Back-to-school time for Maria Gonzalez means Friday evenings in a church basement, surrounded by 30 teens chattering in a mix of English and Spanish. She pushes them to excel in school, though she is not a teacher.
Ms. Gonzalez has assigned herself a mission: to improve the graduation rates and college attendance of Hispanic youths in Torrington and Winsted, Conn.
She fears that immigrant teens in Torrington and Winsted believe college is out of reach because they live in poverty or are unsure of the English language. So Gonzalez pushes these teens to succeed in school.
"Do something so you don't have to be stuck in a factory," she tells them. "You have the opportunity. Take advantage of that."
The problems Gonzalez is tackling might be newer to Torrington, where the immigrant population has grown recently. The national Hispanic high school dropout rate is 21 percent compared with the national average of 10 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Additionally, students of color, those from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation students are less likely to apply for college or complete postsecondary education, according to the center.
Gonzalez started her program, which she calls Youth Opportunities, in January with a grant of a little more than $3,000. She meets with teens in the basement room at Trinity Episcopal Church on Friday nights, and begins with a group activity. Then there's a guest speaker, followed by lessons in traditional Dominican and Puerto Rican dance. Throughout the evening, tutors meet with individual students needing help on homework or school projects.
Because of Hispanic students who drop out of school, "people in Torrington think that Hispanics are up to no good," he said. "She's trying to change that."
"I can see that too many kids, they don't have anything to do after school. They're coming here and they want to stay here," Danny's mother, Dolores Ramirez, said.
Ms. Ramirez said she arrived early to drop her son off one Friday during the winter and there were already kids standing outside the door in the cold waiting for Gonzalez.
"She is loving," she said. "And all these kids, they love her."