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Report: Looking at What Contributes to Student Success and Persistence Among Mexican Americans

In San Luiz, Arizona, along the border of the state and Sonora, Mexico, there is Gadsden Elementary School District #32, where more than 99% of its more than 5,000 students identified as Hispanic in 2020. Within that school district lies Southwest Junior High (SJH), a school comprising mostly Latinx (96%) students.Dr. Cindy TrejoDr. Cindy Trejo

According to Dr. Cindy Trejo, author of a new report produced by the Rutgers University’s Samuel Dewitt Proctor Institute for Leadership, Equity, & Justice, what the school does is simply “magic.”

“I really wanted to put a spotlight on what is possible when educators, like the ones in the Gadsden district, see their students as assets and see that the population they serve is capable of achieving their college dreams,” said Trejo, director of Outreach FAMILIA at the University of Arizona. “To me, that's just a beautiful story about equity and about having that inclusive mindset that doesn't see risk factors.

“Instead, what they see is cultural wealth and a lot of strength in their students. And they nurture that.”

For this study, Trejo interviewed 10 students who formerly attended SJH and were – at the time of the interview – either attending or had graduated from college, asking them about their hardships, their motivations, and the preparation SJH provided them. She then offers a series of recommendations that other schools can take to improve.

The interviews with the first-generation college-going Mexican Americans were conducted in a specific manner so as to best gather testimonios, a manner grounded in Chicana feminist theories and indigenous theories, Trejo said.

During these conversations, the “boundaries feel a little more flexible,” she said. As the researcher, Trejo intentionally shared information about her own life and background with the students to build connections and foster safety, trust, and sincerity.

“You want them to tell you the stories that are authentic and true without feeling any kind of hesitation,” Trejo explained. “In a structured or semi-formal interview, they might feel [that] the formality hinders that kind of authenticity. You're probing deep questions that may be uncomfortable but get to some of the heart of these important issues.”

One of the ways SJH augments how it educates its students is through summer school programs geared toward providing an early look at college, according to the report. For instance, the school maintains a partnership with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY).

Through this collaboration, SJH gives its students the opportunity to spend portions of their summers on a university campus, living in dorms, learning in university classrooms, and earning college credit – and in some cases, enough credit to earn students their associate degrees before they even get their high school diplomas.

SJH’s focus on training students to be proficient in mathematics was another point in its favor. In addition to its afterschool math clubs, tutoring, dual enrollment courses, and study groups, its teachers are worth applauding.

Interviewees attributed their successes in math to Jesus Arrizon, an award-winning math teacher at SJH whose work has been recognized nationally, including by the Obama administration. Arrizon teaches 7th and 8th-grade algebra, and his methods include allowing students to teach their peers once they understood the math concepts at hand, the report noted.

The interviewees also expressed appreciation for the ways that SJH respected and supported their families and cultural backgrounds as Mexican Americans. The school met with families often to explain the value of various educational opportunities and how to seek financial support for them, according to the report.

The students who went to SJH weren’t motivated to persist on their educational paths solely by the promise of a job or degree. Rather, they were driven by what Trejo called “family restorative justice,” where students keep going, despite the hurdles, because they want to “restore justice” to their families who had sacrificed so much for them.

“[It’s a] concept of not completing college just for themselves but almost like this act of love and act of debt for the love that was given to them by their family, either their parents or their ancestry, something that really drove them when studies got hard to finish,” Trejo said. “It's not just for [them], this isn't just a ticket to get a job. This is bigger than that. The support and the love that [their] parents or my family members gave me, [they] need to pay that back.”

To this day, SJH is one of the greatest educational and inspirational stories she’s ever witnessed, Trejo said.

Trejo’s work is practical, student-oriented, and family-oriented, said Dr. Marybeth Gasman, executive director of the Proctor Institute and the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

The Proctor Institute helped fund, design, and provide peer-reviewed editing for the report.

“What she's trying to do is try to make change in the way that we think about intellect [and] talent from a pretty early age,” Gasman said. “Her recommendations are trying to get us to rethink what we offer to students, what we think students are capable of, and realize that, if we challenge students and provide support, that students will perform at very high levels.”

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