Rose Davalos has an open-door policy.
She’s only occupied her office in South Albany High School since October, but she’s already made it hers.
College posters for Oregon State University and University of Oregon hang from the wall next to folders of federal-aid forms, free for the taking, and explanatory sheets detailing graduation requirements.
There’s a table with four chairs, plenty of space to spread out and work on GPA calculations, and the whole room feels tucked away from the rest of the school — a safe space.
That was part of the pitch Davalos made when applying to be the school’s outreach and engagement coordinator. She wanted to be a counselor in every sense of the word by guiding students through the complicated process of applying for college and acting as a sounding board for those who came through her open door for other reasons.
“Sometimes students will come in and say they just need a break but they don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “I’ve also had students who hear about a raid in Salem and they can’t get in touch with their parents.”
It’s an example of the different set of challenges Latino students face. It's also illuminates the reason why Davalos was brought on board at South: to help Latino students meet those challenges and, in turn, continue to improve the school’s Latino graduation rate.
South Albany has posted high graduation rates for Latino students for the last few years, along with West Albany and Corvallis high schools. The rates buck the statewide trend of lower graduation rates for what the state describes as “under-served” student populations, which include students of color.
Statewide, Latino students had a 74.63% graduation rate in 2018, up from 72.54% the year before but falling short of the state’s overall student graduation rate of 78.68%.
South Albany, however, surpassed the state rate, graduating 87.23% of its Latino students. West Albany’s rate was 94.74%; Corvallis, 87.04%.
The schools credit their high graduation rates to the implementation of Latino-friendly programs and cultivating an environment that includes resources like Davalos.
There’s a sign above South Albany Principal Nate Munoz’s desk that reads “Mi casa es su casa.”
When he arrived three years ago, the graduation rate was already higher than the state average. But Munoz says he wanted to build on the school’s momentum rather than coast on the already high rate, opting to invest in the school’s Latino community.
His sign is the most superficial of what has amounted to substantial, substantive changes, which started at the maze of desks that lead to Munoz's own office, where assistants for various school departments juggle schedules, ringing phones and student requests.
Those requests can now be answered in both English and Spanish by Olivia Victorio, hired by Munoz in part because she is both bilingual and bicultural.
Munoz noted that the distinction is important. He said that to gain the trust of Spanish-speaking community members, it was often important for someone not only to speak Spanish but to look as if they could. One without the other could mean a breakdown in the potential for engagement.
“They feel that trust immediately seeing someone who looks like them and speaks their language,” he said.
Munoz understands the complicated intricacies of code-switching, having grown up in a Spanish-speaking household himself, often acting as translator for conversations between his parents and school administrators. He said teenagers can often leave out important information about GPA and credit requirements when acting in the same role.
“My mother thought I was doing good; I wasn’t doing good,” he said. “I see myself in these students and their families and I remember how I manipulated the system because my mother didn’t speak English. We want to keep parents in the loop and create that accountability for students.”
To do that, Munoz said South Albany High School works to gain parents’ trust. It sends its monthly newsletter to parents in Spanish as well as English and hosts Parent University, which houses several programs related to outreach, including a Spanish-language GED program. Spanish-speaking parents also receive a phone call, in Spanish, inviting them to things like parent-teacher conferences.
“Parents can come here,” he said. “We do all of this in their language and it bridges the gap.”
Corvallis High School Assistant Principal Paul Navarra agrees with Munoz’s approach to cultivating an environment that makes Latino families, and in turn, students, feel comfortable.
“I would say that it is much more than programs that makes the difference for our students. It's about breaking down barriers and tapping into the amazing support our Latino families provide for their students to be successful,” he said. “It's also about creating a culturally responsive environment where Latino students feel valued and respected. That is our focus in the Corvallis School District."
Rose Davalos grew up in California and struggled to apply for college due to her parents’ immigration status. Now, she spends her days helping students navigate a process that is traditionally difficult with federal aid forms, credit requirements and letters of recommendation and made even more so by the unique set of circumstances some face.
On a Tuesday night last week, she hovered over three students on laptops while their parents sat footsteps away behind a closed door, both groups learning what it would take to apply to college.
She walked them through what admissions would look like and explained that being accepted to a university was not the same as being accepted to the program they wanted to study — that would require another application. She explained out-of-state-tuition, majors, minors and financial aid.
