Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

A Child's Life

Volume 25 Number 2
Spring 2003

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Jose Rosario
José Rosario
Photo © Tyagan Miller

El Puente students
Photo courtesy José Rosario

Bridging the Cultural Divide

by Julie Sturgeon

José R. Rosario's office is too small. Too small to hold the files, books, computers, chairs, and occasional visitor without danger of knocking knees.

But the view overlooking the downtown Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis campus from his third-story School of Education cubbyhole makes a perfect setting for this professor whose passion centers on finding a bigger world for Hispanic students.

Director of IUPUI's Center for Urban and Multicultural Education, Rosario leads a project he calls El Puente, or "the bridge," because it provides a pathway for students at Arsenal Technical and Northwest high schools in Indianapolis to higher education and community involvement. With support from community foundations, private family foundations, and corporate funders, El Puente's assistance is timely—according to the National Center of Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education, Hispanic children drop out of school at an earlier and a much higher rate than students from other cultures.

Although today Rosario holds three degrees in education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the early 1960s, he was one of those lost children.

Originally from Puerto Rico, Rosario grew up in the streets of New York's Spanish Harlem, attending both public and Catholic schools in Spanish and in Black Harlem. His goal at Rice High School, he says, "was to get out of school. I tried several times actually, never succeeding because my mother would always pull me back, insisting I had to finish. (But) she never really did much about it other than tell me to do it. She didn't have the resources or the skills to help."

Enter one adult mentor—his senior history teacher, who called the young kid on the carpet for not enrolling in a program willing to pay for community-college training after graduation.

"I just let him talk," Rosario says of the uncomfortable afternoon. "And then I reluctantly filled out the paperwork, got a call, and the rest is history."

For reasons he still can't pinpoint, he became enamored of college. When the two years ended, the executive director of the Harlem YMCA where Rosario worked introduced him to the next phase of his life: scholarship money at the University of Wisconsin. Rosario was all ears, since he'd followed football devoutly as a kid and knew all about the Green Bay Packers. Still, "because New Yorkers think the world ends at the Hudson River, it was really a shock to find myself in Madison," he says. "I couldn't take it. It took the director and my mother two weeks to persuade me to stay."

A program like El Puente, Rosario muses, probably would have made a difference in his path. "But that's a very tough question," he adds. "It would have taken somewhat of a push to get me into it. That is the struggle we have with some of our kids now▀they don't have any faith in (the program). Unless it's about having a good time, they don't want to join, so we have to go after them."

El Puente applies Rosario's research into the concept of community in education, and how to use that concept to reinvent schools, particularly high schools, in ways that make them seem smaller and more meaningful. In El Puente, each student must perform community service, and the project provides the support students need to meet that obligation.

Like many research projects, El Puente started out on a different track; Rosario originally approached the administration at Arsenal Technical with the idea of using a cultural exchange program between high school students in Granada, Spain, and Indianapolis as an incentive to stay in school. He turned to the nonprofit Hispanic Education Center as a partner in a compressed videoconferencing experiment.

The conversation between the center's executive director, Sister Marikay Duffy, and the bearded, quiet-voiced professor escalated until, as Rosario tells it, "before we knew it we had a comprehensive program with cultural exchange as just one of the components."

El Puente is now in its second year as a three-year pilot project open to any Hispanic student at Arsenal Technical or Northwest who carries a C grade average. Those below that level may join on a probationary basis, with the understanding they must improve their academic performance. Before giving any student the green light, someone from the Hispanic Education Center visits the home to engage the parents. As partners, these adults must commit to participate in the parent council, the school visit team, or even in preparing meals for the group.

Once accepted into the program, students, too, make a commitment, signing a contract promising to stay in school and to strive for postsecondary education training. They have access to a variety of resources such as leadership workshops on Saturdays, college campus visits, and after-school tutoring in English. "Well over 80 percent of our kids haven't mastered English," Rosario notes.

Language deficiencies leave students on the fringes of school and community life, but it's just the first of many barriers El Puente helps students hurdle.

Because they come from school structures that are very different, El Puente members don't know how to navigate the U.S. system, nor do their parents, who extend emotional support but can't provide the knowledge capital their children need. Rosario's program addresses that gap, and more. "These students need all the support any adolescent needs," Rosario says. "They're trying to figure out who they are, what they want to do, who they want to be."

Finally, El Puente has an advocacy role, seeking to create mechanisms that open college doors to the Hispanic student population. Rosario, in particular, shines at filling this need as he unravels the mysteries of financial aid rules and clarifies questions about IU entrance policies.

"He recognizes the value that education has in the Hispanic community," Duffy says. "But beyond that, he understands that if these students are to take their place economically and stabilize their families, it will be only through the achievement of an education that equals the rest of the population."

Support and mentoring are crucial to student success, but Rosario's work has shown him that support is only the first half of the equation: "Even if you have the support, if you did not make the decision to follow through, it's not going to happen," he says matter-of-factly. "If someone stretches his hand to help you, it's still up to you to reach back and grab it. We constantly tell the kids (in El Puente), ┬You're here by choice; we won't force you. But if you want to succeed, you can count on us.'"

As part of his ongoing research with the El Puente pilot, Rosario reads biographies of individuals who have come from poor, urban backgrounds, such as Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League, by Ron Suskind.

"At some point people (like Suskind) had to will their way to the next level," he says. "One of the reasons we decided to more systematically convey the message to El Puente students that they have to do well if they want to be with us is to push them to make that decision."

Rosario is tackling other questions as the project progresses: How do programs like this one become institutionalized, and what resources does it take? What factors facilitate and impede it?

"Of course, one of the most interesting questions is, what will the lives of these kids be like in five or 10 years?" says Rosario. "Ultimately that's the test, whether these kids can become productive members of our society. I don't mean successful as we traditionally define it, but simply making something of yourself, being true to what you like to do, and being in service to others."

So far, four seniors have graduated from El Puente. One is enrolled at Ivy Tech State College, one is married, and two others joined the work force. Of the two in the workforce, one is delaying higher education until he strengthens his English abilities. Nine graduates leave the program this spring. Says Rosario: "We haven't done too bad so far."

Julie Sturgeon is a freelancer writer in Indianapolis, Ind.