Lopez: New initiative promises improved educational outcomes for East San Jose residents
The National Hispanic University in East San Jose is pictured in this file photo. Photo courtesy of The National Hispanic University.

I recently participated in two peaceful and inspiring protests close to where I live in downtown San Jose. I was moved by the diversity of the participants, their eloquent and strong demands for change and especially by the voices of our youth.  At this point, it’s important we listen to the voices emerging from the Black Lives Matter movement after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others.

One of those calls to action is equity in education where Latinos and African Americans have been especially underserved and undervalued. For example, locally only 18% of Latinos 25 years and older in Silicon Valley hold a bachelor’s degree compared to whites at 62%, according to the 2019 Silicon Valley Index of Joint Venture Silicon Valley.

We can do much better, but how?

Seventeen years ago I quit a cushy and secure state university job to lead The National Hispanic University, a private campus in East San Jose with a unique promise of real change in the education of Latinos. NHU offered a highly-personal approach to meeting the needs of students and their families. NHU faculty and staff served as role models and understood the culture and economic challenges. The staff was culturally literate and the majority were bilingual in English and Spanish. We recognized the importance, celebrated and acted on bridging the cracks between preschools, elementary, secondary schools and colleges.

Despite the progress and successes, NHU continued having regulatory and financial challenges. In 2013, The U.S. Department of Education’s determination that NHU’s Liberal Studies program students were not eligible for Title IV federal funding (student financial aid) proved to be the tipping point for a small private tuition-driven university. The NHU Board of Trustees in 2014 made the difficult decision to close its doors and ceased university operations in 2015.

NHU, after serving East San Jose for over 20 years, was succeeded by The Foundation for Hispanic Education.

A new and promising higher education initiative was recently announced on July 14 by San Jose-Evergreen Community College District (SJECCD) for East San Jose at the former site of National Hispanic University. The SJECCD and The Foundation for Hispanic Education announced they aim to improve the overall educational and economic success of local students and families on the predominantly Latino, immigrant and working-class east side.

The partnership would directly address college preparedness and put a higher number of Latino students from the east side on track to enroll and complete a college degree and enter a profession. The model would allow for high school students to be enrolled in dual enrollment programs and take high school and college courses simultaneously. Students would be eligible to complete up to 29 college transferable credits while in high school.

Research clearly supports this approach for lower-income students of color. If these students so choose, they could stay on for a community college degree or complete the first two years toward a four-year degree.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned education upside down, but it also presents us with opportunities. East side families are struggling every day with expensive housing, job losses, childcare needs, transportation and health care costs. According to Harvard researcher Raj Chetty, “Lower-income students have had a 60% reduction in their online learning and not returning to previous levels whereas higher-income students after a sharp dip and a couple of weeks are back at previous baseline levels or exceeding them.”

In this extended crisis, SJECCD and the Foundation for Hispanic Education could decide which online teaching methods work best for low-income east side students and conduct research and document even better online practices. The groundwork for SJECCD’s east side campus is already being laid at SJCC’s Milpitas Extension campus.

The Milpitas Extension is already underway and working with Milpitas Unified School District to partner on breakthroughs in online learning, closing the chasm between PreK-12 and higher education and college preparedness. The lessons learned from the Milpitas campus are how to involve the community and parents in the educational process, providing extra-curricular activities for students and reaching down into the lower grades.

SJECCD’s thoughtful and innovative work should help local school districts and beyond with similar student populations.

SJECCD’s East San Jose campus could also become a center for training teachers with a particular focus on the educational needs of Latino, immigrant and working-class students in the new digital world. Many important academic pathway programs from PreK-12 to college should be developed over time.

Education equity is only achievable in East San Jose if we all work together to close the academic and opportunity gaps and help families move up the socioeconomic ladder. As Cesar Chavez stated in NHU’s first commencement in 1985: “I wish NHU were around for me. I would have come to NHU.”

Let’s not take this new and timely opportunity in East San Jose for granted.

Dr. David Lopez is the former president of The National Hispanic University and an active community advocate. He serves as a Board Member for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Pivotal, a leading nonprofit serving foster youth. He is also a founding member of Latinos in Action and was a governor appointee to the California State Board of Education.

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