How One Teacher Is Helping Kids Achieve Greatness

To commemorate Teacher Appreciation Week we caught up with Ruth Valdes, a teacher at Amigos for Kids, a Miami-based Affiliate, to find out what issues are on teachers’ minds. We also asked her about life as an Escalera instructor and how the program can help kids achieve success.


Ruth (front, far left) with other Escalera Affiliate instructors doing some Chicago sight-seeing after a long training day.

NCLR: When did Amigos for Kids become an Affiliate and why? What are the benefits?

Valdes: Amigos joined NCLR as an Affiliate in 2008 given the entity’s important advocacy work on behalf of Hispanics for over 40 years. Miami-Dade County has a diverse representation of the Hispanic population. Our mission is to reach Hispanic families throughout the country with our message of child abuse prevention. Being an Affiliate of NCLR has provided numerous opportunities to continue to create awareness and provide services to children and families.

One of the benefits is having been selected to implement NCLR’s Escalera Program. In March 2014, Amigos for Kids began the implementation at Mater Academy East High School. Amigos for Kids was excited to partner with Mater Academy East because it was an opportunity to provide further services for these students. Since implementation, the students have become leaders within the school. They have learned important skills, such as résumé-writing and interviewing. Additionally, they were given the opportunity to implement the skills they have learned through work internships. As a result, the students have become more responsible in terms of school work and extracurricular activities.

NCLR: How do you hope the Escalera Program will have a positive impact on the youth you serve?

Valdes: The youth population at Mater Academy East High School has a majority of Hispanic and low-income students. Most of the students live in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, which is predominantly Central American. The students at Mater who participate in the Escalera Program come from humble, hard-working families who want to see their children succeed as professionals.

I hope that by having participated in the Escalera Program, my students develop a sense of responsibility beyond the classroom walls and become active participants in our community in many diverse roles.

NCLR: What is your favorite part of working with the Escalera Program and with Amigos for Kids?

Valdes: The best part of working with the Escalera Program is the students, seeing their growth: watching them go from shy, hesitant students to assertive young adults who proudly flaunt their new strengths. Additionally, Amigos for Kids provided me the opportunity, along with two of my students and a parent, to attend NCLR’s 2014 Conference in Los Angeles. It was especially rewarding to witness the interaction of these students with other students and participants of the Conference and exchange ideas and views. They were able to travel, network, learn, and even meet the president of NCLR.

As an instructor, I also enjoyed the opportunity to network with other Escalera participants from around the country at the NCLR Conference and at the NCLR training hosted in Chicago in August 2014. It was clear that, as instructors, we had a lot in common!

NCLR: How would you describe the life of an Escalera instructor? What’s a daily schedule like? What is most challenging and rewarding?

Valdes: Our job is hectic but fulfilling. A daily schedule for me includes teaching all day, conducting an Escalera session after school, having discussions with the students about their concerns or what’s new, and responding to emails and calls from students who need a letter of recommendation or a job reference. I have to juggle many responsibilities and be extremely flexible. However, I also enjoy the invaluable reward of seeing the students make progress in so many ways.

NCLR: What is something you have learned about working with youth that you would like to share with other professionals?

Valdes: If I could share one thing that I have learned from working with young people in different settings, it is that there is a way to reach them. Working with the youth doesn’t have to be a fight; it’s not “us” versus “them.” It can be a win-win scenario. Getting to that point is not always easy, but it is very rewarding. Working with Escalera has been especially rewarding because I’ve had the opportunity to pay it forward and serve as a role model for Hispanic students. The biggest reward of the program has been the encouragement and confidence that it provides for the students. Escalera has enlightened the students to see possibilities, to the belief that si se puede!

Washington Plays Host to Escalera National Summit


Attendees and staff at the 2015 Escalera National Summit

Students who participate in our Escalera Program had the opportunity to visit Washington, DC recently for the Escalera National Summit. The program was held in conjunction with NCLR’s National Latino Advocacy Days. 

Despite some bad weather, summit participants enjoyed a productive week that included an active presence at the Advocacy Days’ legislative meetings, a Lideres Congreso and a screening of the movie “Selma”. Students also participated in guided tours of the nation’s most important monuments and a Summit celebration hosted by our DC Affiliate, the Latin American Youth Center. The week was capped off by a recognition ceremony for all the attendees in which students received certificates of completion and a lapel pin. We are especially thankful to LAYC for all their support in making the summit a success.

Below are some highlights from this year’s event.

Escalera summit attendees at the MLK Memorial

Escalera summit attendees at the MLK Memorial

One Thousand Steps Toward Success


Affiliate staff poses for a group picture at the AltaMed Health Services Corporation Headquarters.

