• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Removing barriers to college for Hispanic students


Woodford County High School senior Gerardo Garcia’s mom works long hours and speaks very little English, but she often reminds her oldest child to focus on his studies. Gerardo gets encouragement to pursue a better future at home, where his mom tells him, “Go to school and achieve what you can achieve because you’re limitless.” “She always speaks honestly,” said Gerardo, 18. He and 15 other male Hispanic students from WCHS are participating in a College Empowerment Program that removes barriers so they are better prepared to make decisions about continuing their educations and choosing their careers. The College Empowerment Program began last year through a partnership with Transylvania University, which pays for transportation costs and organizes a variety of on-campus experiences for visiting WCHS students. The high school students learn skills to help prepare them for college and career. Examples include writing a résumé, how to get involved in their community and what it means to be a leader. WCHS students will learn study skills and how to access academic services during their final visit to Transylvania University in late-March. Face-to-face interviews during an earlier visit were an opportunity for Gerardo to get feedback so he’s prepared for college interviews. By his third practice interview, the WCHS senior felt like he was ready for an interview with a college professor or dean. Gerardo, who has been good with numbers “ever since I was little,” hopes to pursue a career in accounting. And he said his experiences in the College Empowerment Program have shown him his options extend far beyond the campus of Transylvania University. Serenity Wright, associate dean of diversity and international student experiences at Transylvania University, and a former WCHS teacher, played a key role in making this partnership happen and continues providing guidance as the program moves forward. “We try to tailor the sessions to what the students are requesting information on,” said Sarah Rall, now in her 10th year of teaching English Learners (EL) in Woodford County schools. “So with Ms. Wright … we sit down at the end of each school year and plan out the next five sessions that will be (offered) for the next year, with the topics that we think will best fit our students’ needs.” Wright helped organize a recent talk with prominent Spanish poet Juan Carlos Mestre and Chilean artist Alexandra Dominguez, who gave WCHS students a glimpse of a reality that they may have never imagined. Two WCHS students have already benefited from their experiences in the College Empowerment Program. One student scored a 30 on the ACT and will soon continue his education at Transylvania University. And the scholarship money earned by another student has allowed him to begin his freshman year at Transy. “These students would’ve never thought that would be possible for them,” said Rall. She pointed out that the students met specific criteria to participate in the College Empowerment Program and many no longer need EL services. It typically takes five to seven years for a student receiving EL services to reach proficiency in English, but “just like any student, some take off and some need more” EL services, Rall said. Regardless of a student’s English proficiency when they come to Woodford County Public Schools, the goal’s the same. “We want them to learn English and process thoughts in English,” explained Chief Academic Officer Jimmy Brehm. “That’s the goal of language learning.” Rall, who became coordinator of the district’s EL program this year, credited Transylvania for doing much more than giving WCHS students the opportunity to continue their educations on its campus. “They have been so gracious in saying: ‘We don’t care if you go to Transy. We just want you to go to college. And we’re trying to provide those resources and tools for you.’ “They’ve been so wonderful,” said Rall. A similar program in partnership with Midway University – Providing Academic Transitions to Higher Education or PATH – involves 30 Hispanic female students from WCHS and 15 Hispanic female eighth-graders from WCMS this school year. Leestown Middle School and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School are also partners in this mentoring program, which only involved high school students from Woodford County during its first two years of existence. During on-campus visits to Midway University at the start and the end of the school year, participating middle and high school students learn how mentors – who look like them and have similar life experiences as them – are succeeding in college. They also attend a college class with their mentors, who are students at Midway University. “It just helps us get an idea of what life on campus is,” said Jessica Amezcua, a WCHS sophomore who wants to become an orthodontist. A handful of the Midway University mentors also make monthly visits to WCHS so they can continue sharing strategies that lead to success in college and “open (our students’) eyes to what’s out there,” said Rall. Jessica said her conversations with mentors gave her a broader understanding of the focus a college student must have on his or her studies to be successful in the classroom. Other PATH activities and guest speakers talk to Woodford County middle and high school students about being strong, successful women in leadership roles. Their message seems to resonate with the students. “It gives me hope for a better future,” said Estrella Ochoa, 17. The WCHS junior has been in PATH for all three years, and said the program has given her an understanding of what she can do to prepare for life after high school. PATH has made her more aware of scholarship and other opportunities to continue her education. Estrella wants to study nursing at Midway University so she can offer help to people like her dad, who was diagnosed with diabetes a couple of years ago. She knows being bilingual will be a huge benefit when applying for nursing jobs. A culminating field trip will take participating students and their mentors to a movie theater so they can watch and then discuss “Race,” a movie documenting the racism faced by Jesse Owens when he returned to the United States after winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. According to Rall, participation in the PATH and College Empowerment programs begin with a parent meeting. “We think that’s key to get the parent onboard,” she explained. “…The parents need to be invested as well to help support their children. And we want to support the parents (so they can) support their children,” who are often the first generation in their families to pursue higher education opportunities. Carmen Wilcox, the parent liaison/interpreter for Woodford County schools, plays a vital role in building relationships with English Learner families here, according to Brehm. Wilcox provides another layer of service to overcome the barriers to learning faced by the 210 students identified as English Learners in the school district. “She is a true liaison to the Hispanic community and knows their needs before I do,” said Brehm. “So we’re behind the parent and the parent’s behind the student,” added Rall. “(These parents) want so much for their kids to do well. They really do. “And so the parents are so cooperative. They just need the tools” to be able to support their children’s education. WCHS senior Jose Chavez, who wants to become a mechanical engineer, has come a long way since coming to Woodford County schools as a sixth-grader. He plays soccer and earns good grades in the classroom – and credits a “hunger to keep going and not give up” for allowing him to learn English in just four years. Gerardo came to this country when he was 6 years old, and no longer needed EL services after third grade. “I had trouble understanding the English language (at first), but that didn’t stop me from learning,” said Gerardo.

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