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Future Hispanic Leaders Focus on Academic Success, Pride in Heritage

Dr. Verenice Gutierrez, right, made a presentation about the impact of Hosford Middle School's Future Hispanic Leaders on the lives of youth at the 2008 Governor's Summit on Eliminating Disproportionate Minority Contact in the Juvenile Justice System.

Dr. Verenice Gutierrez, Assistant Principal at Hosford Middle School, is affectionately called “ Dr. G” by the youth in the Future Hispanic Leaders (FHL) group at the southeast Portland middle school. Now in its second year, FHL has drawn students of Latino origin to come together at weekly meetings to discuss issues unique to the Latino student experience at Hosford. The goal of the after-school program is to help students cultivate a pride in their heritage as Hispanics, and empower students to succeed in academics.

In her own words, Verenice discusses the successes and challenges in instilling a sense of ethnic pride and empowerment among students engaged in Future Hispanic Leaders.

When I was doing my dissertation work, I had done some research on successful leadership groups for kids. The focus of my dissertation was on Mexican immigrant girls, to explore their perceptions about how the school systems failed them. These are girls in alternative schools; many of them were there because of teen pregnancy.

These girls are taking care of babies, working and dealing with very adult situations in their lives. Yet, they’re attending class, and working on finishing high school. What kept them going? In interviews, I discovered that these girls had a strong maternal presence in their life: a mother, an abuelita, or a godmother. Each and every one of them had developed a deep, meaningful and sincere relationship with an adult in the school. Having someone who sincerely cares about them is what kept them motivated. To make sure that kids succeed, somebody needs to care, and demonstrate that they care.

At Hosford, the focus of Future Hispanic Leaders is mentorship, but it was also really important for me that the kids see themselves as successful. One of the first lessons I learned was that some of the kids identified as Hispanic on the school roster don’t necessarily own the identity. I had a kid come up and say, “I’m not Hispanic. My Dad’s Mexican, but that’s just him.” As hard as it was for me to let go, I had to respect their wishes not to be identified as Hispanic.

The mission from the get-go was to empower the kids through pride of culture, language and heritage. It was important for the kids to feel that their Hispanic heritage and culture has value. The emphasis is to work within the system in order to make a difference. Fighting against the system, you may make a difference, but you can make a bigger difference if you’re working within the system to change it.

Hosford Students Talk About the Impact of FHL


During the first year of the program, we had 72 Hispanic students at Hosford, and only 28 decided to join at first. By the end of the year, we had a total of 38 students. The kids that joined later felt that FHL was a safe place. In its second year, we have 50 students out of 79 middle school kids. The ones that have held out are the ones who have told me in confidence that they are not ready to be outwardly Hispanic.

We meet once a week, and talk about issues like grades, and how they can bring them up. Some of these kids have parents who are working two or three jobs. Some have parents who are dealing with immigration issues. I feel that I have gone through a lot of the things that these kids are going through now. I remember my Dad working 14 to 16 hours a day, and growing up, I remember being very resentful that he would work so much. Being involved in Future Hispanic Leaders helps the kids understand that they don’t have to try to figure it all out. That there are others who are going through the same things.

We talk about stereotypes, and how they encounter stereotypes of Latinos in the mainstream culture. On the flipside of that, we also talk about how they might be thinking or dealing with others in terms of stereotypes.

We saw a great shift in the kids: in their behavior, attendance and academics. In fact, students of Hispanic origin who participated in FHL outperformed those that did not by 30 percentage points in Oregon’s assessment of math and reading skills. The program helps anchor the youth to something, so they are empowered to achieve their fullest potential.

FHL is one of the things I’m proud of in my work here in Oregon. It was a difficult process when we completely changed English as a Second Language delivery at Hosford Middle School. There was resistance, because people didn’t want to think out of the ESL box. We integrated the kids into the regular classrooms, instead of pulling them out and having the ESL teacher be solely in charge and responsible for their education. Integrating the ESL and special ed classrooms meant that all the faculty are in charge of the kids.

Growing up along the U.S.-Mexico border, I’ve always been surrounded by people who are bilingual and bicultural. I moved to Portland from Texas a few years ago, and I admit t that I’m still experiencing culture shock. I tell people that it kind of feels like I took a time machine, instead of an airplane, coming to Oregon. It’s like ending up 50 to 60 years back in time. This is not to say that Texas is perfect. But because Texas has been dealing with bilingual education much longer than Oregon, there is much more progress.

In Texas, I was a bilingual teacher for six years, where I taught Latino kids in their native language. I helped implement dual-language instruction at my elementary school, where I was part of the committee that researched best practices, and decided to teach kids in both English and in Spanish. It worked out really well.

Colors of Influence Winter 2009

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To learn more about how you can support Future Hispanic Leaders at Hosford Middle school, email Dr. Verenice Gutierrez or call 503-916-5640, or 971-533-5421


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