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How to return them to school?
UPR, RP professors and Nuestra Escuela reinstate and educate dropouts

by Lara López

He does what he wants and what he knows how to do—and nothing or no one will stop him. First, he did it in Bayamón, then at the Monte Hatillo public housing project. He offered his services until he ran out of support. So he moved to an empty apartment in the same building, where—flanked by the police station, the church, and illegal drug dealers—he continued to teach high school dropouts from seven public housing projects. He was discovered and moved his classroom under a tree. Then with the help of a House Representative, he next found a small space in the Manuel A. Pérez public housing project. Every day, youths from the public housing projects attended his workshops. At the time, gangs from the various projects were at war, but a truce was drawn during classes and tutoring sessions.

Justo Méndez Arámburu, directs Nuestra Escuela in, Caguas, Loíza, and Vieques.

Méndez Arámburu helps dropouts finish high school. But he doesn’t do it alone. For more than a dozen years, his wife, Ana Yris Guzmán has been next to him. His daughter, Ana Mercedes Méndez Jiménez participated actively in this work until she died in a car accident in 1997. They started by conducting workshops on self-esteem, motivation, and spiritual healing for adolescents; then Méndez Arámburu established a school that would support and guide dropouts to earn their high-school diplomas. Nuestra Escuela (Our School), Inc. now includes campuses in Caguas, Loíza, and Vieques. Méndez Arámburu directs them all.

Justo Méndez Arámburu designed an educational program with courses and workshops to provide the tools necessary to complete intermediate and high school curricular requirements. But obtaining a high school diploma is not enough to become a productive member of society. The social and psychological situation of dropouts is far more complex. Their lives are scarred by physical and emotional violence, and by academic underachievement. Some are drug users; others had serious discipline problems in their schools. Most of the female students are single mothers, and all of them come from public housing projects, rural, or low-income neighborhoods.

Developing an effective academic plan for these dropouts required the advice and collaboration of experts in education, social work, psychology, and academic planning, so Méndez Arámburu sought the help of various University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus, specialists. Now UPR, RP is one of Nuestra Escuela’s principal allies.

In collaboration with Nuestra Escuela’s teachers, the UPR, RP’s Consulting Council—an interdisciplinary group of professors from UPR, RP—developed an academic curriculum that addresses the special needs of dropouts and promotes a culture of peace at the school. The team also designed educational material for Nuestra Escuela. Supported by public and private sectors, the school has managed to bring together a team that works together to create networks with the community, businesses, universities, government agencies, and government officers.

The enormous social cost of dropping out includes higher unemployment rates, crime, and violence; with dropouts having a higher probability of engaging in high risk behavior that threatens their physical and mental health and the well-being of their communities. Most of the people currently in jail, correctional institutions, or detox centers are dropouts. The dropout rate in Puerto Rico has been estimated to be as low as 10 percent and as high as 40 percent, depending on which study is cited. The reasons for dropping out vary, including low GPA, little or no interest in classes, and rejection of authority exercised by teachers and school personnel.

“We don’t like to use the term ‘dropout’ when referring to these kids. It is derogatory. They have been rejected by the school system. Most of them have not been able to adjust to the homogeneous course offerings of the Department of Education,” says Rafael Irizarry, Ph.D., professor of the Graduate School of Planning, UPR, RP, and Nuestra Escuela education planning and evaluation advisor.

“The problem, however, is far more complex. It’s unfair to put the entire blame on the school system. The investigation we’ve conducted reveals that the general state of violence throughout the island makes it difficult for these students to remain in the school system. Many of them don’t have the necessary attention and perseverance or the support they need from their families to stay in school. Also, school is not appealing when the underground economy offers an easier way to make a profitable living. The dropout issue is sensitive and complicated,” explains Irizarry.

As soon as Ana Helvia Quintero, Ph.D., director of the Consulting Council, was asked to collaborate with Nuestra Escuela, she understood it would be necessary to develop a new school model in which the academic component and attention to the psycho-emotional needs and interests of its students would merge. The advisory team and Nuestra Escuela teachers have developed a curriculum organized by subject with guidelines for the teachers on the competencies and skills appropriate for each grade. Teachers then discuss with university professors the alternatives, which begins the continuous action-evaluation feedback cycle. Usually, discussion results in revision of the proposed alternative. The teachers then try out the alternatives in the classroom and give the advisors their feedback. Strategies are adapted to create instructional modules that truly work. The modules are submitted for group evaluation, which helps teachers re–evaluate the theories they have used in their teaching approach. Each instructional model is organized by themes that provide teachers the flexibility to make multidisciplinary connections in different environments with students from a variety of levels.

