Juntos expands to serve Hillsboro students and families

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ore. – On a recent morning, Ezequiel Lopez-Reyes met with parents of Forest Grove High School students who are participants in Juntos, an Oregon State University Extension program that empowers Latinx students and families around education.

Lopez-Reyes, the Juntos/Open Campus coordinator for Washington County, had just made a presentation about the importance of communication between parents and the school. One mother found out that she hadn’t received news of a college application deadline. Her friend turned to her and said that needed to be on top of things.

“I’m going to be here advocating for my child,” she said. “I’m pushing for communication and not taking no for an answer. You need to do the same.”

“I’m a peleonera,” she said.

She’s a fighter.

Lopez-Reyes was struck by the moment. He graduated from Forest Grove High School in 2007.

“It brought back memories of how my mom fought for me and my brothers,” he said.

OSU’s Open Campus launched Juntos in Oregon in 2012. Juntos (“together” in Spanish) is a multi-component program designed to bring Latinx families and educational institutions together to create pathways to higher education for Latinx youth and their families. The program’s motto is “Juntos para una Mejor Educación” (Together for a Better Education).

Juntos has been in the Forest Grove School District since 2018. In the spring of 2021, Juntos expanded to Hill High School in Hillsboro. With 19,300 students, the Hillsboro district is the fourth-largest in Oregon, serving the fifth-largest city in the state. Hillsboro is 21 miles from downtown Portland.

Juntos, embedded in OSU Extension in 19 of Oregon’s 36 counties, is unique among college-access programs because it engages Latino students ­and their families in learning about post-secondary pathways and making college a family goal. Since 2012, more than 4,800 students and families have been served by Juntos, and there has been a nearly a 100% high school graduation rate and 92% post-secondary education access rate.

Hillsboro marks Juntos’ first entry into a suburban school district, said Gina Galaviz-Yap, Juntos statewide coordinator for OSU Extension. It’s important to have a program in districts with rapidly changing demographics, she said. More than half of Forest Grove’s students – 56% – are Latino. In Hillsboro, that figure is 40%.

“My dream scenario would be that Juntos is in every county across the state,” Galaviz-Yap said. “Juntos started out serving rural Latino communities, so this is a logical next step into the urban/suburban Latino population. It helps us know how we can adapt the program to meet the needs of a suburban community.”

The biggest difference is size, she said. In most schools, Juntos serves five to 10 families. There are more than 20 Juntos families in the program at Hill High School.

“There are just more people to serve in Washington County,” Galaviz-Yap said. “We need to find out how to continue to provide a quality program when the cohorts are larger.”

Being in a metro area presents opportunities to partner with community-based organizations, she said. She cites Adelante Mujares as an example. Based in Forest Grove, Adelante Mujares provides holistic education and empowerment opportunities to low-income Latina women and their families to ensure full participation and active leadership in the community.

In his role, Lopez-Reyes meets with middle- and high-school students and families weekly. For the younger students, it’s about making a successful transition to high school. For the older students, the focus is on academic success, college applications, essays and applying for financial aid, among other things. For both the students and the families, he stresses school engagement.

Engagement examples include joining the PTA, attending meetings, joining the student council, joining clubs – or starting a Juntos club, as students have done in some districts. The Juntos Council at The Dalles High School, as the club is known there, spearheaded the school’s first Latino dance in 2019.

When he’s meeting with students, Lopez-Reyes likes to have them do most of the talking. They ask him a lot of questions. About his background, what it was like for him in school, how his parents supported him, and his college experience at Portland Community College and Portland State University.

“I love sitting down with them,” he said. “The first thing I tell them is that I’m not afraid to tell my story. I spent my summers picking berries. I ask them how many of them have picked berries and a lot of them have. We talk about the issues we have, and the racism that exists in our communities. There is a disparity in opportunities for Latinos.

“I ask them how they feel about all of that and then I ask, ‘What do you see in common in this room?’ They’re all Latinos. A lot of these students will open up. It’s nice for them to know that I was in these halls, too. This is my community. I grew up here. I want to make sure they grow and have a voice.”

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