Story by Stephanie De Luna, senior, UT College of Communication
From left: Social Studies Coach Kenetra Malone and Mendez student Adela Cabrera will both be attending the D.C. trip in June.
This summer, Mendez Middle School, located in the heart of the Dove Springs neighborhood in Southeast Austin, will be sending a group of seventh- and eighth-grade students on a trip to Washington, D.C., through the Nations Classroom program. The June 12-15 trip, will allow students to explore major historical landmarks, including the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, World War II Memorial and educational institutions. Mendez’s Social Studies Coach Kenetra Malone said this trip is crucial to inspiring students to view their futures in a brighter light.
“I think the trip will encourage them to consider other opportunities that they may not see right now or in the immediate future,” she said. “It gets them to think long-term.”
Malone, who will be a tour leader during the trip, grew up in East Austin and said that traveling when she was young influenced her to start thinking about her future goals and the education that she would need to attain in order to achieve those goals.
“I got the opportunity to travel, and it really changed me,” she said. “I was always good in school, and I read a lot, but being able to see some of the things that I was reading about made a big difference.”
Malone is currently in the process of setting up college tours for the students while they are in D.C. She said that she hopes the diverse student body of college students in the nation’s capital will motivate the middle school students to begin planning for college.
“I would like for college students to speak with our students about their journey to college and some of the obstacles they had to overcome,” she said. “I want our students to be able to see someone who looks like them and had similar experiences.”
According to a study conducted by the Wesley Center for Family and Neighborhood Development, 8 percent of Dove Springs residents are college graduates or have obtained a post graduate degree. The majority of students in Southeast Austin who go to college are first-generation college students and are not provided with resources at home on how to search for colleges and universities, apply to colleges, or apply for financial aid and scholarships.
Since Dove Springs is a primarily working-class neighborhood, most parents spend a majority of their time at work, and many families don’t get the chance to explore educational institutions and historical places in Austin and beyond.
“There are a lot of economic problems. Some families have a lot of children, so they always have to work,” said Jailene Jimenez-Rojas, a Mendez eighth grader who will be attending the D.C. trip. “It has a lot to do with money. Some people don’t have the time to go places, so some kids have never left Dove Springs.”
Rojas is one of Mendez’s top students. Rojas boasts a 4.18 GPA, takes advanced courses at Mendez and is in National Junior Honor Society. She is also in the school’s orchestra and plays viola, cello, violin and bass, along with being part of the school’s basketball team.
“I look forward to seeing as many things as I can while on the trip,” she said. Rojas also said that she thinks that the trip will motivate other students to continue their education and visit new places.
“Nobody wants to be in the same place for too long,” she said. “If other students find out that we were able to explore new places, they’ll be motivated to do better in school and go on trips like this.”
Mendez currently has permission to take up to 30 students on the D.C. trip. The trip’s student registration fee is $1,299, plus a deposit fee. While some parents may be able to afford to pay for the trip, most cannot.
“We are relying heavily on donations, parent involvement and outside fundraising,” Malone said. “We are trying to reach out to community organizations as well.”
Mendez students have several fundraising events lined up. Students will host a Valentine’s Day dance, a spaghetti dinner and silent auction on March 7 and a Chipotle food sale based on goods donated from the restaurant.
“We’re trying to come up with as many things to help with the costs,” Jose Carrasco, Mendez’s Parent Support Specialist said.
Carrasco, who has worked at Mendez for six years, said that he can relate to his students because he grew up in East Austin and saw the economic obstacles that many low-income neighborhoods face.
“Most students here have never visited the State Capitol,” he said.
Carrasco will also be going on the NationsClassroom trip, and he is doing his part to fundraise as well. Project 2012, The University of Texas at Austin’s largest day of service, will be taking place in the Dove Springs community on Feb. 25. As part of Project 2012, the “Dove Springs into Wellness” community health fair will be hosted in the Mendez gymnasium. Carrasco and Mendez students will be selling wraps and other healthy food options at the health fair. All of the proceeds from this fundraiser will go toward the D.C. trip.
Malone said that fundraising alone is helping students with goal setting and planning for the future.
“Getting students to do simple things like talking to their parents, asking them to sign paperwork and bringing back the paperwork helps students understand that there are steps before a big event can happen,” she said. Malone said that she hopes this responsibility encourages students to work harder towards earning a college degree.
“Getting to college is not a mystery; it’s not something that just happens,” she said. “You have to plan for it, and you have to start now.”