This Organizer Turns High School Graduation into a “When”—Not an “If”

This Organizer Turns High School Graduation into a “When”—Not an “If”

By Phoebe Knight

School is tough. There are lessons to learn and challenges to face at every step.

If your teachers and fellow students don’t speak your native language, though, those challenges can seem almost impossible to overcome.

Dominican-born Felix Lora understands these obstacles well. He encountered many of them when he immigrated to the United States to attend college, after all.

Through his work with kids in the Hispanic community as a youth director at his church, Lora envisioned ways to help struggling children through school. In 2001, he brought that vision to the Sandy Springs Mission (SSM), an organization that provides educational services to English Language Learners (ELLs) in the Sandy Springs area.

Although the graduation rate for Hispanic students is 73 percent nationwide, only 60 percent of Hispanic students reach graduation in Georgia. That’s due to many of the issues ELLs face: communication barriers, a shortage of targeted tools in the classroom and a lack of appropriate assessments needed to measure learning. Parents of ELLs are often not fluent in the English language themselves, which makes it difficult to provide help.

When SSM was founded in 1999, providing direct financial assistance was the primary objective. Although these needs were not insignificant, other organizations offered similar programs. Struggling ELLs in the Sandy Springs area however, had little to no support. This gap created an opportunity for SSM, working under Lora’s guidance as executive director, to shift direction and focus on reaching underserved ELLs and other at-risk students.

SSM supports students through the entirety of their school careers. Dedicated volunteers help with everything from homework and school projects to college forms and resumes. In addition to student services like after-school academic enrichment programs, summer camps and peer-to-peer mentoring, SSM also offers adult computer literacy classes to better equip parents to assist their children’s educational needs.

SSM student reveals what she wants to be when she grows up.

SSM student reveals what she wants to be when she grows up.

The organization started small, with only 12 students in the first year. Enrollment doubled in the following year, though, and SSM grew, adding students and incorporating new schools.

In 2016, SSM served over 260 children with a 96 percent graduation rate for students who had been with the mission for more than three years. As of last year, two of the original 12 students also graduated from college.

“Not all of our students graduate on time,” noted SSM board member Barbie Pressley, “but we never give up on them.”

 

We spoke with Lora to learn more about his passion for the Sandy Springs Mission. With warm enthusiasm, he related how recent funding has allowed the organization to continue services for students in college, providing advocacy and support for the lifetime of the student’s education.

Lora’s conviction is contagious. In fact, Pressley described his level of dedication to SSM. “If you ask him about his family, he’ll tell you about his wife, his son, and then talk about his 25 children in first grade,” she said. “They’re family to him.”

A student learns to code

A student learns to code

Lora doesn’t take the credit for the organization’s successes. Instead, he heaps praise on the volunteers and corporate sponsors that enabled the Mission’s goals. “We were blessed to have the Comcast Foundation to provide the grant to buy computers,” said Lora. “It was the only way we were able to buy technology for our community.”

That technology teaches over 70 kids how to write code, giving them a head start if they seek careers in Atlanta’s booming tech industry. Students interested in exploring robotics can gain experience with SSM’s Lego Robotics club.

“When we started, if you asked our kids what they would do when they graduated high school, they would say ‘When I graduate? If I graduate high school I’ll do something,’” Lora said.

“We’ve finally changed the mindset of our students from if to when [they graduate]. Now [our goal] is to prepare them for college, technical school, and the workforce. We know they’re going to graduate, so we look to how can guide them to be more productive for society.”

The Sandy Springs Mission is more than an educational assistance program. Felix Lora’s vision and the dedicated involvement of community leaders like Barbie Pressley have built it into a beacon of hope for children who may otherwise never have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

If you’re interested in supporting the Sandy Springs Mission, there are many volunteer opportunities. School supplies and direct donations are always needed as well.

Images courtesy of Sandy Springs Mission

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