Peter Mares woke up one day and realized that his job as a natural gas service technician was as good as it was going to get.
"Ten years had passed, and I hadn't grown at all," said Mares, a 30-year-old father of three from Garden Grove. "I was ignorant--I couldn't spell, I felt inadequate. And I knew I couldn't make any more money or go any further with just a high school diploma."
And so the graduate of East Los Angeles' Roosevelt High School signed up last spring at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana. He felt like just another number, just another paper to grade--until he met Isaac Guzman.
Guzman, a longtime counselor at Rancho Santiago, persuaded Mares and 30 other students to join the Puente Project, an intensive one-year program designed to boost the writing and reading skills of Latino students so they can succeed and move on to four-year universities and professional careers.
The program, sponsored by the University of California and two dozen community colleges across the state, aims to reverse the dismal dropout rates of Latino students. The program starts with writing, a major hurdle for many Latino students, even those whose first language is English. But it also involves intensive counseling--with Guzman actually in the classroom for English, reading and word-processing.
Mentors are the third part of the triad. The idea is to give these students, many of whom are the first in their family ever to attend college, role models--Latinos like themselves who can show these young people that they, too, can take the path to higher education and economic success, Guzman said.
"Now when I come to school, I'm excited to come to my English class, and I look forward to reading my paper and hearing everyone else's," Mares said.
Puente, which means bridge in Spanish, was the brainchild of community college counselor Felix Galaviz and English teacher Patricia McGrath. At Chabot College in Hayward, they noticed about 1980 that they were losing Mexican-American students at an alarming rate.
"Pat would see these Chicano students start her classes and leave within a week. I found that these same kids would leave the campus altogether within three weeks," Galaviz said. "They would just drop out and wouldn't come back, even though I'd spend the year trying to recruit them at local high schools."
It was an all too familiar pattern. Today, 28% of Latino students in California drop out of high school, according to state education officials. Nationwide, the dropout rate is 50%. Of those who do get diplomas and go on to college, 87% attend community colleges, Galaviz said. About 45% of those students drop out without ever getting a degree.
As a Latino who dropped out of high school in Salinas after a counselor advised him that he had no future in school, Galaviz decided to go into counseling to try to make a difference for students like himself. So he and McGrath decided to find out what was driving them away.
They examined the records of these dropouts and other Latinos at Chabot, the courses they had taken, their written papers and the counseling they had received.
"We discovered they were avoiding English and writing classes altogether," Galaviz said. "They avoided counseling. Of those who did take English, in many instances the classes were so remedial they would drop them."
In 1981, the pair launched a pilot project with the three key components: specially tailored beginning English courses; a Latino counselor in the classroom who could share their experiences and build their confidence, plus local Latino mentors in the community who could speak of career paths these students may never have known of or considered.
By 1983, the Puente Project had spread to several other community colleges, supported totally by private-sector donations and the backing of the individual college administrators. In 1987, the University of California asked McGrath and Galaviz to run the program in affiliation with the state community college system administration. Today, 24 colleges offer the program, and another 18 hope to participate.
"I don't think I would have been able to achieve anything like the level I have without Puente," said Chuck Perez, 26, who started out in Galaviz' 1983 project at Chabot and graduated last June with a master's in business administration from UC Irvine.
"The thing with Puente is that it bridges a cultural gap by creating a support system with other Hispanic students," said Perez, who is a management intern for the city of Oakland and has a separate career writing music for television commercials.
"In the college system, you really tend to feel left out as a Hispanic," Perez said. "In mainstream classes, you wonder, 'How can I be myself and be successful?' In Puente, you're able to identify with other Hispanic students, and the counselors and instructors are people who are willing to go the extra mile for you. . . . You begin to feel a lot of self-worth and self-confidence."
Since the program's inception, more than 2,600 students have enrolled in Puente programs. Of those, more than three-fourths passed English 1-A, the gateway course all students must pass to succeed in college. About 47% have gone on to four-year schools, compared to a transfer rate of only 7.5% for all community college students statewide, said Janet Kodish, statistical analyst for the Puente Project.
While data is not available to measure how many earn bachelor's or advanced degrees, Kodish says anecdotal evidence indicates that their graduation rate from four-year universities is very high.
One reason is that counselors plan field trips to various colleges, give them a look at the campus and introduce them to counselors and other Latino students like themselves to reinforce the message that they, too, can succeed. On Saturday, more than 500 Puente students converged on the UCI campus to hear University of California officials talk about opportunities at the nine UC campuses.
Norma Soto isn't so sure about a UC campus. For one thing, it costs more than Cal State Fullerton. But after eight weeks in Puente Project, the 18-year-old freshman at Rancho Santiago has seen her grammar and writing skills improve so much that she definitely sees herself as college material.
"I want to major in political science, and I'm trying to keep my grades up so I can go to a private university," said Soto, who graduated from Santa Ana High School in June with a 3.4 grade-point average. "I'd like to major in business administration too, so I'll be able to travel to Mexico and get hired in a good job there too."
Mares also sees a path ahead, albeit a long one.
"My goal is a master's degree in business administration, and with that I can do what I want," he said, tapping at a keyboard to revise his latest English composition during their computer skills class.
Since he must support his wife and children, Mares plans to continue working full time at the Southern California Gas Co., while carrying as many courses as possible. At this rate, he figures he'll be 40 when he earns a master's degree.
Yet it's the daily delight that keeps him coming back.
"I always felt creative, that I could write. Now I feel like I'm getting the tools to do it. . . . Little by little, I'm learning."