A group of high school students march into a coffee house at Geddes Hall on the University of Notre Dame campus. Standing before them are college students who resemble them. Some have come from across the country to attend the university. Others grew up in South Bend, Ind.
But, they are all Latinos.
A program called “Adelante America,” which translates to America Ahead, offers after-school mentoring for Hispanic students. Participants work closely with volunteer college students.
“They inspire me,” said Reyna Ramirez, a high school freshman. “I look at them and think yes, I could do it. They did it, why cant I?”
The group took a field trip to Notre Dame Tuesday night. The meeting was a mix of high school kids still contemplating their future, and college students ready to help get them there.
Some of the students didn't see college in their futures until recently.
“A lot of the people I associate with that aren't involved in any youth group...they don’t know much about their culture, they're not doing as good at school because they don’t have the help to do better in school,” Ramirez said.
That is something that Lupe Gomez is working to change.
“Sometimes they don’t even give college a shot, it’s not in their vocabulary,” Gomez said.
The group of high school students spend time with Gomez each week through Adelante.
“The idea is that if you have pride in yourself, you'll have higher self esteem, you value yourself a little bit more and make better decisions for yourself,” Gomez said.
“Adelante has helped me and other students stay off the streets,” Ramirez said.
But the battle against the dropout rate continues. In 2009, the national dropout rate for white students was about five percent. The rate for black students was 9.3 percent compared to Hispanics at 17.3 percent.
“Some of the families that we work with, .their parents didn’t even finish primary school,” Gomez said. “So, of course, they are not going to know what is necessary to finish high school much less what it takes to get to college.”
A problem that South Bend superintendent Dr. Carole Schmidt is well-aware of.
“They are not starting on a level playing field,” Schmidt said. “Now, we can’t change that environment out there. What we can do is adjust our programming and our staff to understand those differences with interventions we know will matter.”
And though statewide graduation rates increased last year, the disparity between groups is hard to ignore.
“There is a gap,” Schmidt said. “That gap is never made up unless we do something very intentional with our early childhood education.”
Most students in Adelante still have a few years before putting on a cap and gown. But, Gomez said she hopes she can keep them on the right track.
“We need to up our expectations of the students,” she said. “Don’t push them to pass, push them to get an A.”
A message that Ramirez is taking to heart.
“I’m looking forward to going to college some day,” Ramirez said.
The first class of seniors to be part of Adelante is busy applying for colleges. Three of them have already been accepted.