Thirty-nine sixth-graders from low-income households are receiving help from UCSB students and professors as part of program launched last spring.

UCSB and Santa Barbara City College student mentors are working with children and their families at Isla Vista Elementary School as part of Engaging Latino Communities for Education (ENLACE), an outreach program which aims to help Latino children and their families in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Oxnard.

Family involvement is crucial to achieving the two key goals of the program, which are to improve literacy and attachment to school, said UCSB Sociology professor Denise Segura, a co-principal investigator of the program. The role of the mentor is often to mediate between parents and teachers, who have trouble communicating due to language barriers or other factors.

“The sixth-graders are our target, but it’s providing support for the whole family,” said ENLACE Director Claudia Martinez. “We try to be liaisons.”

Thirty-nine sixth graders and their families have joined the program so far but the program has the resources to support more. Last year, 54 to 90 families were eligible for the program and all were notified of the program, including non-Latinos.

Each family receives two student mentors, usually one from UCSB and the other from SBCC. The pair always works together with its assigned families and is required to visit them at least once a week, but Segura said most do more.

The student mentors are not meant to be tutors, but rather “resource facilitators,” Segura said, who can improve communication between parents and schools as well as help parents realize what opportunities and resources are available to them.

“Low-income families … tend to have less knowledge about schools and student rights,” Segura said.

Maria Cisneros, a senior mathematics major and ENLACE mentor, said that the families she has worked with have responded very positively.

“They ask for something; maybe we know, maybe we don’t. We just find the information for them,” Cisneros said. “The parents are really excited just to know that somebody’s there to help them.”

The program represents a yearlong commitment for the student mentors, Segura said. In the fall, they took her course, Sociology 146, “Education and Empowerment,” to prepare them. In addition, the volunteers had to be fingerprinted and screened before being approved to work with the children.

The program is still in its beginning stages since the mentors just started meeting with their families at the end of Fall Quarter, Martinez said.

“I think at this stage were trying to get to know the families, to get to know each other; this is where we are now,” Cisneros said. “There hasn’t yet been time for a relationship to grow.”

This branch of ENLACE, in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, is part of a national initiative and received a $1.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to fund the program.