Dropping the Dropout Rate
When college-age mentors from the New Directions program in Harlingen, Texas, came calling at Dora Oliveras' middle school, she was wary at first. "I was doing OK in school," she recalls, "and I thought maybe New Directions was some kind of special ed program in high school."
But she took a chance and got involved. The program swept her up in a number of success-oriented activities about participation in school, setting academic goals and planning for education after high school.
"I'm from Tampico, Mexico," Oliveras says, "and my mom didn't really know about the importance of getting involved in school. It really helps build self-confidence and people skills." So much so for Oliveras, she wound up earning the trust of younger students as a New Directors mentor herself.
After completing all four years of New Directions and graduating, Oliveras enrolled at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, and then became a tour coordinator on campus. As it turns out, she would recognize some of the students touring from the district. "I encouraged them by saying, "See? You can do this!" says Oliveras, now 23.
It's a mantra that applies to the district, too. In 1990, the district's 15.9 percent dropout rate was a real problem (compared to a current national rate of 10.9 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education). With a predominantly Hispanic student population, Harlingen was likely to go the way of national statistics if action wasn't taken. More than 42 percent of Hispanics nationwide fail to complete high school. But a group of citizens wasn't about to let that happen.
The group, which became the Harlingen Area Education Foundation, launched New Directions, a tutoring and mentoring program for at-risk senior high students that gives them a taste of success.
It's the first event of the program that continues to make the biggest impact on students and parents: A weekend retreat at the University of Texas-Pan Am.
In August, students climb aboard buses and depart for three jam-packed days. When not touring the campus, hearing presentations about college life and enjoying planned social activities, they're living the life of independent college students in the dorms.
Back at the Harlingen CISD Parental Involvement Office, the scene is "always very emotional for students and parents," says DeAnna Reyes, a New Horizons counselor assigned to Harlingen High School. "Some students have never been away from home and some of these parents would never have imagined that their child would have the opportunity to visit a university."
Working the Data
Harlingen's low dropout rate wouldn't be a reality if administrators didn't take number-crunching seriously. Early on, says Superintendent Linda Wade, "We evaluated where we were losing students, why we were losing students, and how we could prevent their loss or recover them after they had left." Administrators continue to identify ways to strengthen programs that are working well and to establish programs that fill previously unaddressed student needs. After all, needs change. She says, "We must evolve to meet student needs."
While administrators are working the numbers, others in the district are working with students.
Being a mentor, of course, takes commitment. "We try to find mentors who have positive attitudes, are excited about going to college and want to encourage others to do the same," says school counselor DeAnna Reyes.
The time commitment involves:
Attending bi-weekly meetings at the appointed campus
Turning in monthly comment sheets
Attending the New Directions opening retreat and end-of-year banquet, plus a minimum of three activities or events per semester.
Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District
No. of schools: 23 (15 elementary, 5 middle, 3 high schools)
No. of teachers: 1,029
No. of students: 16,497
Ethnicity: 87% Hispanic, 12% white, 2% African-American or other
Annual dropout rate (2000-2001): 0.9%
Per-pupil expenditure for instruction: $3,536
Area population: 57,564
Superintendent: Linda Wade, since 2001