By Abby Spegman

The Bulletin

MADRAS — As anyone who has ever filled out the FAFSA or written about “the person you most admire” (350 words or less) knows: Applying to college is hard. You have to take the right classes, join the right clubs, pick the right school — and then figure out how to pay for it.

It can be even harder for Latino students who are the first in their families to navigate the unfamiliar process.

“They do not believe that college is possible,” said Steven Wetherald, a teacher at Bend High School who works with Latino students. “They’ll tell you, ‘College is for rich people.’”

As more and more jobs require a post-secondary degree, advocates say education for this growing population is key to the region’s economic future. Now, a slew of programs in Central Oregon are working to convince these students and their families that college is a realistic option and show them how to make it happen.

Between 2000 and 2010, the Latino population in Oregon grew by 64 percent, and that growth is reflected in local school districts: Today, Latinos make up 11 percent of students in Bend-La Pine, 16 percent in Redmond and 34 percent in Jefferson County. But college is different. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in 2010 Latinos made up 20 percent of Oregon’s public K-12 students but only 7 percent of public post-secondary students.

“Latinos have a closed mind that when they graduate from high school, that’s it. We’re proud of them, and that’s it,” said Irma Valerio, a parent facilitator for the Juntos (“Together”) program in Madras, a partnership between the school district, OSU Open Campus and Central Oregon Community College. Over six weeks, families with students as young as eighth grade learn about the importance of higher education, culminating in a graduation ceremony and visit to Oregon State University in Corvallis.

On a recent Monday night, Valerio talked to a dozen students and parents, mostly in Spanish, about SATs and GPAs and where to find scholarships.

Valerio attended the workshop with her son and daughter in its first year.

“I wanted them to go to college, but we didn’t have (any) answers. We had a lot of questions but we didn’t have the resources.”

Since then, she said, her son has enrolled at COCC, and her daughter, now a junior at Madras High, is starting to look at schools.

Karina Smith runs Paso a Paso (“Step by Step”), an after-school college prep program for middle-schoolers that started this year in Redmond, Madras and Culver through COCC. Smith said education traditionally has not been a priority for Latino families, but that’s changing.

“We want to help families understand that our background is different than what’s happening now,” Smith said. “These children need to go to school. They need to think about college.”

While not overtly college-oriented — she sticks to general concepts for success such as conflict resolution, teamwork and communication — the message for her students is to take school seriously and think about the future. Soon.

“The earliest we can target, they will know, ‘I can reach (college) and I can dream and it can happen,’” Smith said.

Paso a Paso is modeled after ¡AVANZA! (“Forward!”), another COCC-run program at area high schools for Latino students in 10th through 12th grade. That program began in 2013 and is offered during the school day in Bend, Redmond, Culver and Crook County. Students discuss culture and leadership, scholarships and the importance of volunteerism. These aren’t necessarily high achievers, said coordinator Willan Cervantes. These are students who haven’t made up their minds about life after high school and might fall through the cracks without some encouragement.

Luis Navez, 18, is a senior at Bend High and participated in ¡AVANZA! Navez was born in Mexico and moved to Bend when he was 7.

“I honestly never imagined myself finishing high school,” he said. “I was OK. I was a good student overall throughout elementary and middle school, but I don’t know,” he said. Navez’s parents didn’t finish school, and they never talked to him about the possibility of going to college.

It was Wetherald, the teacher at Bend High, who got him thinking about the future. With his encouragement Navez went out for sports and took advanced classes. Next year, he plans to attend COCC, then transfer to University of Oregon. He wants to study education and become a teacher himself.

“I’m nervous, to be honest. I’m nervous, but I definitely want to take the challenge. It’s going to be a new environment all over again. That’s what I’m nervous about. I just hope I don’t let anybody down. I want to accomplish my goals, and I don’t want to fail,” he said. “I definitely don’t want to fail.”

‘One foot behind’

Latino students in Oregon are less likely to graduate high school and more likely to drop out than their peers. Last year, 65 percent graduated high school in four years compared to 72 percent of Oregon students overall. But data show they lag behind their peers beginning at a young age. They enter kindergarten less prepared in math and early literacy, and their scores on last year’s OAKS test were lower in reading, math, science and writing than the state average at every level. (The test is given in grades three through eight and 11.)

“They start with one foot behind,” said Roberto Franco, director of The Oregon Community Foundation’s Latino Partnership Program, which works to identify and address issues facing Latinos across the state. In Central Oregon, its focus has been education. It started the Central Oregon Latino Scholarship Fund and has given money to local groups, including Juntos and ¡AVANZA!

As COCC’s Latino student program coordinator, Evelia Sandoval works with students such as Navez to be successful in college. She said the biggest challenge, once they get there, is finding the money to stay.

“Honestly, you’re taking resources away from your family when you go to college. People think Latinos don’t want their kids to go to college, but it’s about resources,” she said. For undocumented immigrants who can’t receive federal student aid, Sandoval helps them find scholarships they do qualify for. COCC offers such a scholarship.

The good news is that education opportunities for these students can be passed down not only to their younger siblings but also to parents, even grandparents in the form of GED or English classes. Sandoval said when she meets with prospective COCC students, they bring the whole family and there might be four generations in the room. “I’m talking to all of them,” she said.

That is part of the reason Juntos is for students and their parents. Since beginning in Madras in 2012, the program has spread to Sisters, Culver, Redmond, The Dalles, Corvallis and beyond. A version in Warm Springs targets Native American families. Ana Gomez, the program coordinator, said the setting is as important as the message: surrounded by other Latino families, delivered in Spanish by a familiar face, often a parent or employee at the school.

“We’re not teaching the parents because they’re bad parents or anything like that, but we want to show that they can be successful working together,” she said. “The family becomes the center of the conversation.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7837,