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J.Smith/El Hispano

Norristown – In 2004, the high school graduation rate of Hispanic students stood at 64.2 percent nationally, a staggering number that meant up to 36 percent of Latinos were dropping out, a number that rose to nearly 40 percent when incarceration rates are included in the totals.  According to one national study, one student was dropping out of high school every twenty-six seconds.

Since then, a concerted effort by community-based organizations like Congreso and support from major corporations has reversed the tide, narrowing the gap between the general population and Hispanic and African American graduation rates in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and across the nation. According to the most recent data, high school graduation rates for Hispanic students in Pennsylvania have climbed to 73 percent.

Surrounded by some twenty Norristown High School students in a  Northtown Plaza AT&T store, Friday, Michael Schweder, AT&T’s Mid-Atlantic President, presented a $30,000 check to the CEO of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Cynthia Figueroa, as part of its ASPIRE program, an initiative that has sought to reverse the dropout rate in the region in the last three years.

“Our ASPIRE program is nationwide and it’s primarily geared at secondary and higher education,” AT&T Pres. Schweder told El Hispano. “It’s a program that is specifically aimed at retention of students in school and focuses on moving beyond high school.”

“We looked at this Cogreso program and found it’s very worthwhile and very successful. So we made the determination to fund this,” Mr. Schweder added. “It’s program like this we do all across the country, about $125 million nationwide so far.  AT&T has made a commitment to double that over the next year or two.”

Established in 2008, AT&T’s Aspire works to help reverse the dropout trend by identifying programs that work and bringing the financial support that enables educators to work with at-risk students, getting them excited about setting and achieving their goals.  According to AT&T, they principally look to fund  innovative and student-centered solutions.

“We’ve seen some obvious improvements in retention rates in schools and the learning process, so we’re convinced this program is working, and that’s why we want to be part of it,” said Mr. Schweder.

“What we’re doing is training the next generation’s workforce and if there is an opportunity for us to hire people here in a setting like this, we’ll do that as well,” continued Mr. Schweder. “It’s AT&T’s commitment to making our country’s next generation competitive and technologically educated.”

According to Congreso’s CEO Cynthia Figueroa, the additional funding from AT&T will enable them to expand Congreso’s After-school program – which currently serves Norristown H.S. and Roosevelt high school (Alternative)- from 83 to 130 students.

The ‘Entrepreneurial’ program created by Congreso involves job skills training, “but also walks students through a project-skills training model,” explained Ms. Figueroa.

One student, Charles, recalled the training he received in the process of silk-screening.  Besides learning the technical aspects of silk-screening, Ms. Figueroa noted that students also learn “the business elements, such as how you sell, design and market a product.”

“The  project-base allows them to look at the whole scope of what it takes to market a  product from start to finish, including the technical skills of how to make that product.”

  During the 2013-2014 year students in the program learned about  jewelry making. The Norristown-area students researched different kinds of jewelry, said Ms. Figueroa, “what was trending in terms of popularity. They then learned how to make the jewelry and actually sold it.”

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