SLP changing lives

By Ken Harvey, Ph.D

For about 7 years, I worked under contract for the Office of the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, writing and producing a bilingual newspaper. During that time, I became intimately familiar with one of the most effective educational programs I have ever seen – the Student Leadership Program. Let me describe what I witnessed.

A big football player tries to squeeze the tears out of his eyes as the final session of the State Student Leadership Conference comes to an end. Another athletic teen cries openly as he hugs one of his group facilitators. From one end of the meeting room to another, the teens are hugging their new friends and mentors farewell and promising to stay in touch. They find it difficult to express their feelings.

The Golden Apple Award-winning Student Leadership Program, developed by the Office of Secondary Education for Migrant Youth (SEMY), based in Sunnyside, Wash., helps motivate students and teaches key concepts of success.

The value of the Student Leadership Program approach can be explained in one paragraph: The ultimate key to achieving success with struggling students is to implement strategies that change kids from the inside-out -- that help the students themselves to change their priorities, their goals and their vision for their future. If kids don't want to learn, you can't force them. But once they gain the desire to learn in order to achieve their own goals and vision, you can't stop them.

The impact on students who attend SEMY’s four-day State Student Leadership Conference is readily apparent to any observer. And migrant students who attend are 60% more likely to graduate and go to college than other migrant students. If SLP can accomplish that in just four days, what could it do for students in a school district if available throughout the year?

Ladis Avila admits he used to be a gang-banger. He still dressed and acted the part when he arrived at the SLP Conference. When asked before the conference what he expected, he responded simply: “Not much.” By the end of the conference he was one of the program’s biggest promoters. He was one of two students elected to represent the youths in the Migrant Education Program’s State Advisory Committee. Before the conference he said he wanted to be an auto mechanic. When running for the SAC position, Ladis told fellow students, “I have worked the fields ever since I came here in 1992.” He noted he is a U.S. citizen, but added, “What good does it do me if I don’t go to college. I’m dedicating myself to better things.” In his “after” questionnaire he wrote that there are “opportunities out there to make a difference in life through college. I will never forget the people or how much fun it was [at the conference]. And the skills in problem-solving taught there I will use throughout life.”

Gerardo Gonzalez cut asparagus in the Yakima Valley in Washington and picked berries in the Skagit area as a youth. Gerardo first attended the SLP conference when he was a 16-year-old sophomore – just two years after immigrating to the U.S. “It was SLP that inspired and motivated me to finish high school and continue on to higher education,” he says. Gerardo is pursuing his master’s degree now in architecture. “When I first came to the Student Leadership Conference, all I cared about was the present – working in the fields,” he says. “I remember the cold mornings picking cherries or cutting asparagus before school. By the time I got to school, I was already tired, and I definitely didn’t want to do homework after school. “When I arrived at the conference, I was shy, but by the last day everyone was sad to leave. Many people were crying. We shared addresses and phone numbers, and I still keep in touch with many of them.

"Some are lawyers. Some are doctors. It’s just amazing to know that all these people came to the conference with the same idea: ‘What am I doing here?’ But when we got done, we all had to ask ourselves: ‘What am I going to do now? Am I going to change my life or stay the same?’ It was then that I really started thinking about the future and what I wanted to do.” Gerardo has returned as a volunteer for many years now because it continues to motivate him. “It is remarkable the impact this conference has on teenage migrant students, as well as on professionals who volunteer as staff. It was at this event that I learned how to ‘Dream, Believe and Achieve.’ I learned how to overcome barriers and set steppingstones towards what I wanted to do. It showed me that ‘si se puede’ -- ‘you can do it’. The Migrant Student Leadership Program changed my life.”

Candelario Gonzalez also used to pick berries in the Skagit area. He is now a bilingual teacher in Shelton School District, sharing his outstanding compassion with kindergartners. He, too, keeps returning to the SLP state conference as a volunteer. “I keep coming back because it is something that helped me as a youth, and it continues to motivate me to reach for my goals,” says “Cande,” as his friends call him. “And I want to give back and help the next generation of migrant kids. This is the only conference I know of where students come and become leaders almost overnight because of the support we give them, the example we set for them, and the faith we instill in them. The main thing it teaches them, I think, is confidence in themselves, leadership skills, to take risks, to set goals and to achieve their dreams. That’s what we give them. … That’s what they’re lacking when they come here.”

Dr. Ken Fox, an educator and therapist for over 40 years, helped create the initial SLP curriculum more than 20 years ago and has been involved as a volunteer ever since. “It’s one of the few things I’ve seen in my 40 years that really, really works,” he says.

Raul Sital, principal of Pasco (Wash.) High School, has also been involved in SLP since the beginning – initially as a college student. “It helps kids throughout the state, and it changes lives,” he says. “It gives hope, connections, a vision of what can be, a road to help migrant students achieve their dreams. I’m here because I followed that road.”

REMEMBER: If kids don't want to learn, you can't force them. But once they gain the desire to learn in order to achieve their own goals and vision, you can't stop them.

For more information about this program, call 1-888-727-7123 or 1-509-836-7500 for details or visit .

Last modified: Friday, 20 January 2017, 02:08 PM