Hispanic Liaison launches a second Latinx youth group at Seaforth High School

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Since its creation in late 2017, the Hispanic Liaison’s free year-round youth mentorship program, Orgullo Latinx Pride, has nearly always capped off at around 30 students at Jordan-Matthews High School.

This year, however, the program’s going through a growth spurt.

Orgullo Latinx Pride, also called OLP, now serves 48 students — and counting — at two high schools, J-M and Seaforth, on opposite sides of Chatham County. In fact, group membership is now large enough — and spans a large enough distance — to drive the Liaison’s youth leadership program manager, Selina Lopez, to look into securing a school bus to transport everyone.

“Oh my goodness, we’ll have our own Vehículo Hispano,” Lopez joked, referring to the Liaison’s name in Spanish, El Vínculo Hispano.

“It’s been a journey, but I’m so happy,” she added. “… There’s growing interest in the group.”

It’s all possible thanks to the memorandum of understanding that the Liaison entered into with Chatham County Schools in June to expand the programs and services both organizations provide Hispanic students. Besides granting the Liaison funding and increased access to CCS building, the agreement laid out plans for the Liaison to assist the district in developing college support for Latinx students and in forming two strategic planning focus groups.

Perhaps most importantly, the partnership also permitted the nonprofit to expand OLP to another high school and implement the program with school backing.

According to Lopez, OLP provides students multiple pillars of pivotal support: academic support, cultural education, mentorship, and even “a second little home.” Past and current OLP members have told the News + Record that the program has helped them secure college scholarships — in some cases full-rides academically — empowered them to raise their voices and inspired pride and confidence in their cultural identities.

“I felt really out of place when I moved here (from Orange County),” J-M senior and OLP assistant representative Ashley Perez told the school board in June. She joined during her first year at J-M. “Now that I’m in this program, they made me realize that I am not alone. They deeply care about me and support me and are always there for me. I’m just so thankful for this opportunity and I hope that in the future that the possibility of this partnership will also help others (find) a new home, a family.”

'Really find some support'

Before, the program had been limited to Jordan-Matthews, where more than 60% of the student population identifies as Hispanic. This year, under the district’s direction, the Liaison brought the program to Seaforth High School on the outskirts of Pittsboro in the county’s eastern side.

Seaforth has the third-highest percent of Hispanic students (19.1%) among CCS high schools, according to the district’s latest Ethnic Enrollment Report (from Sept. 21 to Oct. 18). Northwood has the second highest — 19.5% of its student population is Hispanic.

“At the time we did the pull of data, Seaforth was slated to have a higher number,” Amanda Moran, CCS’ assistant superintendent of academic services and instructional support, told the News + Record. “As always, enrollments shift after the school year begins. We also have the Dual Language program at Seaforth, which means some Spanish-speaking students are attending a school outside of their normal attendance zone and having the extra support we thought would be helpful.”

Space, too, was an issue at Northwood, she added, because the school did not have any extra meeting spaces or offices to offer the Liaison.

“So we decided Seaforth for that reason,” Moran said. “We have discussed ways that we can invite Northwood and Chatham Central High School students to events and possibly expand in the future to other schools.”

This year, 36 J-M students, plus 12 Seaforth students, have enrolled in OLP. Under the MOU, the program may serve up to 60 students.

“The ultimate goal is to have 30 from each school once Seaforth gets 11th and 12th graders,” Lopez said.

She spent the first few months in both schools setting up lunch information tables and recruiting new students — especially at Seaforth. She’s no longer accepting students this year from J-M, but she still has a few open slots for interested Seaforth students.

“I actually accepted more than my capacity,” she said. “Originally, it was 30 students from Jordan-Matthews, but I accepted a couple of more just because of COVID, I could see the need in certain students, and so that’s why I increased the number, but yeah, J-M is pretty much pretty much filled — overflowing.”

That, Lopez added, is why the Liaison is scouring the county for a youth program assistant. Under the MOU, the district agreed to provide the organization $50,000, to be funded for the first three years through Elementary and Secondary Emergency Education Relief (ESSER) funds. Most of that money will go toward funding a program assistant’s salary.

“We’ve been doing a couple of interviews,” Lopez said. “We haven’t found the right candidate quite yet, so we are still looking to fill that position ... So that’s a work in progress, but I’m hopeful that one day soon, we can fill that position just because it’s getting really busy. Well, I mean, originally, it’s been really busy, but now it’s, like, busier with two schools, so I feel like I’m just running around all the time.”

After all, besides OLP activities after school, Lopez has been carrying out various home visits for Seaforth’s Spanish-speaking families — sometimes until 8 or 9 at night — as well as helping out with interpretation and translation at Seaforth during the school day.

“They don’t have a bilingual receptionist or bilingual translator, so I’ve been working with the social worker and the counselor in terms of trying to help them with Spanish-speaking families in that way,” she said. “But I’m only there once a week … they have other teachers, too, that are helping in that regard, but that’s a need that I see for Seaforth at least.”

That’s not the only challenge, though; because both schools are on opposite sides of the county, transportation for nearly 50 students to off-school events has been hard — so is finding activities for both groups to do together.

“We’ve started just like initially with field trips and everything, but transportation is just such a big barrier,” Lopez said. “I think trying to navigate both sides of the county now is going to be a little challenging, but we’re hoping to really find some support in that area.”

'Their voices are so important'

Two weeks ago, both groups visited the North Carolina State Fair. They also volunteered at an event called “Boo at the Zoo” in Asheboro a few weekends ago, where they dressed up in costumes and handed out candy to visiting kids. Just last Friday, they also participated in Siler City’s “Fall-O-Ween” event.

Still, both groups have mostly been meeting separately: the J-M group meets on Wednesdays after school from 4 to 6 p.m. while the Seaforth group meets Fridays from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Ideally, though, Lopez said she’d like to identify a joint space for both groups to meet together at least once or twice a month.

“I’m not sure if that means either Seaforth students will come to J-M and we can meet in a classroom or vice versa, J-M going to Seaforth,” she said, adding with a laugh, “but yeah, we’re trying to still figure out the logistics of that because it is a lot of students.”

So far, both she and Moran have received good feedback about the expanded services from OLP parents and students, especially those from Seaforth. Because many Seaforth families live in the Chatham part of Chapel Hill, Lopez said, they don’t often go to Siler City or know about the resources offered to Spanish-speaking families within Chatham. During her home visits, she’s been spreading the word about the Liaison’s services, including OLP.

“They’re super happy to have this program at Seaforth. They feel really grateful that Seaforth was chosen for their students,” she said. “... I have two students from the Moncure area, and they were telling me how a lot of the times they feel, like, kind of left out, because there’s hardly any kind of resources or agency in that area. So, (their mom) was happy to hear that a program like Orgullo Latinx Pride is at the school and offered transportation and everything for her child to be involved in. She says that it just meant a lot to her because a lot of times people forget about families in Moncure. So that was like, ‘Oh, that warmed my heart.’”

Empowering Spanish-speaking parents to provide that sort of feedback and more is also on the horizon. Among other things, Lopez would like to facilitate two parent focus groups for the district once things settle down.

“So, I’m hoping to really work on that as well when I get my new assistant and get a little bit more capacity,” she said. “I definitely want parents to be involved (in the schools), just because they have so much feedback, so much to offer. I think their experiences and their voices are so important for the school system to hear, so I’m excited about that.”

She’s even more excited to see how youth from two different sides of the county get along, as well as what they learn from one another.

“We’re getting there,” Lopez said. “I’m excited. I’m excited to see what even next year looks like for both schools.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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