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    Latino club raises esteem, grades

    A Hispanic school resource officer finds success starting a club for Latinos at Largo High School.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


    LARGO -- Tamesis Cruz heard the whispers.

    Largo High School's resource officer was working with a group of students to create a club for Hispanic students.

    "That's not going to be an organized club," Cruz, a 16-year-old junior, heard some say. "It's going to be a rowdy mess."

    The talk bothered Cruz, a confident young woman of Puerto Rican descent who had been asked by the school's resource officer, Largo police Officer Jerry Rubio, to be the club's vice president.

    Cruz believes there are still some doubters, but there are many more believers in the club, Organization for Latino Advancement. The grade-point averages of many OLA members are up. So is their self-esteem and confidence. Stereotypes that portray Hispanics as loud and always late are receding like rain-starved lakes.

    "I think it's a great opportunity for them to learn about themselves, their culture and each other," said principal Barbara Thornton. OLA is the first club of its kind aimed at Hispanic students, according to Pinellas school officials. But OLA is open to all students, and some who attend the weekly Thursday meetings are not Hispanic. Adult volunteers sit at the back of the class, offering advice. Because Rubio is on duty, he cannot sit in on the meetings, but he meets with members after school or during the day if there is an emergency.

    The advisers discuss everything from eating the proper foods to dressing for a job interview. They also require club members to participate in a project that helps less fortunate Hispanics.

    Next month, the club is planning Latino Week, a host of events designed to increase cultural awareness. Cruz hopes Latino Week will show skeptics that the club has not only survived, but thrived.

    "They are seeing we're still here and we're still with it," she said.

    The progress excites Rubio, who is of Cuban heritage. When he assumed the position of school resource officer last fall, Rubio was disturbed by what he saw. Many of the Hispanic students sat in the back of the class. Some, embarrassed by their strong accents and less-than perfect English, did not participate in class discussion. Rubio did some additional research. He discovered dropout rates were significantly higher among Hispanic students.

    Still, Rubio and the club's other advisers recognize the club is far from where they want it to be. Some students do not seem to be setting long-term goals, advisers say. Rubio would also like to find more mentors to work with the kids.

    "They are just beginning to crawl," Ricardo Morales, one of the advisers, said of the club members.

    Rubio fashioned the idea from 500 Role Models of Excellence, an organization that mentors African-American students.

    The officer thought a similar program for Hispanic students could help. He reviewed the school's list of Hispanic students, looking for students with good grades and asked them if they wanted a club.

    Jonathan Mercado, who would become the club's president, was excited and apprehensive about the idea.

    "We didn't know what was going to happen," said Mercado, 19, a senior.

    The meetings have been a learning experience for the students, whose family histories stretch back to such places as Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, Trinidad, the Dominican Republic and Colombia. Students are encouraged to research their own backgrounds and share with the group.

    Some students discovered subtleties like how Mexicans and Puerto Ricans pronounce some words differently. Yet Mercado was startled by the commonalities they share, despite their different homelands.

    "We're a lot more similar than I thought," he said.

    The meetings draw about 20 students each week.

    At no time in American history have Hispanics garnered as much attention from politicians, the news media and society as they do right now. Political candidates show off their espanol, hoping to connect with Hispanic voters. Last month, the news was dominated with stories about rising Latino populations across the country. Then there are attention-grabbing performers such as Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera.

    OLA has taken notice. As part of their Latino Week celebration, the group plans to show a montage of celebrities and U.S. census articles detailing the Hispanic population explosion at a presentation in the school's auditorium.

    Such widespread pride in being Hispanic was not always the case among all Latinos. Club members have found several students whose parents did not list them as Hispanic, fearing their children may get lesser treatment from teachers and guidance counselors, said Rubio.

    About 4 percent of the school's 1,850 students are Hispanic, according to school officials.

    The club has fostered pride among some members, who once felt isolated in school.

    Luis Garcia, an 18-year-old junior, had problems relating to virtually everyone at school, Rubio recalls.

    He talked back to teachers. He even had a few run-ins with Rubio.

    Garcia's grades were ghastly.

    "If he got a D, it was something to be proud of," said Rubio.

    Garcia was threatened with expulsion. His mother came to the school one day to talk to Rubio. The conversation lasted 21/2 hours. What the school didn't know was that Garcia was working five or six days a week as a telemarketer to help his family.

    "If you think you are helping by making $10 an hour, imagine what you can do with a college degree, making $20 or $30 an hour," Rubio told the youth.

    Garcia quit the job. His grade-point average has risen from 1.25 to 3.5. Garcia, now on OLA's activities committee, credits much of his improvement to the talk with Rubio.

    "He is probably my best friend," said Garcia. "He's made me think about my future."

    That's been Rubio's goal all along.

    "Do I get every one of them? No," said Rubio. "But I'm trying."

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