At right, Phil Ortega, an attendance and safe schools administrator with the Eagle Point School District, says success in school is possible when the student's total environment is taken into account. Below, students Yvonne Delacruz, left, and Jasmin Espinoza, both 11, clean graffiti from a fence that students walk by on their way to school in White City. - Jim Craven

Graffiti work part of larger effort

For the past three years, students from the Eagle Point School District, mostly Latinos, have been removing graffiti from schools and public areas. It's not punishment and it's more than a service project — organizers say the effort is part of a larger plan to improve the success rate of Latino students locally.

Phil Ortega, attendance and safe school administrator for the school district, says the likelihood of success in school is increased when the students' total environment is addressed, from home to school and in the community at large.

"Success in school is a process, and must start at home and in the transition from home to school," Ortega said. "What would be working in their mind if on their way to school they saw graffiti?"

Ortega, widely recognized as a leading advocate for Latino students, works in a district in which two schools in White City have a 59 percent Latino student enrollment and the overall Latino enrollment is 27 percent.

"What Phil Ortega and School District 9 (Eagle Point) have done to improve graduation and success rates is commendable," said Maria Ramos Underwood, development director for La Clinica, which provides medical services to the needy. "He is a real model for turning a school system that was falling behind into one that is ahead of the curve."

Underwood is a member of Una Voz (One Voice), a group that includes many Latino community leaders.

Ortega is also a member of Una Voz, which meets regularly to discuss issues related to the Latino community and seek solutions. The group has put a particular emphasis on helping Latino students succeed.

"Before Una Voz, participation in the graffiti removal was spotty," Ortega said. "Most of the funding comes from Jackson County schools, but Una Voz has helped with grants to help fund the project."

He said the group is actively pursuing other grants, including one that would support a White City Mentorship Program.

"If we're successful with this grant, you'll see more students doing the right thing," he said.

Una Voz was organized in the fall of 2008 and comprises leaders in the Latino community and various Latino agencies in the area. It also includes representatives from the county's school districts.

"The Latino community has become more vocal," said Underwood. "It is the fastest growing population and it has reached critical mass. It is only going to get bigger and the problems need to be dealt with now before it gets worse.

"I felt that this is where we get on board, or this is where it falls apart," said Underwood, "and education became the most pressing issue for long-term impact during the first year."

According to Una Voz members, the education issues facing the Latino community are many. Along with high dropout rates and English proficiency issues, Latino students are faced with an unfamiliar and, sometimes, unfriendly atmosphere.

In response, a plan of action set forth by Una Voz includes getting parents involved in student's education, focusing the attention of educators to identify successful models that improve success rates, making people take responsibility for success and improving cultural competency among the staff.

Chief among its goals, however, is closing the communication gap between Latinos and others in the community.

"Everyone involved with these students needs to be on the same page," Underwood said, "and the students and parents need to feel welcome. Una Voz is a medium to get this information to the parents."

Ron D'Aloisio, a volunteer and consultant for Una Voz, said a Latino Education Action Plan summit held in October was a high point in improving the situation for Latino students. Those attending the summit heard success stories from Latino students at area schools, explaining their hardships and how they succeeded. Una Voz used the material to recommend specific improvements for Latino students in Jackson County schools.

Among those improvements, D'Aloisio noted, are: a Latino Advisory Committee that meets with Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long, increased interest and commitment from the schools concerning Latino issues and the development of a Latino parent organization providing training for Latino parents in how to get involved with the schools and their children's education.

Success, D'Aloisio said, will be evident "if a larger proportion of Latino students successfully graduate from schools in Jackson County and move on, either in terms of entering college or choosing careers."

The summit not only provided a focus on Latino students, but on the entire Latino community and the potential for Una Voz.

"All of the decision-makers were in attendance," D'Aloisio said. "It caused others in the community to take these people seriously."

Underwood agreed with D'Aloisio.

"The LEAP conference galvanized what this group can do," she said. "It was pretty powerful."

Una Voz continues to deal with education issues, putting much of its effort into increasing parents' involvement in their children's education. It is also looking at its next areas of concentration, which could include health care, immigration, housing, employment training and Latino influence in the larger community.

Ortega said just as with the graffiti removal, finding solutions to the many issues will require a focus on the entire community. "Una Voz," he said, "sets the stage and raises the bar" to help create that focus.

F.B. Drake III is a freelance writer living in the Rogue Valley. He can be reached at

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