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Oklahoma State University


Tue, October 11, 2016
Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources

Bringing students together

Participants in the Juntos program offered by the Tulsa County OSU Cooperative Extension office get to spend two days living and working on the OSU campus in Stillwater while they engage in STEM-related projects and other activities. Photo/Todd Johnson

There was a point in Brayn Lozano’s young life when he was not sure college was for him. But that was before he connected with Juntos, an innovative, research-based, culturally appropriate program successfully mentoring at-risk Latino youth.

“But now that I’m doing all this stuff, I see there’s a lot of activities, a lot of stuff I can do,” said the sophomore at East Central Junior High School in Tulsa. “I like the program because I’m learning a lot of new things. They are teaching me how to do a lot of different activities and what I can do later on in the future, who I can be and what I want to do.”

Juntos takes its name from the Spanish word for “together,” and the concept of collectively bonding together in pursuit of the important goal of earning an education is a strong and deeply anchored theme throughout the entire program.

That is the idea behind Juntos – opening students’ eyes to a future of possibilities they have perhaps never imagined. The program has been operating in Tulsa’s East Central and Nathan Hale Junior High Schools since the 2013-14 academic year and now serves nearly 100 eighth and ninth graders, including the 50 students added this fall.

School officials select students for participation in Juntos. Eligible participants are identified as students who are struggling academically and at a higher risk for failure if they continue on their current path. The program is built around three major components:

A six-week family workshop series followed by monthly family nights that help acculturate families to the U.S. educational system, promote education as a family goal and strengthen family communication and cohesion.

One-on- one support provided by a success coach to participants and their families based on a customized personal education plan.

Participation in an urban 4-H club promoting science, technology, engineering and math activities; positive peer connections; crucial life skills; and meaningful service learning projects.

“It’s all about partnership and doing things together and uniting other people to make friends and do activities instead of staying home,” said Leonardo Guerrero, a ninth grader at Nathan Hale and Juntos participant. “You make new friends, do activities, go places. You do activities together, but it all involves teamwork, no matter what.”

Activities include a mix of fun experiences and educational opportunities. For instance, Guerrero tried ice skating for the first time and enjoyed a professional soccer game compliments of Juntos.

As part of the program’s educational slate, participants spend two full days in the summer living on the OSU campus in Stillwater, where they engage in STEM-related projects such as sequencing DNA from horses and working with video technology.

“I like it because we get to stay in the rooms and stuff. It’s like school, but it’s way more different,” Lozano said. “It’s like you’re getting ready for something. It’s getting you to understand stuff. It starts making you think about the future and who you want to be.”

While communities in Oregon, Texas and Florida also are implementing Juntos, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Iowa are part of a multistate research project related to the initiative. Early data on the program’s effectiveness is promising.

According to initial evaluations, Juntos generally improves students’ academic performance, prepares them for college and encourages parents to become more involved in school, while decreasing risky behaviors linked with dropout such as truancy.

More specifically, after eight months of programming, preliminary results show Juntos students at Nathan Hale and East Central reduced absences by 33 percent, cut tardiness by 23 percent and raised their grades by 29 percent.

If Juntos continues on its positive track, it not only will be a win for participating students and their families, but also for Oklahoma.

“Dropouts cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars every year in both social services expenditures and lost revenues. The ability of Oklahoma companies to find an appropriately trained and competent workforce is severely compromised,” said Ron Cox, OCES family science specialist and lead researcher with the program.

However, Juntos is shaping up to be a potentially powerful force countering those negative factors related to dropout rates.

“We’ve trained folks from the community to work in their communities,” Cox said. “We’re also using multiple angles to address the issue, including parent involvement, positive youth development and positive peer affiliations. Finally, I think the extended nature of the program also is important. Participants receive a full year of intensive intervention.”

Once the program model is fully tested, program administrators plan to expand Juntos into Oklahoma City and, eventually, throughout the state. Also, Juntos currently caters specifically to Latino youth, but the long-term vision of the program is to develop a framework that can be replicated with youth from other diverse backgrounds. In fact, researchers already have made progress adapting the program for African-American students.

“We want to create a model that will help youth in Oklahoma and across the nation become the successful leaders we know they can be,” Cox said.

By Leilana McKindra

College News Network

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