U.S. Latinos, including Mexican-Americans, comprise the fastest-growing population within the United States and are also among the most educationally underserved. Between 1995 and 2010, the Latino population will account for 41 percent of U.S. population growth. For many years, school counselors across the United States typically did not support or encourage Latino high school students to consider pursuing higher education and instead guided them towards vocational courses. In 1995, Latino students earned only 4.3 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States. In California, over one-third of the public school system students identified as Latino in 1998, but less than 1 in 25 of the State's Latino tenth-graders would even become eligible to attend the University of California. These statistics were particularly worrisome in an increasingly competitive global market where higher education is critical to individual success and the maintenance of a strong economy.
Back in 1981, two faculty members at California's Chabot Community College responded to growing concern over the exceptionally high college dropout rate among Mexican-American and Latino students by creating the Puente (meaning "bridge" in Spanish) Project. This comprehensive service aimed to keep Latino students in college by integrating three essential, but previously separate, service areas: writing instruction, counseling, and mentoring. Due to the overwhelming success of the pilot programs, in 1985, Puente expanded into more California community colleges and into high schools with the goal of increasing the number of Latino students who apply to and attend university, earn bachelor's degrees, and return to their communities as leaders.
The core instructional component of Puente is a two-course writing composition sequence. A single teacher moves the same group of students from developmental writing to a college composition class. The coursework incorporates reading material that is of particular relevance to the Latino culture. Students are encouraged to write about their own communities and experiences and to share these works with their peers. Since many of these students are the first in their family to attend college, Puente provides students with counselors who guide them through academic and career choices and rigorously monitor the academic progress of Puente students from their entrance into the program to their transfer to a four-year college or university. Counselors also match students according to their personality and career interests with mentors who are academically or professionally successful members of their community. Mentors meet with students a minimum of 18 hours a year.
Puente has created a highly effective and stable program through which thousands of at-risk students have achieved educational success. More importantly, these students, their families, and their communities serve as a resource to succeeding generations of students. As of 1998, over 10,000 students in 38 community colleges and 18 high schools throughout California have participated in Puente over the years. Puente students consistently complete English writing classes more frequently than non-Puente Latino students. The City College of San Francisco and Long Beach City College found that Puente students were almost twice more likely than non-Puente students to pass the developmental writing class. Puente has also been successful in facilitating the transfer of community college students into four-year programs. The University of California Latino Eligibility Study determined that community colleges with Puente programs transferred 44 percent more Latino students than colleges without Puente programs. The feedback from student participants is also overwhelmingly positive. Of the student participants from 1987-1989, 91 percent felt that Puente classes had prepared them for university-level writing and 83 percent agreed that the Puente counselors did a great job preparing them for the transfer.
Puente has demonstrated that when students are provided with an academic program that is engaging, respectful of their culture, and supported by their local community, they will succeed in an academically accelerated environment.