How Minnesota Students Are Becoming a “First Generation of Anything”

This is the latest in a series of stories about how the GradNation State Activation initiative is working to improve graduation rates.

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From Ecuador to The U.S.

Imagine you’re a young child living in Ecuador.

One day, you can’t find your mother and you’re forced to live on the streets for years before being rescued by a family member from the United States.

Now imagine coming to the U.S. with that family member and starting school for the very first time as a Latino and Spanish-speaking student.

This was one student’s reality before attending El Colegio Charter School, a Minneapolis public charter school that teaches Latino students in both Spanish and English.

Restoring Hope For Students

“Our number one thing is to restore hope for our students,” said the school’s executive director, Norma Garces. “We let them know they can be the first generation of anything.”

El Colegio works closely with Minnesota Alliance With Youth, one of the grantees funded through the GradNation State Activation initiative — a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson that funds and showcases efforts across the country to raise high school graduation rates.

Pearson’s CEO, John Fallon, Chief Corporate Affairs and Global Marketing Officer, Kate James, and SVP, North American Corporate Affairs & Global Media, Shilpi Niyogi, recently visited El Colegio.

“El Colegio really showcased how one state, one community and one school can come together to prepare students for college and careers,” said Niyogi. “Together, the school community has created a culture that celebrates diverse experiences and supports diverse dreams. It was inspiring to see how El Colegio’s story weaves into the greater GradNation State Activation initiative.”

Minnesota has a 65.6 percent graduation rate for Latino students. Through the school’s strong leadership, individualized student plans and a supportive and empowering community, El Colegio graduated 85 percent of students in its 2016 senior class.

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El Colegio Charter School in Minneapolis has been serving students in English and Spanish since 2000.

Strong Leadership

Norma Garces, a native of Mexico, moved to Minnesota and has served as El Colegio’s executive director for the last five years.

“I never really saw myself as a teacher,” said Garces. “It was the Latino community that encouraged me to take over at El Colegio. They wanted a school that the people were proud of.”

At El Colegio, students are encouraged to celebrate and understand their heritage as members of the Minnesota’s Latino community. Students and teachers talk frankly about issues affecting their community and culture.

“Our youth have not usually been taught to have a voice,” said Garces. “But here, our students will be able to have that opinion and that voice.”

It’s not just students who have a voice. El Colegio also encourages parents and guardians to get involved to ensure a well-rounded student experience.

Celebrating Individual Students

El Colegio creates a place where each student has an individualized plan for success.

“Norma and her staff saw that many Latino students were generalized and disenfranchised in public schools,” said Niyogi. “El Colegio embraces the individuality of students who may have often felt silenced, unseen or left out of the traditional system.”

When a student comes to El Colegio, staff members help identify where he or she may have previously struggled and develop a plan that works best for the student. They place students in Advanced Placement classes and help them navigate academic and non-academic challenges, like school attendance.

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Vibrant art lines the walls of El Colegio Charter School.

El Colegio requires students to complete a senior project that replicates work they might experience in a college setting.

“The senior project has to be a social justice issue that affects them deeply or that they see affecting the world,” said Garces. “So it can be anywhere from domestic abuse in the Latino community, to the Colombian coffee growers, to pros and cons of Puerto Rico being a state.”

Once a student picks a research topic, he or she must write a paper and develop a corresponding presentation. Students present first to students at the University of Minnesota and then to members of the local community.

“El Colegio’s focus on diversity as a strength and key to student educational attainment is a unique and innovative approach that I hope others will follow,” said Kate James, a Pearson executive and America’s Promise Alliance board member.

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Norma Garces moved from Mexico to Minnesota five years ago to serve as El Colegio’s executive director.

Empowering the Education Community

Through the support of Minnesota Alliance With Youth, El Colegio benefits from AmeriCorps Promise Fellows, like Gary Nieves, who provide extra support to students.

“I loved the whole idea of caring adults and how Minnesota Alliance With Youth brings them into the lives of these students,” said Niyogi. “It was incredibly insightful and impressive to see how Promise Fellows can help students on a path to graduate.”

Nieves, who was born in Puerto Rico and has been a teacher, missionary and nonprofit professional, said he felt he had the relevant experience for the position.

“It really tied everything together for me,” said Nieves (as translated by Tania Ramirez). “I completely immersed myself in the whole school-community experience.”

Nieves’s day as a Promise Fellow begins by taking public transportation to be at El Colegio. There by 8 am, he spends early mornings talking with students, offering advice on their personal and academic struggles. Then he heads to the classroom, partnering with teachers to ensure students understand class material and to keep them on track.
When Nieves isn’t in the cafeteria or classroom, he is speaking to students’ parents. Each day, he makes phone calls to family members to provide updates on how their student is doing, share successes, inquire where the students are if they were absent and discuss behavioral issues.

“I feel like this (programs like Promise Fellows) sends a strong message to teachers, administration, students parents and community members that there are a lot of people that are willing to do service at this school to assist in the positive development of these students without concern of getting paid,” said Nieves.

When Nieves’ service as a Promise Fellow ended, El Colegio offered him a full-time teaching job. He’s eagerly awaiting the first day of school.

“Because I was a teacher in Puerto Rico, I always consider myself a teacher first,” said Nieves.

El Colegio began its 2016-2017 school year on August 24. Norma is looking forward to watching her students achieve success this year just as they have in the past.

“El Colegio is a school of choice,” said Garces. “All our graduates know that they need to come back to help support the school, they need to be on the Board, they need work here or they need to send their own child back to attend school at El Colegio.”

Maybe that’s what makes El Colegio so successful. It’s a school built to last a lifetime.

The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson working to increase high school graduation rates to 90 percent. Together we’re building the capacity to raise graduation rates through the innovative approaches and initiatives of our three grantees, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Minnesota Alliance With Youth, WestEd supporting Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable.

Photo Credit: Craig Lassig/AP Images for Pearson