Mother-Daughter Program Helps Hispanics

Texas nonprofit effort aims at keeping at-risk girls in school by involving mothers in their daughters' education

WHEN Rosa Juarez lost her factory job in 1986, she felt herself slipping into the sticky quagmire of poverty. Her greatest concern was that her two children would sink with her.

``We had to be embarrassed to get food stamps,'' Ms. Juarez recalls. ``I'd come home crying because they'd treat you so bad. I'd tell my kids, `get an education so you never, never have to go through this.' ''

Today, Juarez is a college graduate and fourth-grade bilingual education teacher in her hometown of El Paso, Texas. Both her children have excelled in school. The older, Jessica, beat the odds for poor, Hispanic girls by graduating from high school last spring as an honor student and cheerleader, voted the best all-around female student in her class by the school's faculty. She entered the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) this fall.

What changed the lives of the Juarez family is the Mother-Daughter Program, a collaborative effort begun in 1986 by volunteers from UTEP, several El Paso school districts, and the YWCA to direct poor, Hispanic girls toward higher education and professional careers.

The program targets sixth-graders from low socioeconomic backgrounds who have no college graduates in their families to serve as role models. The girls' mothers are an integral part of the program, because of the strong influence that Hispanic mothers have on their children's decisionmaking. Volunteer effort at first

Volunteers started the Mother-Daughter Program and kept it going for two years, until they received their first grants from the Gannett Foundation (now Freedom Forum) and the Meadows Foundation. Southwestern Bell, AT&T, and local funding sources have since pitched in to keep the program alive.

Josefina Tinajero, director of the Mother-Daughter Program and one of its founders, is a professor of education at UTEP. She recently received a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant to evaluate the program's success and to develop materials that other communities can use in creating similar programs. But the program continues to rely on the efforts of volunteers.

Motivating these efforts is a deep concern about Hispanic girls in this country. Dr. Tinajero describes Hispanic females as the most at-risk of all students in the United States. In Texas, 43 percent of Hispanic girls drop out before finishing high school; that number climbs to more than 60 percent in some communities.

Tinajero points to the long tradition of Hispanic women staying home to care for their families as one reason for this educational inequity.

``But the truth is,'' Tinajero says, ``that 54 percent of Hispanic women are now working outside the home. The idea that women can stay home is a myth today. They'll have to work, so we want to have them prepared with education.''

The Mother-Daughter Program began that preparation with 33 sixth-graders and their mothers seven years ago. Since then, the program has had 150 new participants each year. According to Tinajero, the decision to work with sixth-graders is vital, since kids begin to form their decisions about staying in school as early as the elementary grades.

The program is designed to track the girls' progress through their first year of college. A hoped-for expansion program to involve the girls in activities beyond the sixth grade hasn't been put in place because of lack of funding, however. Still, informal contact with many of the mothers and daughters has continued.

Tinajero and her associate director, Tita Yanar, are Hispanic women who grew up together in an El Paso housing project. They have settled on four key approaches for directing girls toward higher education and professional careers:

* Educate mothers to become their daughters' primary educational advocates and supporters.

* Encourage mothers and daughters to be proud of their heritage and language.

* Familiarize girls with a university setting to minimize their fears and help them understand their options. This makes long-term goals seem more realistic.

* Present successful Hispanic female role models to the girls and their mothers to help them raise their educational and career aspirations and realize that they, too, can succeed.

With the first Mother-Daughter participants just graduating from high school last spring, it's too soon to fully gauge the program's impact. But one early measure is the sound of confidence in the voices of participants.

Adriana de Jong Gomez, who was a sixth-grader in the program last year, now speaks with assurance about attending college.

``I like going to UTEP,'' she says. ``It was important, because when I start going there, I won't get lost. I'll feel familiar.'' First to earn college degree

For mothers and daughters alike, the program's greatest impact seems to come from meeting highly successful Hispanic women and hearing their life stories.

Adriana's mother, Norma de Jong Gomez, recalls: ``Judge Lupe Rivera told us how she went out of town to law school with two small boys. She said she lived in one pair of jeans for a whole year. I thought, I'm just making excuses for not going back to school myself. If she did it, anybody can.'' Ms. De Jong Gomez enrolled at the community college the next semester.

This desire of many mothers to improve their own educations has been an unanticipated benefit of the Mother-Daughter Program. Rosa Juarez was the first mother in the program to earn her college degree.

``The Mother-Daughter Program opened a door for me that led to a way out,'' Juarez says now. ``I remember how they took us to a medical center and we listened to the stories of the professional women there. Many had gone through what I had, with divorce and kids. This gave me a little spark of hope for myself. I thought, maybe I could do this, too - maybe I could go on to school myself.''

Juarez devotes much of her own time now helping her fourth-graders and their families after school to see possibilities for improving their lives. ``That's what I'm there for,'' she says with certainty, ``to pass this inspiration along.''

One goal of the Mother-Daughter Program is to have program alumnae returning in a few years as successful Hispanic role models for new participants. The first group is well on its way, with 32 of the first 33 participants having graduated from high school. Ten of the girls were honor students, and all but one of them are attending college this fall.

Knowing that their families and community want them to succeed heads these girls in the direction of success. Seeing Hispanic women leaders lets them know success is possible for them. And having their mothers beside them gives them the courage to succeed.

``It pushed me in school to know there were people who believed in me and expected me to go for the best and accept challenges,'' Jessica says. ``They handed me the baton. I don't want to let them down.''

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