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WYSO's Lewis Wallace interviewing Trotwood-Madison High School teacher Alicia Pagan.00000173-90ba-d20e-a9f3-93ba72ce0000Graduating Latino is WYSO's series on education for Latino students in the Miami Valley, produced in partnership with Think TV. It's part of the public media initiative American Graduate, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.In much of the Miami Valley the Latino population has gone from about 2 percent in the mid-2000s, to 4 percent now. Around half the local Latino population is from Mexico, which means the other half represent a big cross-section: many Puerto Ricans, and people from Central and South America. The population is a mix of foreign-born and U.S.-born representing a diverse set of experiences.The launching point for this series is a persistent disparity in high school graduation rates between white and Latino students. In 2012 the graduation rate for white students in Ohio was 86 percent; for Latinos, it was 68, and for Black students it was 61 percent. Those racial and ethnic disparities also exist nationally, but the white/Hispanic disparity is much wider in Ohio than in the nation.Some local districts, especially Dayton, are looking at low graduation rates across the board. Latino kids fall through the cracks, but they’re not the only ones.The good news is, dropout rates in this country have been falling for decades now—for all students, and for Latinos especially. The percentage of Latino high schoolers to drop out completely went from 40 percent in 1972 to 15 percent in 2012. In the process of reporting these series we’ve met a lot of kids who are doing great, graduating and going to college. We also found that many of the kids who do drop out or don’t graduate on time are dealing with the same issues: the need to support their families, a belief that they can’t go on to college, or overwhelming life circumstances.The stories will range from preschool and kindergarten readiness to bilingual education to personal profiles of people dealing with not having legal status while trying to go to school. We’ll also hear about positive programs like El Puente in the Twin Towers neighborhood, Springfield’s Hispanic Outreach Program and a group of Puerto Rican Engineers working to mentor kids. We’ll visit high schools in Dayton and Trotwood. It’s by no means comprehensive, but we hope it will show a slice of what’s going on in this rich and diverse community.Look for stories from our whole news team from April 13-24 in our weekday news shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as online every day. You can also access local stories from WYSO through your smartphone on wyso.org or through the free app NPROne.00000173-90ba-d20e-a9f3-93ba72cf0001

Puerto Rican Engineers Mentor Area Youth

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Jerry Kenney
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Edgardo Santiago maps out chemical formulas at the Academy of STEM and Sports.

At El Puente Tutoring Center in the Twin Towers district in Dayton, students are preparing balloons for an experiment. Their instructor, Edgardo Santiago, is a chemical engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He says the experiment was inspired by a recent post he saw on Facebook that claimed gas from mixing vinegar and baking soda could be used to float birthday balloons.

“A lot of my friends were, ‘Oh yeah, this is such a great idea. I’m going to try it,’ and I’m like, I’m gonna educate you guys,” he said.

Santiago and a young TAFSS student mix small amounts of baking soda and vinegar for their experiment.
Credit Jerry Kenney
Santiago and a young TAFSS student mix small amounts of baking soda and vinegar for their experiment.

The students carefully follow Santiago’s step-by-step instructions, mixing vinegar and baking soda into plastic bottles that they attach to balloons. The gas it creates fills up the balloons, and the kids tie them off and throw them into the air. They don’t float; lesson learned.

Santiago is one of three men who started a program at El Puente to to get kids interested in science and technology. The Academy For STEM and Sports, or TAFSS, uses sports and games to teach STEM subjects. And, Santiago's part of a large group of Puerto Rican engineers and scientists in the Dayton area.

"I'd probably be selling drugs"

Santiago grew up in Puerto Rico, where he learned the importance of getting a college education.

“I remember my dad saying, ‘I wanna push you so you can do better than I did.’”

Joselito Gracia, who heads the program, grew up in New York City—he says he never expected to go to college.

“My dad was an alcoholic, my family was all either on drugs or doing the bad things, so my life was already heading to the wrong direction," he said. "If I were to predict what my life was to be I would have said, ‘Yeah, I’d probably be selling drugs, using drugs, in jail."

Now Gracia works at Northrop Grumman in Dayton. He founded TAFSS with Santiago and another Wright-Patt engineer about two years ago to help low-income minority kids get on track to higher education. 

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Credit TAFSS

All three founders loved playing played baseball growing up, so they had the idea to use sports to teach science, technology, engineering and math. Gracia says the students learn about the speed and trajectory of a baseball pitch, the aerodynamics of airplane flight and the science of soccer.

“And we wanted the youth to understand ... although it’s fun but there’s still math behind it, science behind it all. Let’s tie it all together.”

Puerto Ricans Recruited To Dayton

The founders of TAFSS took the idea for the program to Wright State University, which agreed to partner with them. Grace Ramos, a Wright State trustee, says a lot of kids see sports as a way out of poverty.

“Yeah, it’s great to do sports, but you know what, you need an education and a career,” she said.

Ramos says the TAFSS founders are part of a long history of educated, professional Puerto Ricans in the area. In the mid-70s, her late husband was the Hispanic program manager at Wright-Patt, where he recruited technology and engineering graduates from Puerto Rico. That program continues.

“So the benefit has been bringing in the brain power here and also diversifying the workforce so that people have a better way of working with each other," Ramos said. 

Juan Santana demonstrates electrical current to TAFSS students.
Credit Jerry Kenney
Juan Santana demonstrates electrical current to TAFSS students.

Co-founder Juan Santana says TAFSS's success comes partly from the three men's shared heritage.

“We have a very good chemistry between each other," Santana said. "We have a different point of view, and I think we have the connections to bring all the people together in here.”

In its first year, the program had thirty students. The three founders hope to eventually expand the academy into a national program.

Graduating Latino is WYSO's series on education for Latinos in the Miami Valley, produced in partnership with Think TV. It's part of the public media initiative American Graduate, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.