Article courtesy of Mark Curnutte, Cincinnati Enquirer
Maria Zuniga has worked for 10 years in the kitchen of a sit-down chain restaurant.
She lives in a mobile home in a Sharonville trailer park.
She said she wants more for her son.
Two months ago, Zuniga enrolled in an eight-week course called Leadership Scholars. The research-based program works in more than 30 Greater Cincinnati urban schools. It educates parents – most of them the heads of low-income African-American and Latino households – in the areas of college readiness, social and emotional mindset and the importance of parental engagement in school. The ultimate goal is to increase the likelihood their children will attend college.
“I did not know anything about the university,” said Zuniga, 39, who did not finish high school in Mexico before emigrating 20 years ago. “Now I know almost everything. I know how much the SAT will cost. I learned college is not too expensive. I learned we can get money for it.”
Her son, Jonathan Lopez, 14, is in the eighth grade at Princeton Community Middle School. “She wants me to be a doctor or a lawyer,” he said.
She said, “I do not want him to work in a kitchen, like me.”
Zuniga will graduate Sunday, part of Leadership Scholars’ sixth class, joining more than 1,100 parents to complete the program since it started its Parent Academy courses in fall 2013.
Across the country, the college enrollment rate in 2013 for African-Americans who complete high school (57 percent) is lower than those for Hispanics (66 percent) and whites (67 percent), according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education.
Income is a greater determinant. The college enrollment rate in 2013 for high-income students ages 18 to 24 who completed high school was 80 percent, but fell to 64 percent for middle-income students and 49 percent for low-income students.
In the past year, 65 percent of graduate parents were African-American, 30 percent were Hispanic and 5 percent white.
One of Leadership Scholars’ 10 staff members is Myrna Gomez, hired before the 2015-16 school year as Hispanic community outreach coordinator. The program employs a pool of some 40 instructors, and handful of whom are native Spanish speakers.
The previous school year, 2014-15, 80 percent of parent graduates were African-American, 20 percent white.
Melding current research, including doctoral work by Leadership Scholars’ Executive Vice President Suzie White at New York University, the program identified the biggest reason low-income students make the decision to go to college.
“It’s one adult relationship that says, ‘You are going to college,’ ” White said. “It’s not, ‘I think.’ It’s, ‘You are.’ ”
Who better, then, that a parent to deliver that message.
Sometimes, it’s a grandparent. Ronald Olverson Jr. will be another of the 200 Leadership Scholar graduates Sunday at Mount St. Joseph University. A 1985 Princeton High School graduate from Lincoln Heights, Olverson enrolled to better prepare his granddaughter, Amaiya Villada, just 3, for college.
“She knows she wants to be a doctor,’ Olverson, 48, said. “We said to her, ‘Well, then we are going to start getting your ready now.’ ”
She knows her alphabet and letters up to 30. She can hold a conservation with an adult. The little girl lives in the Dayton, Ohio, area with her parents but is with her grandparents three of four weekends a month. Olverson reads a children’s fairy tale book and a children’s Bible to her. She can recognize some words by sight. They work on flash cards. She is learning to play chess. Her request.
“She knows the different pieces,” Olverson said.
Parent Academy classes run one hour, 45 minutes a week. Leadership Scholars provides transportation to and from with taxis. Zuniga said her ride picks her up at her door. A meal and child care are available once parents reach the school. The class is free. Leadership Scholars has had annual budgets of between $670,000 and $800,000, depending on the number of parents enrolled.
“Over the years, educators and schools have treated wealthy parents with dignity and provided them with all the information they need,” said Pat White, Suzie White’s mother and Leadership Scholars’ executive director. She has 45 years of experience as a teacher, college counselor, and principal and head of school at Summit Country Day.
“We hear so much about the city’s high child poverty,” Pat White said. “This is one way to get at it.”
Each weekly class focuses on a topic area: college affordability and financial aid, understanding the importance of grade-point averages and the SAT and ACT standardized tests, building a child’s identity, how to maximize the parent-teacher conference, how to get involved in your child’s school, creating a learning environment in the home, the neuroscience of the brain and how to foster grit and persistence. The last piece – teaching high school students how to persevere – can be useful in college as a way to improve graduation rates for minority students.
Leadership Scholar parent participants have children in grades seven through 12. Survey results gathered after the fall 2015 semester showed increases in key metrics: 91 percent believed after the course that they could afford college for their child, 32 percent before the course; 88 percent said they understood the college admission, compared with 28 percent. And 87 percent said they encouraged their child to attend college, up from 23 percent.
Maria Zuniga said she now knows what questions to ask her son. She buys him books to read in the home, including the “Maze Runner” series by James Dashner.
“I don’t want him to waste time,” she said.
She knows better how to encourage him.
Jonathan runs hurdles on his track team. He had a bad race recently.
In one of her Leadership Scholars classes, Maria Zuniga learned who Michael Jordan is and how he was cut one year from his high school basketball team.
“I know who Michael Jordan is,” Jonathan said. “But she didn’t. Now she tells me all the time to remember Michael Jordan and how he never gave up.”
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