Over the past year I have had the opportunity to meet with students, parents, educators and community leaders across the country to discuss the importance of education. I have seen first-hand the remarkable impact leadership, engagement and a rigorous education can have, not only on a student but on an entire community. I have also seen the devastating impact associated with the lack of educational opportunity and access, in particular for families who strive to reach the middle class.
During a town hall discussion at a high school, I was reminded of just how critical access to information and awareness of the various financial aid resources that exist can be: in a room filled with 200 high school juniors and seniors, when asked how many had filled out the FAFSA™ form, only 3 hands went up. When asked how many were college bound, the same 3 hands went up. When asked why so many were not thinking of college, the question of affordability was at the forefront of their hesitation. While Latinos have made significant strides in high school completion and college enrollment, there remain challenging gaps that have resulted in only 15 percent of Latino adults graduating with a bachelor’s degree.
The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH) is working to increase educational opportunities, improve educational outcomes, and deliver a complete and competitive education for all Hispanics. Through our continued outreach around the nation, we’ve seen that solutions to key educational challenges exist and are producing tangible and positive outcomes for our community. We are shining a light on these “Bright Spots”.
Bright Spots are programs, leaders, schools, organizations, partnerships, or models that address key education topics for Hispanics and are helping close the achievement gap – from cradle to career. By highlighting them we hope other schools and programs will benefit and learn from their data-driven approaches, promising practices, peer advice, and effective partnerships, ultimately resulting in scaling or replicating what works for our community.
“Schools belong to the community”- Principal Juan Ocon
One Bright Spot we visited recently was Benito Juarez Community Academy in Chicago, Illinois. The neighborhood public school with over 94 percent of Hispanic students is leading the way in drop-out reduction. After 20 years of existing under a ‘probation’ status, Juarez turned itself around and was removed from probation last year. The school’s four-year graduation rate has risen dramatically – from 57 percent in the 2010 school year to 80 percent in 2013. Attendance rates are on track to reach 100 percent this school year – a spike from 83 percent in 2010.
Secretary Arne Duncan holding a Community Roundtable Discussion at Benito Juarez Community Academy in Chicago, IL
During our visit, we met with community and business leaders to discuss engagement and efforts to support Juarez and other neighborhood schools serving Hispanic students. We were later joined by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who met with students, educators and parents to hear about their experiences. We learned that it takes great leadership, strong family and community engagement, robust partnerships and dedicated teachers and students to close the achievement gap.
In 2011, Juarez received a three-year $5.6 million school improvement grant from the U.S. Department of Education, to help improve the school’s academic standing and galvanize the change it desperately needed. Principal Juan Ocon created Parent University – a program that provides free classes to parents at the school. “They have become partners with the administration in their children’s education because they are already in the building”, said Principal Ocon. He also established after school programs to further support students, expanded wrap-around services and AP course offerings, implemented a standard-based curriculum and is a big advocate for effectively using technology in the classroom. He knows that recruiting great teachers and investing in their professional development is instrumental. The tremendous gains made by Juarez are no easy feat – it is because of his leadership, the incredible dedication of his staff, family and community partners that Juarez is helping close the achievement gap and develop leaders.