The operative structure of NE is comprised of:

  • A Family Integration Center, which provides daycare facilities for the children of NE students, and orientation on child upbringing for the parents. This center has a pre-school teacher, an assistant and two home visitors.
  • A Support Center for Students and their Families (CASEF, its acronym in Spanish), which offers workshops for students and families to improve their student support skills. This center has a psychologist, a community psychiatrist, two social workers, a counselor, and three college students who are conducting social work practicums. The Center also offers individual orientation and counseling. The personnel in the center also work with teachers, and visit the students' homes, hoping to help families become more involved in the development of their children. They also have a transition team to follow up and support NE graduates.
  • A Planning, Evaluation, and Development Committee (CoPED, its acronym in Spanish), consists of coordinators from the programmatic and administrative areas and the advisors of NE.
  • A Mediation Committee, composed of students and school personnel, this committee is in charge of implementing discipline within the school.
  • An Academic Area, which currently has a team of seven teachers and a coordinator.
  • A Consulting Council, made up of content specialists from UPR, RP, who provide counsel on curriculum and teaching strategies. They work closely with teachers in creating and validating pertinent, effective curricula for students.
  • A Board of Directors, consisting mainly by employees from Banco Popular, who are in charge of the effectiveness and integrity of the financial matters.

Groups in Nuestra Escuela are small and class periods are short. Teachers lecture for no more than 20 minutes. Normally, students have their first lesson with the rest of the group. At the end of the period, each new student will take a test and the teacher will evaluate it. Students work on skills at their own pace until they master the lesson. Those awarded a C will have two choices: repeat the test and improve the grade average or skip to the next lesson. The advisory team has created the modules and teaching materials to allow teachers to work simultaneously with different levels, skills, and activities. Mainly, this structure has created a more relaxed environment in the classroom, but more important, it has changed the teachers’ image. They no longer represent a threat to students—it is the Department of Education that grants the degree, not teachers at Nuestra Escuela. Teachers are coaches, facilitators who know and understand students, whose mission is to help them earn their high school diploma.

Given the close relationship between the psycho-emotional and academic component, Nuestra Escuela has devised a way to work with both simultaneously, at all levels of the institution’s educational model. In the orientation and social work conducted within the Support Center for Students and their Families, for example, the school government has strayed from the clinical model of social work, which refers to students as “cases.” Community psychiatrist José A. Nuñez López, M.D., designed a model in which the social worker, the psychologist, and the academic advisor do not see students directly but become advisors for the teachers and other personnel in the school. This way, employees learn to manage difficult situations in the classroom or anywhere in the school by creating a supportive environment that fosters emotional and cognitive development.

Nuñez López knows the importance of delving deeply into the psycho-emotional aspect of dropouts. He has devoted his life to creating options to prevent societal problems, which is why he decided to collaborate with the project. Nuñez López recognizes the relationship between health and emotional stability, and that prevention is the best way to attain both physical and mental health. “An emotionally stable youth will most likely graduate from high school. Studies have shown that a well educated, intellectually developed person will be healthier. Illness prevails in less educated, lower income populations. Because of their emotional scars, students in Nuestra Escuela are at a higher risk of pursuing unhealthy lifestyles. At Nuestra Escuela, we train our students to become part of the work force. This alone constitutes an enormous preventative effort. We are helping to develop a healthier society,” says Nuñez López.

Students who apply to Nuestra Escuela must make a psychological and academic commitment to the school, their families, and themselves. During the first six weeks, new students go through a 12-step initiation process, which helps to identify those who are truly committed to earning a high school diploma. They submit a number of documents, take a battery of diagnostic tests, both academic and socio-emotional, and participate in what Méndez-Arámburu deems to be the most significant aspect of Nuestra Escuela: the Vital Essence Workshop. The first workshop lasts three days and takes place in a rural setting. The school personnel accompany the students and on the last day a member of each student’s family must attend. During these three days, a student’s work includes self-esteem, goal, motivation, and values definition. At the end of the retreat, each student shares his or her life story with the group.

“These retreats are the turning point in the students’ initial process. They are allowed to vent their anger, so that they may begin to forgive those who have hurt them. It is interesting to see how the retreat increases the students’ interest in finding their way and defining their goals. This experience also gives teachers the opportunity to be introduced to the students’ personalities and their specific needs before teaching them in the classroom. Once they hear the story of each student, teachers become more sensitive. By creating an environment of trust and respect, these retreats change the perspectives of both students and school personnel,” says Quintero.

