September 26, 2008
By Javier Tovar
What are forty Hispanic boys between the ages of 11 and 14 doing at 7 o’clock in the morning? It’s not easy to guess, but in North San Diego County we can bear witness that they are fighting. Although they are not fighting one another, they are battling for an adequate education in order to graduate from the university one day. The education these young students are getting is a result of a new class which just finished its first week. The course is being offered at Madison Middle School in Oceanside right at the limits with the city of Vista.
This new class is part of the Encuentros Program, a community based non-profit organization. Encuentros is a curriculum designed to aid our Hispanic youth that drop-out during their high school years. This organization was founded in 2003 by a group of leaders within the North County San Diego community, which is helping and encouraging Hispanic boys to graduate from high school along with promoting post-secondary education.
Statistics show that for every 100 students of Hispanic decent, 53 will abandon their studies and drop-out of high school in North San Diego County. These statistics, according to Dr. Carlos von Son, are “...tragic and confirm that current curriculum is not designed for students of marginal groups”. The Encuentros class is providing these boys with proper extracurricular resources, through which they are learning the importance of their culture and education in order to have a promising future.
The title of the textbook used for the course is “Encuentros: Hombre a Hombre” written by Dr. Francisco Reveles, a professor at California State University in Sacramento. The book offers the students a vein of knowledge that has previously been ignored and provides students with the opportunity to discover more of their own culture in order to develop their self-esteem with actual knowledge instead of stereotypes.
Upon entering the classroom one truly feels at home, given that the room is decorated with symbols of native civilizations from Mexico like the Aztec calendar. The flags of Mexican soccer teams like Cruz Azul and Chivas de Guadalajara are also contemporary symbols, and add to the feeling of home. The classroom has been decorated by Pedro Fuentez, a Spanish teacher at the middle school, and has plentiful typical Mexican decorations that hang from the ceiling or that are attached to the walls. Fuentez’ classroom is uncommon in classrooms throughout the United States.
The students celebrate these symbols and they discuss the Mesoamerican calendars and other icons from Mexico and Central America. The boys are learning and enjoying the new themes presented in class every day and that are being silenced in the normal classroom curriculum. For example Jorge, who is 14 years old, commented that as a result of this class, he has learned that his ancestors came from the Zapotec civilization. He is learning about the importance of their culture to the development of past Mesoamerican cultures and naturally to modern Mexico. When asked what he enjoys most about the Encuentros class, he responded “I like how much I’m learning about the Mexican culture. I like that we talk about things that we normally would not learn in other classes”. Mark, an eight grade student, expressed that this class gives him a different perspective. “I like this class because it encourages me to continue with my education, and the subjects are very interesting. One day I would like to be an FBI agent”.
Dr. Robert Pack, Madison Middle School principal, stated that he is amazed with the effort of the young students for waking up so early in order to attend the Encuentros class. “These guys are waking up at the crack of dawn to improve and learn. The simple fact of waking up so early in the morning to come to class is extraordinary. These students are getting up two hours before everyone else to learn about this course, which is designed to motivate them to succeed in their studies”. The Encuentros class is considered a zero period since it begins at 7am, one and a half hours before the other the students are scheduled to begin school. “The course goes beyond what I expected; I did not foresee this type of result from the students”, added Dr. Pack.
Dr. Carlos von Son, a professor at both MiraCosta and Palomar Colleges, is teaching the class and is an Encuentros board of directors’ member. Along with the support of Pedro Fuentez, a Madison Middle School teacher, and the assistant Omar Canseco, a California State University San Marcos student. Rosemarie Ponce, a counselor at the school, has been a fundamental contributor for the class to happen. Pedro Fuentez commented that “…these boys, at the level they are, have a marvelous opportunity. In this class they will see that out there are Hispanic men who have met their goals because of their education”. Mr. Fuentez is referring to the different guest speakers that visit the class to share their experiences and serve as role models. Mr. Fuentez mentioned that he would like to see parents participate in the course by supporting their children’s education.
The Encuentros organization is made of three main components. The first is an annual Educational and Career Exploration Conference that allows 600 middle and high school students the opportunity to explore possible careers. This year’s conference will take place on October 4th, at MiraCosta Community College, where Dr. von Son teaches. The conference is organized under the leadership of Lisa Montes who also works at MiraCosta College. This years conference has all 600 spots available filled. The second component is the well recognized Encuentros Summer Leadership Academy, which takes place at the California State University in San Marcos. At the academy, students live on campus for a week where they have workshops and activities that motivate them to succeed in their education, and also they receive leadership training so that they can help in their communities. The third component is the Encuentros Course. The course’ objective is to save Hispanic students from dropping out of school.
Rancho Minerva Middle School in Vista is offering the Encuentros class as well under the instruction of David Prieto and the support of school psychologist Joaquin Aganza from the Vista Unified School District. Mark Evilsizer and Roberto Rivas have both been fundamental in forming the Encuentros Group and they continue to support the Hispanic students of North County.
The communities’ support is essential for the success of this project. If the Encuentros Course is successful, it might be replicated in countless schools throughout the state of California. If you would like collaborate or obtain more information about Encuentros, please visit their webpage at www.palomar.edu/encuentros.