Lilburn Middle School student Andres Rodriguez (left) talks with to his peers about what he has learned from Georgia State Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero during the Hispanic Mentoring Priority Summer Program for the Gwinnett County Public Schools at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, on Monday, July 15, 2019. Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero talked with students about her career pathway and encouraged them to never give up. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Gwinnett mentor program offers camp for Hispanic students

Rising seventh-grader Andres Rodriguez wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. When asked if he realizes that a lot of math is involved, he nodded and smiled.

“I’m pretty good at math,” he said. “And I like to go fast.”

That kind of self-confidence and dreams of reaching for the stars (whether literally or figuratively) is what Gwinnett County Public Schools Community-Based Mentoring Program hopes to foster. The program started with a focus on black males and added black females a year later. In January it added a component for Hispanic children of both genders.

The target is fourth grade through graduation, but an end-of-summer camp focused on rising middle schoolers is taking place at Meadowcreek High through Friday. The students will explore the diversity around them, engage in STEM-related (science, technology, math and engineering) activities, explore “The Library Train,” and take a field trip to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

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One roadblock to success for many Latino children is the language barrier. Even those born in the U.S. may have immigrant parents who aren’t fluent in English nor familiar with how American schools operate.

“To help the children, we have to also empower the parents,” said Nury Castillo Crawford, director of Hispanic programs in the district’s office of academic support and mentoring. “I see my own parents when I’m reaching out to the community. They couldn’t help me because they didn’t know the language or the system.”

In the past decade, the school district’s Hispanic student population went from 22 percent to more than 31 percent this past school year. But that doesn’t mean student achievement has grown. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, achievement gaps between whites and Hispanics hovered around 20 points in reading, math and overall learning from 1992 to 2015.

“It’s that data that made us realize the need for mentors,” said Crawford. “I call it a crisis because the students need role models and road maps for success.”

An educator for over 20 years with a background as a parental involvement coordinator under Title I federal programs, Crawford called on the community to help itself.

Monday’s mentors included Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, who made history in 2016 when she became the first Latina elected to the Georgia General Assembly, representing House District 99 in Gwinnett County. She also practices immigration law at her own firm. She urged the students to explore careers that push them beyond what they think they are capable of.

“I came to this country at five,” she said. “I met a man who was an attorney and I told myself, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ” Even though she wasn’t quite sure what an attorney did, that positive role model stuck with her.

Another mentor was Roberto Hernandez, a visual artist who does set design, makeup artistry, murals and a variety of other projects.

As a boy in Mexico, his artistic talent shone so that he was among high schoolers at age 11.

“I knew right away that I wanted to do something with art,” he said. “And I tell kids they can find the art within themselves if they are willing to let it out.”

His students explored their creative side by decorating their hands and forearms.

“Design it however you like,” he said. “Let your imagination tell you what it should be.”

Some opted for the flag of Mexico, others took on pop culture with comic book characters and others went more abstract.

“I love to show kids that they can be free with their creativity,” he said.

With volunteers from local colleges and high schools as well as parents and activists in other Hispanic-focused organizations, Crawford is optimistic Gwinnett will see achievement numbers growing.

“Our goal is to eliminate barriers so students can thrive,” said Crawford looking around the room. “When one succeeds, the entire community benefits.”

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