Upon completion of the 12-step program, students participate in a ceremony in which they are admitted to Nuestra Escuela and commit to reaching their goal: a high school diploma. During the ceremony, the students’ families and Nuestra Escuela also commit to supporting the students through completion of their degree.

“This project has yielded many positive results for both UPR and Nuestra Escuela. Our initial educational model was transformed with practice. We’ve applied action research at Nuestra Escuela. We incorporated ideas from the professors and redefined our approach toward interaction with the students, teaching, and the organization itself. We have derived great benefits from collaboration with Nuestra Escuela. This experience has provided a dynamic laboratory for the university,” says Quintero.

Sometimes knowledge and data generated by systematic investigation—framed in the scientific model—can circumvent the open, complex character of social systems. Working with this community-based project has allowed professors to expand their knowledge beyond academic literature and scientific research of specialized disciplines. Through action research, professors have been able to try out their theories and understand complex social aspects, such as violence, in its physical and emotional form within a community.

“The social commitment of the university cannot be based on presenting itself as a provider of specialized services supported by scientific knowledge. That’s why the experience of UPR’s professors at Nuestra Escuela is so valuable—it reaffirms the principal mission of the university as a developer and promoter of useful knowledge,” says Irizarry, who evaluated the educational model implemented by Nuestra Escuela in 2004-2005. This project, titled “Educational Alternatives for Dropouts,” was partially funded by the “Innovative initiatives in thematic areas and social problems in Puerto Rico” from the Office of the Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at UPR, RP. Students Zinia María Pérez Prado, doctoral candidate in academic-investigative psychology, and Zulmarie Alvernio, graduate student in education, collaborated on the project. The study produced data on the profile of dropouts and the causes of dropping out and violence in Puerto Rico. Their results were published in El Sol magazine and will be published in Pedagogía magazine. They were also presented in Encuentro Internacional de Educación y Pensamiento (2006) and at the annual conference of the American Association of Colleges and Universities Network for Academic Renewal in November, 2005.

Irizarry is currently working on a new investigation—with Zinia María Pérez Prado collaborating as co-investigator—that has been approved by the Commission for Prevention of Violence, directed by Salvador Santiago, a community health psychologist who understands the close relationship between violence, drugs, and dropping out.

“We’re conducting a comparative study to pinpoint the practices at Nuestra Escuela that apply to larger schools because our previous project and the experiences we’ve had at Nuestra Escuela have led us to believe that if schools applied some of the techniques from this initiative, they would probably have fewer students abandon their studies. In this investigation we’ll see the differences between both models,” Irizarry explains.

Through its efforts, Nuestra Escuela has managed to eliminate the use of drugs and alcohol during school hours and decrease the use of drugs by its students outside the school. The school has a zero tolerance policy of physical and verbal aggression in school, and this has helped students referred by courts to clean up their criminal records. All of Nuestra Escuela students have improved their academic skills and have graduated from high school or are well on their way to graduation. Of those who have graduated, 25 percent have continued onto post-secondary schools and 50 percent have joined the work force.

NE has managed to:

  • Eliminate the use of drugs and alcohol during school hours
  • Almost eliminate the use of drugs in its students outside the school
  • Eliminate physical and verbal aggression in school
  • Help all students referred by the court to clean their criminal record
  • Help all its students graduate from high school
  • Help all its students improve their academic skills
  • Help 25% of its graduating students to continue into post-secondary schools, and
  • Have 50% of its graduates effectively join the work force

In a relatively short time, Nuestra Escuela has transcended many levels and has been recognized for its achievements. In 2004, Nuestra Escuela was chosen by the Organization of Ibero-American States for Education, Science, and Culture as one of the “Schools that make schools.” This recognition is awarded to initiatives characterized by their innovative experiences with adolescents from the less privileged sector who are at risk due to violence and other conflicting factors. In addition, in 2005, Méndez Arámburu was awarded the “Sor Isolina Ferré” prize in education for his dedication and service to the community.

“People think I have achieved something very difficult, but to me it has been easy. All these kids need is to be loved, that’s it. We give them our love and we work to help them believe in themselves and obtain a high school diploma. Nuestra Escuela has problems, just like any other school. However, these students do well with us. We start from the beginning. To work with any kind of student you need devotion, passion, and a mission. If you don’t have these three things, leave—don’t work in a school. For me, a school is the best place in the world to be,” says Méndez Arámburu.

Recently, Nuestra Escuela was recognized by Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá and several officers from the Department of Education as an effective program to increase retention. The governor’s opinion on Nuestra Escuela has been so favorable that he has selected this project as a model for the Centers for Student Support, a government initiative that intends to create multi-disciplinary structures similar to Nuestra Escuela in ten educational regions of the island.





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