The nonprofit agency which mentors young Latinos has significantly helped to “move the dial” in a positive direction, turning around a trend of ever-worsening high school dropout rates. Some of those solutions include hands-on, real-world, one-on-one mentoring and tutoring.
“It makes us feel wonderful that we set a goal four years ago and through a lot of hard work, a lot of focus that we've been able to make an impact," said Victor Ruiz, Esperanza executive director. "We can attribute a lot of that to us-- not all of it. But it makes us feel accomplished. We know there's still a lot more work yet to be done, but we're seeing results.”
Esperanza conducted a pair of external evaluations to measure the success of its efforts with Hispanic high school students. Ruiz indicated those surveys showed an impact on the youth served by the nonprofit organization.
“We know that students who come through our programs see increases in GPA and school attendance, as well as graduation," he said. "So those are the things we can quantify and say yes, we had an impact.”
Esperanza also ratcheted up its advocacy efforts, working with Cleveland public schools leaders to “ensure they were providing them the resources that they need," according to Ruiz, who called it “a partnership” with the school district "to get the needle moving.”
But Esperanza's executive director still believes the situation is in a crisis mode, because the graduation rate is still not where he'd like to see it for Latino teens. He also sees a crisis in the lack of Latino young people who are seeking higher education and "graduating with some sort of degree or credential.”
“While this is great news for our community, there is still a lot of work to be done, so we are still in what I consider to be crisis mode,” said Ruiz.
Esperanza’s “Top-down approach”
Esperanza's board launched a systemic change in the way the organization handled its academic programs, recruited, hired, and trained staff a few years ago. Ruiz stated that “top-down approach” led to wholesale changes at the nonprofit organization, which started more than four decades ago as a vehicle to award student scholarships. The nonprofit still doled out $120,000 in college scholarships this year, but getting more Latinos to college became a primary focus.
“Under our watch, the rate had dropped to abysmal numbers,” he admitted. “One of the things we realized is that we weren't focused enough on our youth and their graduation rate. We got into adult workforce education. So we eliminated programming that wasn't impacting the high school graduation rate and bringing programming that was.”
Esperanza and its supporters managed to leverage larger donations from foundations and businesses across Greater Cleveland, partly by bringing in evidence-based programs that were working elsewhere. Ruiz explained that the nonprofit was “able to see results quickly with small groups first,” which helped to make the case for increased and sustained funding.
“It really started by articulating the need and I think we were able to convince the funding community that the Hispanic community matters,” said Ruiz, himself a product of the Cleveland public schools. “They acknowledged that our community was growing and if Cleveland was going to be a better place, they needed to address the Hispanic community. But those results gave the funding community the confidence they needed to invest in us and our work.”
Esperanza has grown from a $600,000 per year to $2 million
As a result, Esperanza has grown from a $600,000 per year operation to an annual budget of more than $2 million. Some of its chief financial backers include: The George Gund Foundation, Saint Luke's Foundation, and United Way of Greater Cleveland. The Cleveland Foundation has been chipping in significant dollars as well-- mainly because of the nonprofit group's strategic and system approach to improving graduation rates.
One of the biggest hurdles Esperanza had to overcome was the growing number of Spanish-speaking families that were settling in Greater Cleveland. The nonprofit group increasingly put their focus on hiring bilingual staff, particularly those who worked directly with students and their families. That language barrier was only made worse by the lack of bilingual peers elsewhere.
“The other piece was ensuring that those families were getting the services they needed from the community in general," said Ruiz. “In some cases, it's advocating to make sure the school district has the proper number of interpreters and instructors to refer families to the agencies that have the proper bilingual staff. It became an issue of understanding, who were the good resources out there to refer.”
The Esperanza executive director stated his staff had to “become intentional” on where to send Spanish-speaking families for help, so they wouldn't become frustrated and give up.
"There's an attitude in general among many agencies that they will institute bilingual services when there is a need,” said Ruiz. "In many cases, the community won't go to these services because the services just aren't there. It's one of those things where the general community won't make the investment because they don't see the need. We know there's a need.”
The Esperanza chief executive stated there is a long-held “perception problem” among the general community that Latino families don't care about education, which he explained could not be farther from the truth.
“What our community needs to lean is how to engage in the educational system in this country," said Ruiz. "In this country, an engaged parent is one who is constantly seen at the school, attends all the open houses. A lot of the rest of us believe engaged parenting can mean a lot of different things. I think it's the way we culturally define engagement.”
Hispanic families typically deal with academic and other types of problems within the home environment without taking it to a school principal or a teacher. That is where Ruiz sees a potential perception problem and his staff is trying to help those families assimilate better.
"We're teaching them how to read a report card, to schedule a meeting with the principal, because that is how engagement is defined in this country, in this community," he said, explaining that self-advocacy and mentoring become important components to successful students.
For example, Esperanza's ELLA and ELLOS programs target the leadership potential of high-school age Latinos, meeting once each month in groups of 20 with a community leader as a volunteer mentor. Those leadership clubs are aimed at providing an alternative to gangs, violence, and dropping out of school on the part of at-risk, inner-city Latinos. Students deal with gender-specific issues and learn more abut higher education options.
Academic programs include tutoring for students active in other Esperanza programs and activities. A partnership with the Cleveland Municipal Schools gives the agency access to student grade and test data to help identify and support specific student academic needs.
Regular test preparations sessions also are held to help students with the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT) or college entrance exams like the ACT.
Plummeting Latino graduation rates in Cleveland can be traced back to 2007 when Ohio started requiring students to pass the OGT in order to earn a high school diploma. While Latino students do well on state tests through middle school, results drop off dramatically in high school. That can be attributed to language barriers and restrictions on language help while taking the OGT. Students may know conversational English, but struggle with the technical language on standardized math and science tests.
State regulations also limit the amount of help Spanish-speakers can have on the OGT and other tests. After students have been in the U.S. for three years, they are limited to a Spanish-English dictionary and a little more time to complete the questions. Many believe some Latino kids would score higher if they were tested on the same material in their native language.
Saturday Academy prepares Latino students for higher education with college readiness classes and field trips to college or university campuses. Success skills such as budgeting, time management, and good decision-making. But high school students have to earn their way into the Saturday Academy by maintaining at least a 2.5 GPA.
SISCO, on the other hand, is an academic program aimed at middle school-age Latino students, providing in-school and after-school tutoring and enrichment activities, a summer learning program, high school visits, and student-parent activities. The aim is to help students prepare and successfully transition to high school-- the one transit point in a child's education most likely to determine whether they will drop out of high school.