Juntos is helping Latino students in Sisters realize their dreams. photo by Erin Borla
Juntos is helping Latino students in Sisters realize their dreams. photo by Erin Borla

For the past few years Sisters students have had the opportunity to participate in the Juntos program run through Oregon State University's Open Campus.

The Juntos program, a free workshop series, is designed to support Latino students and parents with school success, career and college readiness. This program was adopted by Oregon State University from North Carolina State University in 2012.

This past fall, Ruth Jones, former Hispanic advocate for the Sisters School District, transitioned into a new, full-time position designed to expand the Juntos program to all of rural Central Oregon.

According to Jones, Oregon has one of the lowest rates of Latinos attending college after high school - and an even lower percentage of Latino students finishing their degree. This program is designed to change that.

Jones began her work at Sisters Elementary School in the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year as a part-time Hispanic advocate and part-time secretary. During the first year, the Sisters School District received a grant to bring the Juntos program to the local community. Jones attended a Juntos facilitator training program provided by Oregon State University in Madras.

"At the time I didn't know anything about it," says Jones. "After attending the training I came back to Sisters and continued to serve as a Hispanic advocate until Oregon State called and asked 'so, are you ready to start your program this fall?'"

In the fall of 2013, Jones coordinated her first cohort. They started their six-week courses in August. All of the 45 people she invited came.

The course runs once a week for six weeks. Each of the sessions provide free child-care and a meal for participants. During each session there are opportunities for youth activities and parent break-out sessions. Participants can expect to be able to create goals for graduation and attendance; and be able to identify barriers and ways to overcome them for both graduating from high school and going on to college. Parents and students will gain skills and knowledge to have more effective communication with key school staff, as well as be introduced to the FAFSA and other financial aid resources.

Students will learn about the SAT/PSAT/ACT testing, tips for essay writing, importance of volunteering and community service, and how to be competitive in applications for college.

By the end of the six-week course families will have a completed education action plan to focus on next steps.

"This program gives families ownership of their child's education," says Jones.

Many of the families that participated in the first cohort in 2013 wanted to continue to meet. The group set up monthly meetings to continue to discuss how to support their children.

"Of the participants in the first cohort, we had four seniors," says Jones. "I am proud to say all four of those students are attending college. We are changing the culture - families are energized."

Recently, Jones was approached by Oregon State University to continue and expand her work in the Juntos program.

"Other districts saw all the positive energy coming out of the Sisters program," says Jones. "Sisters is an example. When we started the Juntos program here we were the fifth program in the state; now there are 14 school districts participating. We started a program in Redmond ... soon Culver and then Prineville."

She started working directly for the Open Campus program through Oregon State in November. It made sense for her to continue to be housed in Sisters, and the University agreed. Jones has a small office in the Sisters Middle School library and still keeps a watchful eye on the Sisters program while she expands the good work she has done to other rural communities in Central Oregon.

Through a grant from the Ford Family Foundation, Jones' position is paid for and Oregon State University has offered to pay up to 70 percent of her tuition costs so she can finish her bachelor's degree.

"I have an associate's degree," she says. "But to finish my degree, be able to stay in Sisters and continue to support these families - this position transition was a no-brainer for me."

Volunteers are needed to assist with the program. Knowing Spanish is a requirement, as well as desire to work with students and families.

"Juntos means together," says Jones. "We are here to support and assist Hispanic families and tell them that their kids can go to college just like anybody else."

For more information, contact Jones at Ruth.jones@oregonstate.edu.