Program for minority students under budget review in District 51

Nelly Garcia didn’t think she could go to college until her LEAG advocate said it was possible.

LEAG, which stood for Latino Education Achievement to Graduation when Garcia was in school but changed its acronym last year to mean Leadership for Education, Achievement and Graduation, provides an advocate at each School District 51 middle and high school who encourages minority and low-income students to show up for class, achieve good grades and graduate. If they want to continue their education beyond high school, advocates encourage seniors to go to college and guide them through the financial aid and college application process.

That support helped Garcia, a former English Language Learner student who graduation from Grand Junction High School in 2005, to become the first person in her family to go to college. She graduated from then-Mesa State College in 2010.

Now Garcia is afraid students like her won’t realize their full potential. District 51 School Board members reviewed a budget reduction proposal last week that called for $5.76 million in cuts, including the elimination of all 12 LEAG advocate positions for a savings of $310,000 and cutting the LEAG supply budget for an additional $7,000.

“My parents didn’t know how to help me so LEAG was there for me,” Garcia told the board during a public comment period at the meeting. “Help our students. They need you.”

Many on track

It would appear not all students in LEAG need as much guidance as Garcia. District 51 tracks the success of LEAG high school students based on how many students are or have ever been in LEAG. But of those 393 high school students, just 185 — fewer than half — meet any of the suggested criteria for entering the program. Those criteria are that the student have a grade point average between 1.5 and 2.4, attend school less than 90 percent of the time, be behind in high school credits, or have an excessive need for disciplinary action.

Of the 313 high school students who participated in LEAG in 2011-12, 41 percent had a higher GPA than the criteria, attended school more often, or were already on track to graduate when they joined the group.

The number of students in the LEAG program decreased by 20 students year-over-year to 1,035 in 2010-11, according to District 51 data. The percentage of LEAG seniors who graduated also declined, from 90 percent in 2010 to 87.5 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, a smaller percentage of LEAG participants had a GPA below 2.0 or attendance below 90 percent in 2010-11 compared to 2009-10.

The possible end of LEAG won’t mean the end of programs for low-income and minority students, according to Susana Wittrock, District 51 executive director of equity and minority student performance. Central and Palisade high schools and Mount Garfield and Grand Mesa middle schools have AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, and Grand Junction High School has a similar program called Students Taking Responsibility In Valuing Education, or STRIVE. Both programs are focused on preparing students for postsecondary education.

Mentor, grant help

There are programs for homeless students (REACH) and migrant students (Migrant Education Program). Also, Parent Centers are designed to offer parents support and connect families with local services at some elementary schools; and Math Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) is a group for minorities and girls.

Wittrock said she hopes to implement more diversity training for teachers and encourage Colorado Mesa University students in diversity clubs to mentor local students if LEAG is eliminated. The district is waiting to hear in July whether it will receive a grant to implement a new program that will pay “attendance advocates” to visit families when a student’s attendance dips below 80 percent. The advocate will try to determine why the student isn’t going to school, such as a need in the family for the student to work, and offer to connect the family with local services that may help, such as on-line schooling.

Palisade and Fruita Monument high schools will each have one advocate and there will be two each at Grand Junction High and Central High if the grant is approved, Wittrock said.

“I’m confident if we take a proactive approach things are going to be OK,” Wittrock said.

Not everyone is confident about the future, though. Wittrock said one of the 12 LEAG advocates decided to retire before the 2012-13 school year, but the other advocates may be laid off. As of Friday night, 116 people had signed a petition at Change.org created by a LEAG advocate asking for the School Board to reconsider cutting the program. Supporters have posted supportive comments crediting LEAG for their success in middle school, high school, college and in their professional lives.

It’s a message echoed by LEAG supporter Juanita Trujillo at last week’s School Board meeting.

“I’m asking that you reconsider that cut” to LEAG, she told the board. “The support is necessary ... I don’t want to see a step back 10-plus years.”


COMMENTS

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I think I need more education about the structure of our educational system. Obviously things have changed a lot since I was in public school. I thought Deans did what LEAG advocates do. Do we still have Deans in the school system? I can understand that cultural differences might dictate the need for some specialists, but all kids should be encouraged to stay in school and make good grades. Clearly we are failing more than just minority kids, given that we still have a 30% drop-out rate in our school system.

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