By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – Now in its fifth year, Oklahoma State University’s Unidos Se Puede (United We Can) program works with seventh and eighth-graders from five Tulsa Public Schools to encourage high school graduation and to promote higher education. About half the students are English language learners, whose parents speak only Spanish.
Alejandra Avina, like many eighth-graders, hasn’t yet determined what career she would like to pursue. To help her decide, Alejandra and over 100 other Tulsa youth in the Latino community are getting academic assistance from OSU’s Unidos Se Puede program.
“I think it is a pretty cool program because it brings people together and lets people know what is going on in the community,” Alejandra said. “It also teaches us that we can go into a career and not quit after high school.”
The program began when Dr. Ron Cox and his colleagues from OSU’s department of Human Development and Family Science were doing a needs assessment of Latino communities in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Lawton, Altus, Guymon, Stillwater and Clinton.
“We learned a lot about parents’ fears and their desire to help their children do better academically and to stay away from high-risk behaviors like substance abuse or teen pregnancy,” Cox said.
The program focuses on family engagement, positive peer affiliations, and child personal agency. According to Cox, for a young person to acquire “agency” means they are learning how to act on their own behalf rather than allowing adults to be their only advocates. This critical point moves students from childhood dependency to the independence that is required in adulthood.
Through the Unidos program parents learn about the U.S. school system, including what a school counselor does, the importance of parent-teacher conferences, and why being on time to school is essential. Parents also learn research-based strategies to help their child succeed academically.
“These children come in with disadvantages both from poverty and maybe some traumatic experiences they have gone through,” Cox said. “We try to help them find either the resources they need to succeed or to coach them in a different way to view life.
“You hear so many people say ‘I’m not good at math or science.’ The way to look at that is ‘I’m really not good at that yet.’ And by adding that one little word, it changes their whole perspective. It frees the child to explore new pathways toward success. We do a lot of coaching around that.”
According to Cox, a child’s friends can have a lasting impact on their lives.
“You can’t tell a child who their friends are going to be,” Cox said. “But you can create a space where children who are like-minded can have fun together, which then helps them to develop those bonds and relationships that help create positive peer groups. “If the youth in our program start to think about academic success, that is like, who I’m going to be 10 years from now and how I’m going to get there, having them think this way in peer groups is mutually reinforcing. Kids start feeling like ‘hey, I belong here.’”
The Unidos program pairs students with a paid success coach. Typically, a college student or young professional, the coach works with both students and guardians to make important changes over the two years prior to entering high school.
“I can definitely tell the program is serving a huge need in the community,” said Elber Arroyo-Rivera, Unidos program coordinator. “The parents and students are really close with the coaches.”
Coaches have access to student grades and attendance records. If someone fails a test, the coach will help the student identify problem behaviors and to develop workable solutions, which can then be put into practice. Solutions such as finding a tutor if one is needed.
Guardians are coached to help encourage the student by making small changes in the home that reinforce the student’s goals to be successful.
“Education is not just the teachers teaching but it is also the parents nurturing,” Cox said. “If your child is going to be successful in school and in life, education has to begin at home. The parents have to be involved in a way that motivates and encourages. We help them do that.”
Alejandra’s mother, Francisca Avina wants the best for her three children. “My goal is for them to finish high school and then move on to whatever they want to do,” she said. “I would like them to learn a profession that they love.”
Francisca believes the program is needed, stating, “There are a lot of families that benefit from it.”
Students in the program have attended field trips to Tulsa Tech and the Philbrook Museum of Art; the summer academy at Camp Okiwanee, near Sapulpa; and workshops OSU-Stillwater about drones and atomic bonds.
“The kids walk away thinking college could be within reach for them,” Cox said.
Latino youth make up roughly one-third of the 40,000 students in Tulsa Public Schools.
To help determine the program’s success, students answer the same questions on multiple occasions before and after their involvement. For example: On a scale of one to 10, how depressed are you?
“This can measure if these two trajectories are significantly different,” Cox said. “If so, there was an effect.” Cox added that he would like to get funding to do a control group to better assess the program’s success.
The current grant runs through 2023. Cox is hoping to make components of the program available statewide.