Enough Talk, More Action: CLUES YA!

Enough Talk, More Action: CLUES YA!

By Christie Vogt, Sprockets Communications and Network Associate

May 28, 2014

There’s a lot of talk in Minnesota and across the nation about the achievement gap, the opportunity gap, the empowerment gap. Talk’s not cutting it for these students; it’s all about action—Youth in Action.

Kelli Porthan was teaching a third grade class of Latino students in 2007 when she came across a shocking statistic: less than 50%* of Latinos in Minnesota graduate high school and less than 17% finish college with a four-year degree. Determined that this would not be the case for her St. Paul students, she began establishing Walter’s Wish, named after her chihuahua and the beloved class pet. That’s when Ms. Porthan, along with other teachers and volunteers, began a series of “institutes” to help prepare the young people to graduate high school and thrive in a higher education environment.

“From where it was and where it is now, I think it’s amazing,” says Crisma, a graduating YA! student who’s now deciding between Saint Paul College and Century College.  In 2009, the grassroots effort partnered with Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio (CLUES) and later Target Corporation’s Hispanic Business Council to deepen the impact with a mentorship/coaching component. Aimed at further strengthening the effort and reaching more youth, CLUES acquired the program in 2012, and during this transition, the students renamed themselves Youth in Action, or YA!, which means “Now!” in Spanish—a testament to their determination to combat those statistics today.

On Saturday, May 10, students and mentors have gathered at Hamline University for the last institute of the year. Today’s first presenter, Marisa Gustafson of the Center for School Change, is speaking about earning college credit while in high school. What’s the difference between Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Postsecondary Enrollment Options, College in the Schools, and the College Level Examination Program? How can you save money and avoid being one of the adults whose hands flew in the air when the question was posed, “Who’s got a bunch of college debt?”

David Soto, a Financial Empowerment Coach at CLUES, is the next presenter. “What are my financial goals and how can I achieve them?” he prompts the group. After David outlines the smart steps the students can take, the youth and coaches break off to do a financial planning activity where the teens can take advantage of learning from any bumps or triumphs along their mentor’s financial road.

David Soto - CLUES YA! - Sprockets Spotlight

A new component to YA! this year is civic engagement, which has included activities like visiting the Capitol and meeting with state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, and state Rep. Tim Mahoney. The goal is to “get them more involved in their community” and learn more about systems and policies. “How can you have your voice be heard? What can you do, what can you get involved in, who’s out there doing this already?” YA! Coordinator Tanya Zwald explains.

YA! is in the process of planning a service project for the end of the year with hunger being their topic of choice. At today’s institute, Bridget O’Boyle, a volunteer at Wellstone Elementary, is speaking with the students about how they might partner around the issue of hunger and nutrition. Through her involvement with Wellstone, Bridget learned that many students go hungry over the weekend without access to the school’s meal programs. After getting in touch with The Sheridan Story, a network of weekend food programs, they decided to pilot a program with the third grade, making Wellstone the first school in St. Paul to adopt the program.

“There are a hundred kids in third grade,” Bridget tells the YA! group. “How many kids do you think needed food over the weekend?” The answer: 65. YA! is hoping to be part of the effort to narrow that gap, but they want nutrition to be part of the conversation, too. The idea is for the students to create a children’s activity book to incorporate nutrition lessons with the food that’s sent home. “In my Mexican culture, we like to create healthy foods,” says Alexia, one of the students leading the effort, “so I was thinking, why don’t we share recipes from our own culture and combine them with the coloring book?”

When asked why she was interested in spearheading this hunger project, Alexia, a senior who has been in YA! since ninth grade, says, “I just wanted to do something with leadership...I need to help people out.” Outside of YA!, she has prepared food for the homeless with her church; “My parents and family come in, too. We bring our own culture, and we have cooked enchiladas, fish tacos….and my mom makes her special salsa.” At the end of the summer, she’ll also go to local farms to help cook for migrant workers.

CLUES YA! students thank Hamline University - Sprockets Spotlight

Despite—or perhaps because of—the unique challenges that many Latino students face, YA! youth are committed to pushing themselves and those around them. From language barriers to immigration issues to being a first generation college student, many of these teens are facing obstacles that don’t apply to their peers at school.

Last year, one of the YA! students went to the Capitol to testify in support of the Minnesota Dream Act, a law which gives undocumented students that meet certain criteria access to in-state resident tuition rates at Minnesota public colleges and universities, as well as state and privately funded financial aid. The Dream Act is a crucial development for the several undocumented youth in YA! that otherwise may have had to forego any higher education dreams due to international student tuition rates and limited access to aid.