She directed some students to the FAFSA website, others to ORSSA, the Oregon-specific financial aid application for students who don't have a Social Security number or who have secured status under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival).
While this type of college-preparedness counseling is available to all students, the questions Davalos contends with can be more complicated. Such as: What does a student do if only one parent has a Social Security number, a requirement for parents to log into a student’s FASFA form to make adjustments. (Answer: It depends on how they file their taxes.) What if neither parent has a Social Security number but the student, born in the United States, does? (Just enter zeroes in the space set aside for parents’ Social Security number and continue clicking on the link to proceed when the site says there’s been an error. Eventually, it will accept the entry.)
“We request that students ask us permission to use the bathroom but two months later we expect them to have their life together,” Davalos said of preparing students to leave high school and the work, like the kind she did on that Tuesday night, that it takes to make students successful in that leap.
“It’s also cultural for our Latino students,” she said. “It can be ‘inappropriate’ for families to have their 18-year-old move away and live away from home. I talk to parents about that. Leaving home is a big deal and the biggest need is letting parents know what they can do to transition students into the real world.”
Davalos said students are sometimes also hesitant about leaving the nest.
“A lot of times they’re the first in their families to graduate high school and even apply for college,” she said. “And they’re afraid; they think, ‘I’m going to fail.’”
Juntos, which translates to ‘together’ in English, is working toward that goal for Latino students and families.
The program is at work in South Albany and Corvallis high schools, and 42 other schools across the state.
“Our primary goal is to reduce the dropout rate so that’s very in line with graduation rates. When one number goes down, the other goes up,” said Jose Garcia, interim Juntos statewide coordinator.
The program started in 2007 and made its way to Oregon in 2012 through Oregon State University Open Campus. According to Garcia, it’s helping connect parents to their students’ experience and opening their eyes to possibilities beyond high school.
“My favorite story to tell is on one of the trips to a college campus, a mother told me she was glad she came because she had felt she had been holding her son back,” he said. “She didn’t want him to go to college because he didn’t clean his room or cook or do laundry but then she saw other kids there just like him. She didn’t know she could visit him; she thought campus was only for students and professors.”
There’s never a cost to families for trips to universities. Juntos provides the experience for free thanks to grants, donations and fundraising, and makes sure to include the entire family.
“It’s important because if we took the student and they come home wanting to talk about it, families who may never have stepped foot on a campus, can’t relate,” Garcia said.
Family is at the heart of Juntos’ program, working to create an understanding between parents and students who, Garcia said, can often be bicultural, which causes a difficulty for parents trying to relate to their children. He said Juntos tackles the issue culturally and works to give parents a foundational knowledge to help close the gap.
“We want to make sure they understand the education system in the U.S.,” he said. “We explain who to call if your child is absent, how to get a translator for a parent-teacher conference, for example. We explain what an A, a B, a C means on the report card.”
That curriculum is shared with schools and facilitators like Davalos.
“It has been an amazing tool that has allowed our staff to share with our Latino families what it truly means to have a higher education and how they can get more involved in their child’s education,” she said.
Garcia encourages his Juntos families to stay in touch after the university visits, community college tours and workshops that discuss financial aid, family counseling and eating healthy. But, that doesn’t always happen. The same is true at South Albany.
“Once they leave here, they may no longer be communicating with me,” Davalos said.
Tania Mendez is the Rosa Davalos of Linn-Benton Community College, where in 2017-2018 the initial Latino cohort was made up of 34 students and four completed their programs on time.
According to Mendez, who is the Latino outreach and retention specialist for the school, students she sees often have financial questions. While Davalos works with families to fill out FAFSA or ORSSA forms, that’s not the end of the process to receiving education funding.
“When they come to LBCC, they have to complete additional paperwork for financial aid,” she said. “It’s a process. They’re not aware of what the next step is.”
Mendez has been at LBCC for a year. She started a Latino club which, she says helps build relationships for students who are local and, often after class, go home instead of engaging with campus resources. She also said her partnerships with administrators and counselors around the districts that often funnel students to LBCC have made finding students who may need her help a bit easier.
“I think it has made a difference,” she said. “It allows me to do outreach and say, “I’m Rosa at LBCC, or I’m her, or him, whoever they’re working with at their schools. I have found it’s a great way to meet the students and build those relationships.”