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Giving talented Hispanic youths a head start

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 5, 1987

Georgetown, Texas

Juan Pedro Garcia, one of nine children of a Rio Grande Valley migrant farmworking family, leans back to display the red letters on his sweatshirt that name the school where he majors in electrical engineering: Stanford University. ``Before this, I was like a lot of other Hispanic kids,'' he says, gesturing to a gymnasium buzzing with the conversation of Hispanic high school students. ``After my experience here, I saw my direction clearer. I realized whatever I wanted to do, I could. But it was up to me to go out and open the doors for myself.''

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Mr. Garcia, a junior at Stanford, is describing the Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session, a one-week program each summer for some of the brightest of the state's Hispanic high school students. Named after the first vice-president of the Republic of Texas, the program was started six years ago by a Hispanic husband-and-wife team to encourage youth from the nation's fastest growing ethnic group to raise their sights and become the leaders their community needs.

Through discussions, three days of a mock state government at the capitol in nearby Austin, and a week of campus life at Southwestern University here, the program works to help students overcome prejudice from without the Hispanic community, as well as timidity and a self-imposed separateness from within, without sacrificing cultural heritage.

This year 264 students, mostly high school juniors, participated in the session, which ended Sunday. With 95 percent of the program's alumni now in college, it is considered a success by parents and college placement officers. The idea could be adopted next year in New Mexico and the Midwest.

With more than 45 percent of Hispanic youths dropping out before completing high school, much attention has been focused in recent years on the underachievers among Hispanic youth. As Hispanics become the majority of potential high school graduates in a number of US cities by the mid-1990s, efforts to reverse the dropout rate will grow in importance. The Lorenzo de Zavala program, or ``LDZ'' as it is called, works with academically motivated students and encourages them to be active in their communities.

``I think it's important I help now to motivate other kids,'' says Garcia, who this year was a senior counselor with the program. ``One of the special problems for many Hispanic youths is that there is no precedent for getting ahead, no role models. Maybe in a small way I can be a trend setter.''

The legislative session was started in 1981 by Ernesto Nieto and Gloria de Leon, both of whom had experienced the difficulty of leaving a close-knit and restricted community for what Mr. Nieto calls the ``mainstream of American society.'' Two years earlier they had established the National Hispanic Institute and tried a similar program to help young Hispanic professionals make that transition. But ``we found that to a large extent we were dealing with them too late,'' Nieto says.

``We decided we'd have to start sooner if we were going to help them take control of their own lives,'' he adds, ``rather than just focusing on fitting into someone else's life style.''

Nieto says schools and parents share a responsibility for the common reluctance among Hispanic youths to challenge limitations and compete. Noting that 85 percent of the participants in this year's session have an A- or better grade average, he says: ``There are a lot of kids getting good grades, but the self-motivation and self-direction is not there, and it is generally not encouraged.''