “emerging Latino students and young professionals” on a management track in key fields, from business and finance to education and STEM fields.

With participants in the 18-27 age range, the program employs a “near-peer” model, where slightly older youths serve as mentors to younger peers for five years. He said the near-peer approach is better than peer-to-peer models, because youths are unlikely to command the respect of same-age youths, while older mentors are further removed from the realities of the youth they serve.

Tijerino also said it’s important to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to pairing Latino youths with Latino mentors because cultural backgrounds and career interests may vary.

To bolster his point, Tijerino noted that the background and experience of a Cuban youth from Florida is different from the background and experience of youths of Mexican ancestry who live near the Texas-Mexico border.

Youths also should be matched with mentors based on how well the youth’s career aspirations line up with a mentor’s interest and expertise.

“A kid that has no interest in science shouldn’t be partnered with someone who all they care about is science,” Tijerino said. “There needs to be a commonality. There needs to be a relevance.”

Tijerino also espoused paying mentors a monthly stipend so that they view their mentorship as a job as opposed to volunteerism that they can put on the backburner.

“They need to treat it as a job,” Tijerino said. “Or else it’s not going to work.”

He said the biggest concern is not having mentees get discouraged if the mentor doesn’t view mentoring as a priority.

Other speakers at the post-secondary touched on a variety of topics, from the growing number of states that have adopted “College Application Week” and have seen college application levels spike as high as five-fold during that week, to the need for students to be schooled on how to evaluate their post-secondary options and not to jump at the chance to enroll in the first college that sends them an acceptance letter.