Danna is one of my former students. I'm so proud of her! -Angela
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Posted on Thu, May. 03, 2007
The struggle to keep on dreaming, learning, winning
By Richard J. Gonzales
Special to the Star-Telegram
Danna Diaz Joseph's education -- formal and informal -- prepared her for one of the toughest jobs in the Fort Worth school district. As the dropout czar, Joseph spearheads an ambitious community effort to keep students in school.
With the help of several social service agencies, volunteers and school staff, she organized the first "iDream ... iLearn ... iWin Family Summit" on Saturday at Tarrant County College South Campus. About 200 parents and students listened as Fort Worth school district and TCC speakers encouraged them to dream big and work hard to reach their goals.
When friends ask Joseph how she's progressing toward her goals, she responds, "Estoy luchando" -- I'm struggling.
"Life is hard," Joseph said. "If we teach young people how to overcome barriers, then the world is in the palm of their hands."
She knows the dropout challenge well. In addition to her Ph.D. in education administration from the University of Texas at Austin, she earned a doctorate in survival in the streets and projects of Harlem. As a former gang member, pregnant teen, high school dropout and single parent, she learned that poverty, a drug-addicted father and negative peer pressure will lead youths astray.
"I know how it is to be underserved and know how it is to be a person of color ... I think that's what gives me the edge," she said.
At age 7, she aspired to become a teacher but had no idea how she would achieve the goal. At 7, she learned that Columbia University was just down the street from her neighborhood when a professor was killed in front of her elementary school.
In organizing the summit, she thought that schools of higher learning should open their doors to students and parents who live nearby so that they can demystify the academic world. Students need to walk the campus, see the classrooms and envision strolling across the stage and receiving their degrees. They need to learn how to convert dreams to reality.
Joseph has planned a second summit at the TCC Northwest Campus in the fall and a third at Texas Christian University next spring.
Juan Garcia, vice president for student development services at TCC South Campus, said the college is partnering with schools to help parents and students prepare for college.
"It's important to educate the Latino community," Garcia said. "We are the largest minority in the nation, but we're not represented in those numbers in the colleges and universities."
Joseph said that students drop out for several reasons. If a student falls behind academically and is retained in class, the chances of dropping out increase 50 percent. In the "High School Redesign" breakout session, a Fort Worth school district instructor said that studies have shown that a student failing the fifth grade TAKS in reading will have a 90 percent chance of not graduating.
Teen pregnancy and taking a job to help the family finances increase dropout risks, Joseph said. Another factor is that modern students, steeped in technology, are more easily bored with traditional lecture teaching formats. In the "High School Redesign" session, the instructor talked about re-educating teachers on how to engage these students more effectively.
At 21, Joseph earned her high school degree and pursued her dream to become a teacher. She recalled that a teacher supervisor told her that she could never be a good teacher until she mastered English. In two years after graduating from college with a bilingual education degree, she earned the Bilingual Teacher of the Year award in a Houston inner-city school.
After 30 years in Texas, she knows the Southwest Latino culture well and calls herself a naturalized Chicana.
Her desire to serve fuels her passion.
"I have to keep on moving," Joseph said. "Because if I don't do it -- who will?"
The community should respond to that challenge with: "We will!"