NHI Launches Program for Graduating 8th Graders
This story will appear in the next edition of the print edition of NHI Magazine, out in January 2017; the issue will also include features on Celebracion 2016, the 2016 Distinguished Alumni Awards, the importance of the Rio Grande Valley to NHI’s development, the legacy left by Stephen Merritt at Villanova University, and more.
The National Hispanic Institute has opened a new chapter in its storied history of training Latino leaders, by expanding its training to students making the leap from middle school to high school.
The inaugural July 2016 program, hosted by Mathis ISD (near Corpus Christi), is the first of its kind for students in between 8th and 9th grades. Mathis students have been attending NHI programs since 2007, and Mathis ISD Superintendent Benny Hernandez has seen the difference that NHI training made for Mathis ISD students attending its summer programs.
So, as he asked the group of parents whose children attended the inaugural program, “What if a group of incoming 9th graders could be trained by NHI in Mathis? They would begin their high school experience with the speaking, writing, and critical thinking skills found in students with NHI training. And, what if NHI and the district offered the training to each year’s incoming freshmen?”
The 21 students in the program participated in four days of intensive training from July 12-15, culminating with a presentation for their parents in which they showcased the writing, speaking, critical thinking, and debate skills they practiced over the course of the training.
Now, several months into their freshman year, the students are reporting that the NHI training gave them a boost as they readied themselves for the challenges of high school.
“Meeting people is much easier because I know how to approach them and begin a conversation,” said Kataryna Smith, recalling one of her takeaways from the program. She also valued the focus on writing during the program, noting that now her writing “comes more naturally.”
Similarly, Victoria Rivera Washington credits the program for changes she’s made in her life, noting, “I understand how I became the person I am today.” She attributes her improved confidence in front of groups, her decreasing shyness, and better writing to her initial NHI experience.
The program didn’t just impact the students participating – it made a difference for the current Mathis High School students who served as mentors to the newly-graduated middle school students. Andrea Armador said, “We experienced our own growth during NHI training and it was so interesting to see the students grow in self-confidence.”
Another of the mentors, Jaslynn Fields, suggested that the mentors continue to mentor the new high schoolers throughout the school year, as mentoring will benefit the mentors as well as the 9th graders. Armador and two other mentors, Abigail Rosales and Mercedez Sarate, were in agreement on the full-year mentoring concept.
Educators who worked with the students also noticed the impact the program had.
“The difference in the students was dramatic from Day 5 compared to Day 1,” said Robert Garza, the College Readiness Coordinator for Mathis High School, who manages the school’s NHI leadership program. “On the first day, they had to be coerced to stand up and speak loudly and clearly. After the getting-to-know-one-another part of the program, the students were more at ease and were more willing to let go and speak about themselves, barriers, and family heroes.”
He also notes that NHI staff and mentors helped the students open up in their work on a writing assignment, resulting in students who “surprised themselves at how well and how much they had written.”
“I have seen dozens of programs over the years but nothing compares to what I witnessed at the NHI Summer Camp,” added Mathis ISD community liaison Ernesto DeLuna. He praised NHI as “magicians” for inspiring students throughout the program, reporting that the participating students now walk around campus “with their heads held up high and full of confidence.”
According to NHI founder and president Ernesto Nieto, the idea for a program for students between 8th and 9th grade came out of extended discussions he had with NHI executive vice president Gloria de Leon about the need to reach students at that critical juncture. Nieto notes, “The transition from the 8th to 9th grade is the most challenging for students, especially among first-generation, low-income youth, including students making good grades. Unless there are interventions that guide these youth during this process, the majority become ‘off track,’ by the end of their 9th grade year, failing at least one or more courses.”
But it was actually Benny Hernandez, the Mathis ISD superintendent, who specifically asked NHI to create a pilot program for his district’s middle school graduates, in part because of the positive effects he’d seen on the high school students who’d gone through NHI programs. That request, according to Nieto, was the catalyst NHI needed to make its dreams of such a program a reality.
In particular, Nieto feels that the creative writing component of the program—led by author Guadalupe Garcia McCall, an award-winning youth adult novelist and educator based in San Antonio—was most impactful. The idea was for students to think about “relatives of students who not only influenced family life, but were also seen as family heroes, heroines, or legends,” he explained. “Interestingly, most of the students choose to write about grandparents. In many cases, the participants broke down in tears remembering their loved ones who in many cases were no longer living. It drove home the life lessons they offered and their continuing influence in shaping the outlooks and views of the students.” Nieto sees it as the most emotional part of an incredibly emotional week in which students learned and grew.
Nieto and de Leon plan to return to Mathis before the end of 2016 to check in on the students and to get a better sense of the post-program positive effects—and perhaps, in the process, to think about how this newest NHI program might grow.