Hispanics and education: From elementary school to college in Provo

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María Muñoz, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, never would have thought that she would live in the United States before 2009. It is amazing how bricks and violence can change plans.

Muñoz lived in Mexico. Anonymous people broke the windows of her family’s car and threw a brick through their home window. Her father was kidnapped and nearly killed. Muñoz, her mother and her brother fled to the United States. Muñoz was 14 at the time of her immigration.

They found themselves in a situation many Hispanic immigrants find themselves in: getting used to a new life, a new language and new schools. There is help available for them.

For Muñoz, much of the help came from tutors, like those at BYU, who helped her learn English and complete assignments until she could do things on her own. Muñoz worked hard.

“When you come here, obviously, you’re going to look for people who speak Spanish,” Muñoz said. “Then you have to start practicing with people who speak English. They help you learn and everything.”

More of Utah’s Hispanics are graduating. According to the Utah State Office of Education, 63 percent of the state’s Hispanics graduated high school. The graduation rate for all students was 78 percent. That is a marked improvement from 2008, when 52 percent of the state’s Hispanics graduated. Provo School District’s 2012 Hispanic graduation rate was 75 percent.

The difference is even more drastic within Utah’s English-learning population. In 2012, 48 percent of Utah’s students learning English graduated from high school. In 2008, that figure stood at just 16 percent. Provo School District’s English learners’ graduation rate exceeded the state average in 2012 at 56 percent.

In Provo, there are various programs that help drive those graduation rates up.

One program that begins working with children from an early age is Provo School District’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. According to information provided by Provo School District, 2,162 students were enrolled in the district’s ESOL program as of Dec. 18, 2013. The majority of the children involved in the ESOL program are Hispanics.

At the district’s elementary schools, ESOL students have access to Imagine Learning, a software program designed to help increase language proficiency.

There are also dual immersion programs at some elementary schools like Canyon Crest and Timpanogos. This means that students are taught half in English and half in another language, most commonly Spanish.

Teachers emphasize helping students learn to write English in their classrooms, which is generally one of the more difficult skills for a child learning English to master.

“Provo School District realizes that we need to do more to help these kids become more proficient,” said Mitzi Hollis, director of Provo School District’s ESOL program. “They’re using the next few years for evaluation, and they are looking for things to help kids perform better.”

Utah made one big change in the past year. The state joined World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA), a consortium of 33 states focused on facilitating interaction between researchers, educators and policy makers. Utah will also begin administering WIDA tests, which will take the place of UALPA tests, to assess progress.

High schools also have special ESOL classes, in which educators go into classrooms to help them learn the language.

Teens Act, founded in 2011, is another program focused on helping students who might not otherwise graduate from high school do so. School counselors help identify students who would be good candidates for the program.

Teens Act has a presence in two Provo schools: Provo High School and Independence High School. There are 40 students in the program between the two schools, the majority of which are Hispanic.

Teens Act offers a college preparation class, which is an elective taken during the school day at some Utah high schools. This class offers assistance with homework and college preparation. Mentors from BYU may come into these classes.

These mentors may also come in and work with students after school, especially on math assignments. Eight BYU students are mentors in the Teens Act program.

Teens Act also offers a parent support program, meetings held once a month at high schools to help them pursue higher education. These meetings are held in English and in Spanish.

“When you show a student their potential, even a glimpse of it, it truly helps them change,” Dayan Bernal, one of the founders of Teens Act, said. “It helps them believe in themselves. Through education, they can grow and help their families and serve their communities.”

BYU’s Multicultural Student Services (MSS) staff and students also reach out to local schools. Mostly by request, they go to area school districts, seminaries and wards to give presentations on the value of education. They also hope to help parents and students realize that a BYU education is within the realm of possibility.

BYU’s MSS office staff also speaks of its Summer of Academic Refinement program (SOAR) during these presentations, which multicultural students between their junior and senior years of high school can attend. One of SOAR’s main focuses is ACT and college preparation. At the end of the program, students take the ACT.

“Our main hope is we connect with them as freshmen and we walk hand-in-hand with them through graduation,” said Ann Lambert, director of BYU’s MSS department. “We love SOAR because we, as advisers, get assigned to students and we have an advising relationship started.”

Through hard work, Muñoz has made college a reality. She will begin attending BYU–Idaho this year where she will study art education.

“The main thing I learned is anybody can do anything,” Muñoz said. “It’s just wanting to do it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be speaking English and I wouldn’t be going to college. You just have to get to work, pretty much. I don’t think we believe enough in ourselves.”

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