Plugged In: The Escalera Program & its Lasting Effects

Ana Hageage
May 22, 2012

Part of our Reconnections blog series on disconnected youth.

What does it mean to be an Hispanic student in a postsecondary institution? Recently, I had the privilege of reading scholarshop application essays from Escalera Program alumni that addressed this question. I was continually inspired by the courage and perseverance of these young people who wrote about leaving their families for the first time, worrying about how their immigration status would affect their opportunities, overcoming culture shock, and having to juggle part-time jobs with demanding course loads.

Latino youth are all the more at risk of becoming disengaged from education and employment due to obstacles stemming from tenuous immigration statuses, language barriers, low income, pregnancy and parenting, and a disproportionate representation in the juvenile justice system. In 2008, only 57.6 percent of Latino youth who entered the ninth grade completed twelfth grade with a regular diploma.

One Escalera alumnus addressed this very issue in her essay: 

"There is a large percentage of youth in my community who are undocumented and feel that they cannot attend college. These students don’t receive the best quality education due to a lack of resources and are discouraged from doing well in school due to their legal status; they feel as if their grades will not matter because they cannot continue on to a higher education."

These students writing these essays come from backgrounds where they could have easily fallen among the 6.7 million disconnected youth across the country. They enter our programs with reading and math levels well below grade level, are first-generation college bound—often the first in their families to even attend or complete high school—and find themselves without the necessary training and education to achieve economic stability.

What caused these scholarship applicants to stay in school and succeed where others didn’t? The answer was evident throughout the 20+ essays I reviewed: they were inspired, propelled, and held accountable because of their engagement in the community, the support from their mentors, and the resolve instilled in them by their local Escalera Programs. 

Programs that provide a pathway for our disconnected Latino youth are essential ... If we are to not only mend but grow our economy, we need to ensure that effective programs such as these can be replicated and brought to scale.  

Overcoming Barriers

Since 2001, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) has worked to combat persistently high unemployment and dropout rates faced by Latino youth.  NCLR together with its Affiliates has targeted this high-needs population through the Escalera Program: Taking Steps to Success, an after-school model that provides positive youth development services for Latino youth ages 15–24. 

Participants who enroll in Escalera must earn a high school diploma or GED, complete 80 hours of work or internship experience, and enroll in a postsecondary institution in order to graduate from the program. To help students achieve these goals, program sites offer wraparound services focused on six core competencies: reconnection, foundational skills, leadership and personal development, educational attainment, career exploration, and workforce readiness skills, which are central to the success of disconnected youth.   

Best practices from our programs include:

  • Case Management: Escalera program sites offer intense case management to youth who need assistance navigating the various services available to them. The positive relationships that youth develop with case management staff are an essential first step to reconnection and are cited by participants as vital to remaining engaged in the program.
  • Corporate Engagement: NCLR’s corporate partners participate in local programming by offering career exploration activities such as speakers series, mentoring, and job shadowing. For example, professionals from the Shell Hispanic Employee Network (SHEN) recently completed a two-day job shadowing experience with 19 Escalera participants. When asked what they gained from this experience, one participant stated, 

“Talking with my host supervisor and the people working at Shell showed me the opportunities that come with these careers and majors.” 

  • Civic Engagement:  Giving back to the community is an important part of reconnection. Youth gain the feeling that they are a part of something larger and learn leadership skills along the way:

“My community involvement helped me contemplate all the issues in my community and motivated me to attend a four-year university. I’ve fed homeless people, organized events for children who were victims of cancer, cleaned parks and neighborhoods, and organized events for teen parents.”

  • Cultural Relevance: Every year, youth from each program site are chosen to participate in national events such as NCLR’s Annual Conference and Líderes Summit and the NCLR National Latino Advocacy Days. These events offer a unique opportunity for Escalera youth to engage in culturally relevant national discussions and to further develop their leadership skills:

“I was given an opportunity to be part of the NCLR Líderes Staff at the 2011 NCLR Annual Conference in Washington, DC where I was able to share and speak to other youth from all over the United States. All of these leadership experiences have helped me grow as a person, become well-rounded, and realize the importance of helping out in the community and being able to make a difference in the world.”

Programs that provide a pathway for our disconnected Latino youth are essential, yet this is only a drop in the bucket in terms of what can be done to serve our young people. If we are to not only mend but grow our economy, we need to ensure that effective programs such as these can be replicated and brought to scale.   

For policy recommendations and more information on NCLR’s work with disconnected youth, please see our report on the Escalera Program, Plugged In:  Positive Development Strategies for Disconnected Latino Youth

More from the Reconnections blog series:

"Stakes is High"
Kwesi Rollins

Youth in the President's Budget
Kisha Bird

Half-Time in America: Time to Reclaim Disconnected Youth
Roberto Viramontes and Lindsay Torrico     

More ...

 Share your ideas in the comment section below or to suggest a story for this series, email Caitlin Johnson, managing editor of SparkAction.

Ana Hageage is the Escalera Program Coordinator at the National Council of La Raza.