Sunday, July 5, 2009

Hispanic education effort launched by Church

Texas Baptists launch plan for Hispanic education
By SAM HODGES / The Dallas Morning News, July 3, 2009

Texas Baptists say they want to do more than just pray about the problem of Hispanic youth dropping out of high school.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas plans to make its 1,100 Hispanic churches a place to go for help in getting a GED. A companion strategy is to have a volunteer education coordinator in each of those churches, charged with helping keep kids from leaving high school early. The volunteers also will advise Hispanic youth and adults about college admission and financial aid.

"This is not unusual for us," said Randel Everett, executive director of the BGCT. Everett noted that Texas Baptists have been active in education since creating Baylor University in 1845.

But others say a focus on Hispanic education represents something novel for a large U.S. Protestant group, and that creative outreach makes sense in a state with a fast-growing Hispanic population.

"Let's face it, Texas will one day soon be a majority minority state if present trends continue," said Dave Travis, managing director of Leadership Network, a Dallas-based organization dedicated to church growth and innovation. "Baptists are just trying to get ahead of that curve."

Making inroads

While Catholicism remains the dominant faith among Hispanics, Protestant groups – especially Baptists and Assemblies of God – have made inroads. The BGCT estimates its Hispanic contingent at 125,000, most in small, predominantly Hispanic congregations.

Texas Baptists have been active in Hispanic education since at least the late 1940s, with the creation in San Antonio of the Mexican Baptist Training School, now the Baptist University of the Americas.

But a real targeting of Hispanic education issues began in 2005, when the BGCT had its first Hispanic president – Albert Reyes. He led the convention to establish a task force on Hispanic education.

That 24-member group eventually produced a report called "Abriendo Puertas: Opening Doors for Hispanic Youth." It quotes 2000 U.S. census data showing that nearly a third of Texas' Hispanic adults age 25 and older have less than a ninth-grade education.

Earlier this year, the BGCT followed up by assigning a high-ranking staffer – Gus Reyes, Albert Reyes' brother – to spend half his work time on Hispanic education issues.

At a Dallas gathering of Hispanic Baptists on Sunday, Gus Reyes, Everett and other officials announced the plan to have a volunteer education coordinator and GED prep program at each of the 1,100 Hispanic congregations.

For the prep program, a church must have at least one computer with Internet access. The BGCT will provide a code for access to the Web site tutorials of GEDon, a private company based in Wisconsin.

Reyes said the BGCT arranged with the firm to pay a single $650 "site licensing" fee for a year's access at all 1,100 Hispanic churches, as opposed to paying that fee for each church. Online practice tests will cost $13.50 each, and the BGCT will try to help churches that can't afford them.

'Absolutely needed'

Among the churches eager to have GED training is Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana, in Dallas. The 190-member church near Walnut Hill and Marsh lanes already has a reading program for children, and another program aimed at teaching girls life skills and encouraging them to stick with school.

Donors have created a computer lab at the church, and Internet access should be up soon, preparing the way for the GED effort.

"It's absolutely needed," said deacon Danny Cancino, who added that many Hispanics feel more comfortable going to a church for help than to a government agency.

The BGCT has taken other steps, including lobbying the Texas Legislature successfully for a boost in adult education spending. And the BGCT isn't alone among Texas Baptist institutions in targeting Hispanic education.

For example, Buckner International – the Dallas-based charity formerly known as Buckner Baptist Benevolences – placed staff member Sandra Martinez at Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana to help respond to community needs, including education.

Dallas Baptist University has nearly doubled its number of Hispanic students in recent years. Baylor's student population is about 10 percent Hispanic, up from 7.6 percent in 2002.

Reyes emphasized that the main mission of Texas Baptists remains evangelism.

"But if you put a Bible in their hand, and they can't read it, that doesn't help anybody," he said.

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