By Felicia Medellin, Escalera Program Manager, NCLR

21 + 1,000 = National Impact

What do these numbers mean?  Twenty-one represents the number of NCLR Affiliates selected to implement the Escalera Program over the next year.  And, these Affiliates will provide career- and college-readiness services to nearly 1,000 Latino high school students through the Escalera Program.

The Escalera Program was established by NCLR and its partners in 2001 to promote the upward economic mobility of Latinos by increasing youth’s educational attainment and access to information about professional careers and postsecondary options.  Its purpose to promote educational access and success is demonstrated by the 90 percent graduation rate among participants.  Furthermore, 96 percent of the graduating 2012 Escalera cohort immediately enrolled in college compared to 69 percent of the national Hispanic graduate cohort in the same year.


Affiliates collaborate to create a picture story describing a goal-setting road map

NCLR convened the selected Escalera sites for a three-day training hosted in Los Angeles from January 28-30, 2014.  Attendees experienced an intensive agenda that included the opportunity to participate in and present the newly revised curriculum for the 15-month program.  The lesson demonstrations were planned in small groups and allowed the Affiliates the chance to view the curriculum from multiple perspectives and learn from others’ instructional strategies.  The training also included charlas about incorporating parent engagement, special needs modifications, and cultural and linguistic competence along with the curriculum implementation.  The Escalera team from AltaMed Health Services Corporation was also invited to present workshops on their models for case management and youth internships.

In addition to the main goal of convening the Affiliates for learning about the implementation of the Escalera Program and bringing the curriculum to life, NCLR also hoped to create a supportive learning community among the Affiliates.  “I want to remember that there is a network of great people who will be doing the same work,” said one attendee. Together, they will be implementing and testing the curriculum, allowing NCLR and its Affiliate network to learn from their experiences.  But more importantly, they will also be making a difference in nearly 1,000 young lives, families, and communities.

NCLR would like to thank the following sponsors of the Escalera Program:  the PepsiCo Foundation, Shell, and the UPS Foundation.

NCLR Celebrates American Education Week

By Peggy McLeod, Deputy Vice President, Education and Workforce Development, NCLR

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAmerican Education Week puts a spotlight on the role of educators and families—two groups who are essential in helping our nation’s children gain vital skills for future success.  The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Education Team thought this would be a great time to give you an overview of our work in this field.

I started as NCLR’s Deputy Vice President of Education and Workforce Development in August 2013, and I have the privilege of working with a fantastic team.  While the scope of our work is broad, it is focused completely on improving the education of Latinos from preschool to graduate school and beyond.  Continue reading

Latino Graduation Rates Surge to Three-decade High

Bell Multicultural StudentsFor the first time in over three decades, a new study found that the Latino on-time graduation rate in 2010 surged to over 70% in a major ten-point jump from four years before.

The increase in Hispanic high school graduation, combined with an increase among other groups, has led the national dropout rate to fall to just 3% of all American high school students.

Although Latinos are still dropping out of high school in unsustainably high numbers, at more than double the rate of their non-Hispanic counterparts, these findings may represent a welcome turn in the right direction. Far more than before, young Hispanic students are making the decision to stay in school until graduation day.

“While we are excited about this new increase in high school graduation rates, our ultimate challenge remains to ensure that more Hispanic students are prepared to be accepted and succeed in our colleges and universities. We must see more Latinos enroll in college each year with the skills they need to graduate and obtain a degree,” said Delia Pompa, Senior Vice President of Programs at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

What does this change mean for a growing Latino community during a time when many states are cutting school resources in the name of fiscal austerity?

Despite both cultural and linguistic setbacks, we know that Latino children can achieve educational goals whether in preschool or in high school and should not be written off at any point along the educational pipeline. Every day, talented and hardworking Hispanic students overcome stereotypes and personal adversity and succeed in realizing dreams of both high school and college graduation.

“NCLR works with school administrators, teachers, and parents to ensure that they not only graduate from high school but are prepared to face rigorous college coursework. Through programs like “What If?” and the Escalera Program, NCLR supports student-focused programs that provide tools for Latino students to be better prepared for acceptance to postsecondary institutions and thrive in a college environment,” said Pompa.

As Latino unemployment still hovers around 10% nationally, many Hispanic teens may be consciously deciding to stay in school, recognizing that without a degree their employment prospects are scant in an already difficult job market.

While an increase in graduation rates is a strong step forward, the study finds that nearly 30% of Hispanic high school students dropped out of school during the 2009–2010 academic year. This is still unacceptably high, and we must work together this year to redouble our efforts to ensure that every Latino student has the opportunity to succeed and earn a high school diploma.