Another option for undocumented students is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gives temporary work authorization and relief from deportation. One YA! student met all the requirements except for one. “I’m sure it would be hard [for him] to not give up on the situation,” Tanya says, considering that he may be thinking, “‘Well, I can’t [legally] work anyway, what am I supposed to do?’…but he’s persevering and he’s starting to get even more motivated to be more civically engaged in immigration issues and take advantage of the other opportunities he has.”

For others, immigration might not be an issue at all, but other factors are at play. “Being a first generation student,” Linda, a senior going to Macalester next year, begins to explain, “the college process is already scary and it is more scary and more intimidating to know what to do next [when your parents haven’t done it].” She adds that most of her peers “have no one to really ask…and so I think that’s why we’re so privileged to have [YA!] because we have at least somewhere to start and that makes it less intimidating.”

CLUES YA! students

Rosa, who was in Ms. Porthan’s third grade classroom, adds that another obstacle can be parents’ limited English skills, meaning “they can’t help you with school work so you sometimes have to do it on your own.” Sounds like this wasn’t too much of problem for Rosa though; she’s headed to Saint Paul College with dreams of being an LPN. To help with the family component, YA! also organizes educational sessions for parents which address topics like FAFSA but also share resources available to support families as a whole.

But enough about the barriers. There are “more advantages than disadvantages” to being a Latino teen, Crisma, another senior YA! student, asserts. Being bilingual and multicultural is cited by many students as examples of those advantages. “I think we can all kind of understand where each other is coming from, and we help each other a lot,” Linda adds. “I think that’s also a huge advantage. We have a huge community and it’s growing, it’s really supportive.”

The YA! coaches are an important part of that community, with about half coming from Target’s Hispanic Business Council and the others from a variety of backgrounds. Kirsten, a coach who works at the Department of Agriculture, felt like YA! “was the best way to help the community because you have a one-on-one connection with someone, get to know their family, and really help them take the next steps.” Her mentee is Rosa, the future nurse.

CLUES YA! Student and Mentor - Sprockets Spotlight

“We talk about everything from school to boys. I really like that this program has kind of two separate sides. There are the institutes where it is more formal,” Kirsten explains, “and then you can have the more informal mentoring portion of it also.” Mentors are asked to be in touch with their mentees outside of these Saturday gatherings as well. This might involve phone, email, or meeting up; for these two, it usually involves a meal. “Or frozen yogurt,” Rosa adds.

“Do I motivate you?” Kirsten asks Rosa as we’re chatting. “Yes,” Rosa replies quickly, as if speaking to an older sister, with that mixture of mock annoyance and sincere gratitude. “For good or bad, I remind Rosa of the things she needs to move with,” Kirsten says, but “I try not to be the mom.”

Eighth-grader Abdias seems to have found a great mentor match as well. “I come here because it really helps me with school. Without my mentor, I wouldn’t get as good as the grades I get,” Abdias says. “He pushes me.” Pedro, a sophomore and aspiring engineer, says participating in YA! gives him a chance to “do stuff that I didn’t think I would be able to do ever.” For example? I’ve been really slacking on my homework and most of my grades have been falling, but since I’ve been working with my mentor, he’s been pushing me to turn in my homework, to get my grades up. I’ve been turning in everything.” Have his grades improved, too? “Yeah!”

Ms. Porthan, though she no longer manages the program, is still involved as a volunteer, brainstormer, and institute leader. Walter’s Wish also lives on as a scholarship fund for graduating YA! participants. “The program is all heart,” she gushes. There’s a quote, she says, which reads, “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

CLUES YA! students and Kelli Porthan - Sprockets Spotlight

“That’s truly what this program is. I want to bring them in and I want them to know that every single one of them is so cared about, and then they’ll really want to know the information. They’re going to want to know how to get to college.” Ms. Porthan cites the research on third-party intervention and asserts “if they’ve got two connected people that can help them with college, that’s great. But if they've got four, they’re really going to make it.”

Of the 38 YA! students this year, seven are seniors and they’ve all been accepted to colleges. Augsburg College, Hamline University, Inver Hills Community College, Macalester College, Saint Paul College, and St. Cloud State University can all expect some Latino leaders to walk through their doors this fall.

The self-described “shy” Alexia says that her biggest takeaways from YA! include “speaking skills” and “being open to everyone,” as well as “doing new things.” She’ll be doing lots of new things at Hamline next year. While undecided on a major, she has a strong interest in writing. “I wrote a short story...satirizing genetically engineered tomatoes and how they attack people and eat them and all this conflict,” she lights up, talking about a writing course she took last year at the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth. “It was really fun and a lot of people liked it.”

“I have this family of Latinos,” Alexia reflects on her time with YA!, “being connected with people of the same background and understanding that we all have the same goal of achieving higher education.”

CLUES YA! students


Want to be part of the family? YA! is now accepting applications for YA! students, mentors, and interns.

*In 2013, the Minnesota Department of Education reported that 58% of Hispanic students graduated high school