Las Cruces Sun-News.com
By The Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE (AP) Gabriela Dominguez wraps her arms around her cousins Adrian and Angel, encouraging them to study hard so they don't end up on Albuquerque's long list of dropouts.
The boys hug and kiss her back, even though she'll be "on their case" this afternoon at Washington Middle School about homework and grades.
The two 13-year-olds look up to 17-year-old Dominguez, who not only is their cousin but their mentor in ENLACE Los Companeros, a corps of volunteers who tutor and support families and children in seven Albuquerque middle and high schools.
The program started nearly seven years ago in hopes of boosting high school graduation rates in areas where dropout rates historically have been high.
The first ENLACE class of 215 seniors is on track to graduate in May.
Through the work of tutors such as Dominguez, ENLACE has startling results to report: 97 percent of the original group of midschoolers are expected to receive diplomas from Albuquerque, West Mesa and Valley high schools.
That is a phenomenal rate compared with districtwide longitudinal studies that indicate about 50 percent of ninth-graders will graduate from high school.
"We have a special dynamic, a special relationship" with the seniors who
started in the program as sixth-graders, said Antonio Gonzales, a former ENLACE mentor who keeps close tabs on the Albuquerque High group. "We've been able to grow together."
Many of the ENLACE seniors will be the first in their families to get a high school diploma and enroll in college.
ENLACE takes its name from Engaging Latino American Communities for Education, a partnership of the University of New Mexico and Albuquerque Public Schools to reduce the dropout rate, improve the graduation rate and get more students into college.
"ENLACE is one of the cheapest and best dropout prevention programs that our state has right now," Washington principal Cynthia Challberg-Hale said.
"What we are doing is actually working."
ENLACE officials said the program costs $128 per student per year.
In addition to Washington, ENLACE serves students at Garfield and Truman middle schools and four high schools, Albuquerque, West Mesa, Valley and Highland.
The Washington program serves 45 students with college and high school tutors and mentors. Not surprisingly, there's a waiting list at Washington for ENLACE tutoring and support, Challberg-Hale said.
Demographics for Washington would indicate a high dropout rate, but ENLACE students are succeeding despite poverty, language and other barriers in their lives, she said.
Of the original ENLACE students at Washington, 25 received intensive services, and only three of those dropped out, Gonzales said. One joined a gang and became a father; another got pregnant and didn't return to school; the third had to leave school to work to support herself, he said.
Gonzales, now the Albuquerque High activities director, was among the mentors in 2000 who helped recruit senior Dominguez into ENLACE Los Companeros when she was a sixth-grader at Washington.
Dominguez has come full circle at the school. She now tutors ENLACE students at Washington twice a week for high school elective credit.
"I think all of this is going to help me," Dominguez said. "I want to go into teaching and counseling."
Dominguez describes herself as a Mexican immigrant who struggled to learn English during third grade, her first year in the United States.
"I was 9 and afraid to go to school because I didn't speak English," she said.
In ENLACE, she found other Spanish-speakers who shared her fears, but the mentors helped them gain confidence, enjoy school and become bilingual, she said.
They were her support system outside of school, too. At age 16, when she was told she had cancer and had a tumor removed, she cried, though not because she was sick. "I didn't want to miss school," she said.
As an ENLACE mentor, she hopes Washington students will follow her example and appreciate ENLACE.
"We stayed together as a family," she said of her senior classmates.
"We are really close to our mentors, and we really trusted them, like they were our parents or our big brothers. But we had fun with them, and they made us do our homework."
She tutors as she was tutored.
"We're doing pretty much the same thing our mentors did for us," she said. "It's my turn to help."
Besides help with homework, mentors plan parties and field trips for the students. They also refer families in need for counseling and other social services.
At Albuquerque High, many of the ENLACE students are members of the Student Council, which Gonzales sponsors. Others are on the soccer team he coaches or serve as his office assistants.
Gonzales said he has mixed emotions about their day of separation in May when they graduate.
"I can't tell you how much these kids meant to me. This group will be special forever.
"These kids have done extremely well. When they were in middle school, I didn't think some of them would be here," he said.