SAN ANTONIO – Imagine a program that brings together students, teachers, school administrators, universities, a Fortune 100 company and the nation’s largest youth organization to help Latino youth stay in school and succeed in academics – and life.
That program is Juntos 4-H, a partnership of New York Life and the National 4-H Council that uses programming created by staff at North Carolina State University. Funded by a three-year, $2 million grant from the New York Life Foundation to the National 4-H Council, Latino youth in New York and Texas are being given a unique opportunity for personal and academic development.
The program, which began in North Carolina, was brought to New York and Texas last year, with Armando Leal Jr. Middle School in the Harlandale Independent School District chosen as Texas’ pilot school.
“Juntos 4-H is currently being implemented at Leal as a chartered 4-H club supported by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Bexar County, teachers, school administrators and others,” said Melinda Garcia, AgriLife Extension 4-H youth development program specialist who oversees the Juntos 4-H grant in Texas. “Juntos is the Spanish word for ‘together’ and this program brings together people and resources to give Latino youth unique educational opportunities.”
Additional program support is being provided this year by area New York Life employees who are members of the company’s Latino Employee Resource Group, along with agents who will serve as role models and mentors for students in the program. They also will teach the “My Financial Future” financial literacy curriculum, providing a life insurance and financial literacy component to the program for both students and parents.
At a recent Juntos 4-H kickoff event and orientation held at New York Life’s general office in San Antonio, 25 employees signed up as potential participants.
“New York Life is interested in helping Latino youth grow into tomorrow’s leaders,” said Hector Vilchis, New York Life corporate vice president and market manager. “We conduct business in the Latino community and participating in this program is one way we’re giving back to that community.”
“We are pleased that the Juntos 4-H program in San Antonio will provide middle school students with the support, mentors and guidance they need to succeed in high school, graduate on time and pursue a college education,” said Marlyn Torres, corporate vice president of the New York Life Foundation. “This is a unique and exciting grant, which will incorporate New York Life’s Latino Employee Resource Group and Latino Market agents to provide local volunteer support.”
One of the Juntos 4-H program participants, Jewelianna Flores, 13, attended the kickoff with her father, speaking to attendees about what the program has done for her and her family.
“Juntos 4-H has helped me be more comfortable speaking in public and has helped me improve my grades,” Flores said. “I wasn’t doing well in a few subjects, but now I’m making all As. The program has also helped me and my parents communicate better and has made a big difference in my life.”
“The program hasn’t only helped my daughter but my 8-year-old son too,” said her father, Nathaniel Flores. “It has really helped Jewelianna come out of her shell and blossom as a person. And now that my son has seen what a difference the program has made, he wants to be part of it when he gets older.”
According to Juntos 4-H program developers, research shows Hispanic youth are at greatest risk for dropping out of school between the ninth and 10th grades. Efforts at Leal are focused on eighth graders to help them academically and to teach life skills, teamwork, leadership and citizenship.
The program has four main components: family workshops and monthly check-ins; bi-monthly afterschool 4-H club meetings; monthly or as needed one-on-one success coaching and access to college and community mentors; and summer programming at 4-H camps, college-campus visits and other educational conferences.
“We started with 60 eighth-graders, working with teachers, administrators and others to provide them with the knowledge, skills and resources needed so they would not only stay in school but also aspire to attend college,” said Juntos 4-H program coordinator Cecilia Martinez, who works onsite at Leal.
Martinez meets once a month with parents to discuss student progress and interests, plus has regular coaching sessions with the students to help them plan and set personal goals.
At the school, some of the projects and activities program students and their parents have been involved with have included family nights, a math night, an “All About Me” scrapbooking project, spelling bee and public speaking practice sessions.
“This program is making a huge difference in the lives of these students,” said Dr. Carol Harle, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the Harlandale Independent School District. “It has given them unique experiences and opportunities they could not have gotten otherwise.”
Other program activities have included field trips to various businesses and institutes of higher learning to introduce the students to both educational and professional opportunities. These included field trips to the San Antonio Express-News, Texas A&M University in College Station, and University of Texas campuses in San Antonio and Austin.
“During the university tours, students meet other Latinos pursuing degrees in higher education who might serve as role models or possibly even mentors,” Garcia said. ”And to help foster community service, which is a keystone of 4-H, during Christmas break Ms. Martinez and several students helped wrap gifts for the Toys for Tots program.”
This year, students will participate in a “summer academy” at Our Lady of the Lake University.
“We’ll introduce them to the STEAM subjects, which are science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics,” said Dr. George Williams, dean of students at OLLU, who attended the kickoff. “They will have a chance to learn about robotics and other technologies as well as other subjects.”
Martinez will also follow up with students currently enrolled in the program as they start ninth grade at Harlandale High School to ensure they receive coaching, remain in school and are successful in their academic endeavors.
Another 60 youth will be brought into the program at Leal next year. Martinez said she hopes to include additional life science education and school athletics-related activities, along with addressing additional topics such as nutrition, health and wellness, dropout prevention and parenting.
“By 2035, one-third of all American children will be Latino. That means many more Hispanic youth who will need programs tailored to meet their unique youth development needs,” said Jennifer Sirangelo, president and CEO, National 4-H Council, Chevy Chase, Maryland. “We are thrilled to have the New York Life Foundation’s support of our commitment to bring life-changing 4-H youth development programs like this to more Hispanic youth across the nation.”