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4-H Club Expands College Prep Program to New York City's Hispanic Youth

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A partnership between the national 4-H clubs and the Juntos program has received a $2 million, three-year grant from the New York Life Foundation to broaden the reach of a project designed to improve high school graduation rates for at-risk Hispanic students and prepare them for college.

Juntos [pronounced Who-n-toes] focuses on students living near or below the poverty line, who immigrated to the United States when they were pre- or early teens and are struggling to learn English while they're heading into the crucial high school years that determine whether they'll be prepared for college.  A disproportionate number of students attending urban, high-poverty schools are held back in 9th grade, leading to what researchers call the "9th grade bulge," which is followed by the "10th grade dip," when students doing poorly in school are most likely to drop out.

Even though overall dropout rates have been declining since the 1990s, falling to 6.8 percent in 2013, the rate for all Hispanic students is 11.7 percent, more than twice that of their white classmates, whose dropout rate decreased to 5 percent, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Researchers say it's partly due to an influx of students from Mexico and Central America who are not fluent in English.

"We wanted to make a difference there, and the research found that parents could make a big impact," said Andrew Behnke, an associate professor and researcher at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who co-founded the program. "Nothing was being done in high school along these lines," he told Education Week.

Juntos, which means "together" in Spanish, begins with a six-week family workshop series to give parents, most of whom have not attended college, information on the college application process and financial aid opportunities.  

"Many times for Hispanic parents it comes down to they don't have the money to pay for it or they don't know the process of applying to college or applying for scholarships...then the students don't have somebody to encourage them to go to higher education," explained 20-year-old Milca Jarquin, a former Juntos student and now volunteer mentor for the program. 

Milca is on a full scholarship at North Carolina State University where she's majoring in mechanical engineering, but the path to get there was marked by tragedy.  She was 8 when her father died. The family was living in Mexico, but her father was a United States citizen, so her mother took Milca and her older brother and sister to North Carolina to make a better life.  Two years later, her mother died. Milca's older siblings had been in college in Mexico and were studying English in the United States so they could return to school, but they gave up their plans in order to raise her.  Going to college is her way of repaying them.

She heard about Juntos in church from another co-founder, Diana Urieta, and joined the program thinking it was another after-school club.

"All I heard was they went on trips and stuff like that," she recalled. "Once I went to meetings, it completely surpassed my expectations."  

Many of the trips were college visits, and the meetings provided academic support, and taught public speaking, life skills, and videography. There's also a summer academy, where students live in college dorms for a week, work on projects together, and learn about careers from business and industry professionals.

Behnke said fostering group activities is essential for these students because they're often ignored in school and feel isolated. He humorously described it as "a positive gang."

"I think the biggest hurdle is peer support and peer interest in academics, and what Juntos does is create new peer support for students," Behnke said.

Since it was founded in 2007 in Raleigh, N.C., Juntos programs have opened in Iowa, Oklahoma, and Oregon, reaching about 3,000 middle and high school students. With the new grant, plans are underway to expand the Raleigh program and launch Juntos in New York City this year, then add two more cities during the second and third years of the grant.

"By 2035, one-third of all American children and youth will be Latino—that means many more Hispanic youth who will need programs that are tailored to meet their unique youth development needs," said Jennifer Sirangelo, the president and CEO of the National 4-H Council in a press release.

4-H started in 1902 as an agricultural youth program for children in rural America, but has expanded its footprint to suburbs and cities, and broadened its focus to teach kids about the most important issues facing the country, including climate change, sustainable energy, and food safety.  The organization's after-school programs offer enrichment activities and STEM classes in everything from animal sciences to robotics. 

Juntos' own survey data found that 91 percent of students participating in the program raised their GPAs, improving an average of .16 on 4-point scale. Their attendance rates and behavior also improved.  Behnke said the program is just now beginning to track college-going rates. 

Milca said Juntos showed her that she was as capable as anyone else of graduating from high school and going to college, and it gave her the information and support to make that happen.  She added the determination and graduated as valedictorian of her high school class.

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