By Raymond R. Beltran
In 1986, a woman named Carmen Sierras-Carroll took a job in the tutoring lab at Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley. She had just moved from Washington where she had lived for twenty-six years, and where she had taught migrant education. Emerging into the high school system and working with teenage students, Carroll began to notice the lack of guidance and determination within the students’ programs.
“In the tutoring lab, I met a lot of kids from other countries,” says Carroll. “And I realized kids needed encouragement. I wanted to get helpers that were doing well and set up a program to help themselves.”
Sixteen years later into the year 2002, Carroll’s dream has grown out of the tutoring lab and has become a full-fledged organization known as the Si Se Puede Leadership Program. The program is based on encouraging the students to build leadership skills as a student, while they look ahead into the future as adults.
With the dropout rate at a steady high percent in the past couple of decades, the students in the program are not relying solely on their teachers anymore, but they are looking to themselves. The program has grown into several different schools in East County San Diego and has an approximated 200 members with a 98 percent of the members continuing on to college.
“We needed to bring role models to the kids, Latinos who achieved their goals,” Carroll says while reminiscing on the foundation of the program. “Our first speaker was a man named Mr. Ochoa, a professor from SDSU, and the kids needed to run the conference. We would sit back and they would run it. That was the concept.”
With the title deriving from Chavez’s war cry for social change in the work fields, the group seeks change within itself inside the realm of the educational system. Through the migrant worker’s history in the United States, and through the determination and leadership of Cesar Chavez and his accomplishments during the Chicano Movimiento that we embrace the phrase, “Si Se Puede.” Yes, you can. It is in this term that we as Chicanos can face the difficult situations in our lives and overcome them through the remembrance of our antepasados.
As of the year 2000, research done by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that 10.9 percent of all students in the United States do not finish school. That equals 3.8 million youths, from sixteen years old and up, out of the 34.6 million that are enrolled. With that in mind, 27.9 percent of the Latino population is not finishing their education. This includes those born outside of the U.S., those who are first generation, and those who are second generation U.S. citizens.
“There’s so many different groups,” Carroll says about the Mexican American community. “There’s the first generation. There’s the pochos, and the cholos. We’re still the top dropouts. We’re so much stronger together.”
The program has a council where the students hold the positions of president, vice-president, treasurer, historian, and secretary. They also take part in organizing a variety of events. Every year they have an annual leadership conference, where all members of the program come together and get involved in workshops to build public speaking skills and create new leadership ideas. During their workweek, the members hold meetings with their advisors and exchange ideas on how to raise funds and to make sure that the member’s academic status is up to par. They decide on public speakers they would like to hear from, and those that come are chosen because they hold a position in society that the students themselves aspire to.
In 1994, Carroll introduced her story and her program to Harmonium, Inc., a non-profit community organization determined to improve the living situation and opportunities of families throughout San Diego. Harmonium embraced the idea and now, Si Se Puede is one of the projects under the organization’s umbrella, which provided financial support for the program and those involved. It also provided Victoria Bustillos, the programs first full time director.
“[Harmonium] saw how successful Si Se Puede was and they wanted to open it up to the kids and give them more options,” says Bustillos. “So, other kids at other schools could take advantage.”
With the number of members growing, and more schools looking to take part in the program, the students find themselves more involved in the community. “They take part in Time Exchange,” says Bustillos. “It’s a Spring Valley and Lemon Grove program where if an elderly person needs their house cleaned, or yard cleaned, the kids do it, anything where the youths can help. And, they talk to them to see what they’re going through.”
Other ethnicities suffer from dropout rates in their own population as well. Black students have an average of 13.1 percent of their population not finishing school. White students and Asian/Pacific Islander’s stay in between an average of a 3 and 7 percent dropout rate for their population. But, even though their percentages are small, their populations in the education system are greater, which means that their actual numbers are still in the millions.
“When we started, it was open to everyone. Then, we focused on Latinos,” says Bustillos. “Then, the kids asked for more diversity to learn about other cultures and to see what they experience. Now, it’s real multi-cultural. The kids run everything it’s all their idea.”
Diana Gabriela Carrasco, president of the new Granite Hills High School Si Se Puede Program, says that when it was introduced to her school, there were only twenty-five students that attended meetings. Since then, the program has grown to forty-five, and it’s not just for the Latinos. “When you walk around campus, everyone hangs around with themselves, race-wise,” says Carrasco. “But, when we’re in there, we’re all together and color doesn’t matter. We all get along, and it’s for everybody. We all make it happen.”
As president of the program at Granite Hills, Carrasco has learned a lot about herself as a person and not just a student. “I’ve learned that I could be really confident. It’s really hard to stand in front of forty-three people.” And, it is this confidence that the program determines to promote in its mission. This being Carrasco’s senior year in high school, she’s not yet sure what she wants to do, but she is going to attend college in the fall of 2003.
Patrice Moreno, Alex Cuestra, and Sal Campos were asked by Diversion Officer Marla Cincade of the El Cajon Police Department to start the program at Granite Hills High School in the east county.
“Personally, I didn’t know there was a need for it, but she’s a diversion officer for the El Cajon Police Department,” says Moreno, a mother of two students at Granite Hills and parent advisor of Si Se Puede. “She felt there was a need there. She could see the need there. She felt that this program would help the kids and bring them together, and put them back on track with staying in school and keeping their goals.”
“It’s an overwhelming response. You see in that they want something to cling to,” she says. “They want something to guide them. It’s kind of scary because you never know which direction these kids are going to go. They all just showed up. They want to be so much involved in the program and they want all those doors to be opened up, and that’s what we promised them in the beginning when we started.”
Currently, the Si Se Puede Leadership Program is in affect at Mount Miguel High, Monte Vista High, Granite Hills High, La Presa Middle School, Spring Valley Middle School, and Grossmont High School has recently requested the program for their campus as well.
Everyone has their own idea of where they would like to aim their focus on for the future. Bustillos would like to see the program spread throughout different schools in San Diego, and for everyone to recognize what they are trying to do. Carrasco is off to college next year and says she wouldn’t mind taking the program with her. Moreno says the program needs to be presented to some major corporations in San Diego for financial support, because ultimately it would be great to be able to give the students a scholarship award program as well. And as for the retired founder of the Si Se Puede Leadership Program, Carmen Sierros-Carroll, she still has the hopes that she had back in ’86: to see the dropout rate of all students reducing into non-existence. Si Se Puede!