CORVALLIS, Ore. – When the COVID-19 pandemic forced mass cancellations of large gatherings in Oregon, the folks who run Oregon State University Extension Service’s Juntos program knew they had to act fast and shift their strategy.
While other Extension programs at OSU converted their face-to-face programs to virtual sessions using videoconferencing services, that solution wasn’t a good option for Juntos, an exceptionally successful program that brings Latino families together using a culturally-responsive curriculum for middle-school and high-school students.
Many Juntos families don’t have the resources – such as laptops and reliable internet service – to use a digital approach.
“The magic of Juntos is in our face-to-face meetings,” said Gina Galaviz-Yap, the statewide director for the 8-year-old program. “That was taken away from us.”
Juntos’ state coordinators immediately shifted gears and ramped up their individual communication with families and students who were on the verge of graduating high school. The program launched a weekly statewide webinar and adopted a new texting service to help it get the word out to members about graduation, scholarship deadlines and the like.
Juntos is a partnership between Extension’s Open Campus program and local school districts in more than 30 communities across Oregon. The program offers middle school and high school students in underserved Latino populations an opportunity to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to enroll and succeed in college. The students and their families attend workshops and receive information about schools, scholarships and application procedures.
Juntos works closely with other community partners, as well. The program in Oregon began in 2012 in one small central Oregon community and has since helped 4,500 teens find a clear, guided path to college. All of the program’s student participants have gone on to graduate from high school and 92% have attended college.
That impressive track record encountered a major hurdle with the arrival of COVID-19. In-person sessions were canceled and the program’s plans for launching a spring cohort had to be shelved. Plans to offer Juntos during various summer camps were also canceled as the camps themselves were shuttered.
Jose Ruben Garcia, a Juntos coordinator in Yamhill County, said the pandemic has complicated the college application process for many students he works with. Filing paperwork that used to take 10 minutes in person now takes up to an hour online. Students who don’t have printers and scanners at home must learn to file their paperwork properly using mobile devices.
“There’s no question these students are faced with added challenges right now, but it’s forced them to adapt and learn new skills,” Garcia said. “They will become more resilient as a result.”
In addition to its new texting service, Juntos has also reached out to students with weekly College Talk Tuesdays. These statewide Zoom sessions, which are recorded for those who can’t attend at the 7 p.m. hour, focus on such topics as study abroad, college life, financial aid and trade schools. The program has also posted tutorials on using Zoom and Google Hangouts in both English and Spanish, with versions that will play on various operating systems and computer browsers.
As Juntos looks for new ways to engage their audience, it continues to focus on the high school seniors who are in the program.
“They have the greatest sense of urgency right now,” Garcia said. “Seniors are coming up on deadlines, and we understand that it’s difficult for them to do some of this stuff at home.”
Juntos coordinators normally establish separate cohorts of middle school students and high school students. The largest groups start in the fall and a smaller cohort is established in the spring. The two-hour meetings for parents and students include meals and childcare, and each session reviews a different aspect of preparing for and applying to college. Many students are the first members of their family to go to college.
The Oregon program expanded rapidly after 2012 as educators saw its success and invited the program to their districts. Many districts were interested in making a financial or staff-time investment in the Juntos program.
“We want to be in areas that have requested us,” Galaviz-Yap said. “We want a school district or community partner who is open and willing to work with us. We share the success with them.”
The program is waiting to see if the COVID-19 emergency will continue into the fall.
“The need for Juntos isn’t going away,” Galaviz-Yap said. “Participants need to understand that we’re still there for them.”