A program involving UCSB students and professors aims to give Latino students in local elementary schools a head start in studying their future.

Next fall, Latino elementary school students in the Santa Barbara area and their families will be targeted as part of Engaging Latino Communities for Education (ENLACE). The program pairs up elementary school students with students and professors at UCSB and Santa Barbara City College and community members for four years.

The goal is to help Latinos in Ventura, Oxnard and Santa Barbara raise high school academic performances and obtain access to higher education, project coordinator Rufina Cortez said. An estimated 54 to 90 families – which must be a first-generation U.S. family and have a sixth-grader with other siblings – will be eligible for the program. Specific families will not be chosen until program coordinators determine the exact number of sixth-grade students enrolled in the next school year at the targeted schools.

“We are looking for an increase in opportunities for Latinos. Specifically, we are looking for an increase in the attendance at four-year institutions,” Cortez said. “We know this will not be an immediate resolution, but we will work with these students for the next four years to ensure they get the information and opportunities they need to be prepared and be eligible to attend four-year institutions.”

As part of the ENLACE program, UCSB is offering Sociology 146, Special Topics, to students who want to participate. The class serves as a continuation of Sociology 194, Special Topics, where ENLACE co-director Denise Segura is training 24 students this quarter to serve as mentors to work with the designated families for Fall Quarter. Segura said she believes many Latino students face economic hardships and do not meet high school requirements that would prepare them for college.

“Only 4 percent of Latino high school students meet UC requirements when they graduate from high school,” she said.

The program also depends on inputs from the families to find out if their children are improving or if the program meets their specific needs.

“It is important to allow these communities to say what they need and what they want,” ENLACE co-director Professor J. Manuel Casas said.

Many of sixth-graders’ parents are immigrants and do not speak enough English to help students with their homework, Casas said. This situation puts these children at a disadvantage because they might not know about resources to get to college and think they can’t afford it.

Susana Coracero, a Sociology 194 student, was interested in the program because she grew up in a similar community to the elementary school students and attended a school that didn’t recognize needs for Latinos. She said she believes Latino students are taught to believe that they are “dumb” because they don’t perform higher academically.

“[The students] need to know that they are not dumb, but limited,” Coracero said. “Our job is not to make miracles. They are smart. We just need to give them the extra push.”

The program includes 70 different partnerships between businesses and schools from Oxnard, Ventura and Santa Barbara city colleges, as well as other high schools around these communities. The K.W. Kellogg Foundation donated $1.5 million two weeks ago because of the program’s emphasis on helping Latinos.

“There’s other programs aiming at other students, but very few directly at Latinos. This program is definitely one of a kind,” Casas said. “Depending on how well the program works and how students, parents, teachers and communities feel, then we will look to expand, but it all depends on communities.”