The College of the Sequoias (COS) Puente Project seeks to improve student persistence and college transfer rates in a county that continues to hover near the bottom of several socio-economic measures. For example, 17.8% of families with children live below the poverty level in California, while the rate is 30.4% for Tulare County. COS students understand the value of higher education, but they face enormous pressures while they are in school. Since its inception in 1996, the Puente Project at COS has served over several hundred students, of whom approximately 99% are Latinos. At present, Puente reaches 100-150 students per year.
Teresa Guadiana, the Co-Director/Counselor of Puente since its founding, has worked for COS for 29 years. James Espinoza, the Co-Director and current English instructor of Puente, has been with COS for five years. Puente has four main components: (1) First-year students take English 251 (Intro to Academic Writing) in the fall and English 1 (College Reading and Composition) in the spring. The content of both courses focus on Latino/a authors and issues. The same instructor teaches both classes while offering extra support to assist students in developing their writing skills. These classes are taken concurrently with Counseling 120AB (Student Success), a study skills class. (2) Puente students work closely with their counselor, meeting several times each semester to develop an educational plan with a goal of transferring to a four-year institution and for personal counseling. (3) Students are matched with professionals from the community who share their professional knowledge and academic experiences. (4) Puente students take educational field trips to universities each year and attend an annual statewide Puente Conference. Additionally, the Puente Club helps students develop leadership skills by organizing community service projects and fundraising events. The mission of the program triangulates consistent, high-quality academic counseling, accelerated writing instruction, and mentoring to build a strong support system for students. The academic counseling program is sensitive to and makes use of the strengths of Latino/a cultural traditions. For example, the content of sessions is culturally relevant, drawing examples from the students' lives and common experiences. The writing courses are also deliberately responsive to the students' backgrounds. They combine books and essays from notable Latino/a authors to create a rich, reflective base from which students can develop and explore their own ideas in their writing. Both the counselor and the English instructor participate in regular training workshops (at least once a semester as well as during the summer) provided by the state Puente office, which introduce new books and readings by Latino/a authors, and explore new ways of teaching the canon of Latino/a authors. The workshops also expose them to recent studies and information about current national and regional issues significant to Latinos/as. Mentors are recruited largely from the Latino/a professional community, thus giving students culturally relevant role models. Students are also encouraged to attend conferences such as the Latina Leadership Network Conference, MedPEP (Médicos Para El Pueblo), the Pre-Med Conference, and others that promote career pathways and celebrate Latino/a heritage and accomplishments. Finally, the Puente Club provides cultural events for the college, the planning and execution of which underscore the pride students take in their traditions.
The overall COS one-year persistence rate of first-year students with at least six units for 2008-2009 was 65%. However, the Puente one-year persistence rate for the same period was 92%. In fact, from 2009 to 2013, the Puente one-year persistence rate has averaged 82%. Moreover, Puente students transfer at higher rates than the general COS student population (students completing at least 12 units and attempting transfer English or math courses). From 2003 to 2006, the six-year transfer rate of the general COS student population averaged 34%, while the average for Puente students was 58.5%. The success of Puente is especially evident by comparing the 30% six-year transfer rate (2005-2006 to 2010-2011) of all Latino/a students at COS to the 69% rate of Puente students—more than double the rate. Puente does make a difference in Latino/a student success in higher education. For Tulare County, these numbers are quite impressive and will have an impact on the percentage of people with Bachelor's degrees in the area.