It would have been easy for Jose Enriquez to fall behind.
After he moved to the United States as a young child, he struggled to learn English. His mother was a strong woman but had only a third-grade education. She cleaned houses for a living, and the family didn't have much money.
But Enriquez, now an assistant principal at Mountain View High School in Orem, succeeded, and he's determined to help other Latino students do the same.
"I feel for them because I could have been that kid that didn't go to college, that didn't have the opportunity," Enriquez said. "That's what drives me, because I could have been there."
Ten years after he started it, Enriquez's program, Latinos in Action, is now in 37 Utah schools, one school in Idaho and one in Washington state, is reaching about 1,600 students. Last school year, 100 percent of seniors who took the class graduated on time and 85 percent enrolled in college, he said.
Those are impressive statistics, especially because statewide, Latino students had a high school graduation rate of 71 percent in 2009, the lowest of any ethnic group in Utah. His goal is to get more Latino students to graduate from college.
"We don't ask them if they're going to college," Enriquez said. "We ask them where they're going to college."
The program focuses on service learning, literacy and leadership. To join the class, students must have at least a 2.0 grade-point average and be bilingual; and though the program is aimed at Latino students, anyone is welcome to join. Enriquez tries to show his students the value of being bilingual. Students help translate at parent-teacher conferences and spend each Latinos in Action class period visiting elementary schools to tutor students of all backgrounds. They each complete about 100 hours of service a year.
On a recent school day, dozens of Mountain View Latinos in Action students hopped on buses that took them to nearby elementary schools.
Sophomore Melissa Hafen spent about an hour in a third-grade classroom at Suncrest Elementary helping students with worksheets.
She explained to a Latina girl that though "tell" and "tail" sound alike, they have different meanings and spellings. Sophomore Jose Salazar worked with a Latino boy at a neighboring desk, urging him to focus on his worksheet. The boy wanted to talk about anything but.
"You have to be able to read!" Salazar told the boy with a laugh.
As a child, Salazar hated to read and had trouble sounding out words. But he remembers sixth-graders tutoring him as a youngster, much as Latinos in Action students do.
"When they say it's really hard for them we can say, 'We know. It was hard for us. Just stick in there,' " Salazar said.
Angie Cowan, a third-grade teacher at Suncrest, said the students are a big help.
"Since I don't know any Spanish at all, they are able to work with them," said Cowan as she bustled about her colorful classroom on a busy Thursday, helping students. "They can explain it to them in a way they understand."
But Enriquez said his students aren't just helping others; they're helping themselves through service. He hopes to instill in them the type of belief in themselves that was instilled in him as a child.
As a youth, he felt it was important to focus on his education, to make sure his mother knew her difficult journey from El Salvador to the U.S. was worth it. He saw education as the only way to a better life.
But college wasn't always a certainty for him until he became a wrestler. His coach said he believed in Enriquez and would make him a champion. Before long, he was, and colleges came calling.
"Me believing in him and him believing in me took it to the next level," Enriquez said of his coach. It gave him so much confidence that when colleges began to recruit him, he knew he could handle higher education.
"I thought to myself, 'I can do this,' " said Enriquez, who said he gained U.S. citizenship through amnesty as a child. He chose a scholarship to Brigham Young University, so his mother wouldn't have to help pay for his schooling.
He hopes to give his students that same confidence. He makes sure they know about scholarship opportunities, get involved in school activities, keep up their grades and see high school graduation as a beginning, not an end.
Enriquez even hopes to invite his students to his own graduation ceremony in coming months, when he finishes his Ph.D. in educational leadership from BYU. "My whole vision is to have these kids come to that graduation so they can see that it's possible," Enriquez said.
Enriquez hopes to grow Latinos in Action over time, expanding it into 10 more schools each year.
It's a program that has meant a lot to Mountain View senior Flor Macias. She hopes to go to Utah Valley University and eventually go into a biology- or psychology-related field.
"It helps you not only do service but embrace who you are as a Latino," Macias said. "Sometimes you feel Latinos can't do great things, but they can do great things."
Latinos in Action
R Latinos in Action is a class taught in 37 Utah schools that focuses on leadership, literacy and service learning. For the class, students visit elementary schools where they help tutor other students. Last school year, nearly 15 percent of Utah students were Latino.