Cabrini College, Partnering with Norristown Area School District to build Latino Student Success: An Interview with Dr. Cynthia Halpern, Dr. Raquel Green and Nan Odenthal

Posted by on March 20, 2015

Interview by Eden Kainer

Cabrini College recently won the first Lindy Award for Excellence in K-16 Partnerships. We interviewed

Q: Tell me a little about your position and how it led to the formation of this partnership.

A: I am the department chair in foreign language at Cabrini College. I am a Hispanist with a specialty in Penninsular Literature. The partnership with the Norristown Area School District (NASD) is related to our Mission at Cabrini College, to shepherd the disenfranchised. Rooted in the heritage of our namesake St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, the College is a vital part of the international educational ministry of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Cabrini College, established by one of her disciples, is the only college with her name. Her comprehensive mission was very much about helping others, especially immigrants, orphans and the infirmed. In recognition of this legacy, Cabrini instituted the “Justice Matters” curriculum at the college in 2008. This is a writing intensive curriculum to answer the college’s call for writing across the curriculum, and each department is encouraged to teach about social justice through its particular lens.

Q: How is the Justice Matters curriculum structured?

A: In response to the call for this curricular emphasis on social justice, my colleague Dr. Raquel Green, also a Hispanist, and I initiated conversations with the Norristown Area School District (NASD) to see how we could actualize this curriculum and be of service to the large Latino student population in Norristown. We met with superintendent of the District, Dr. Janet Samuels, and laid the groundwork for a partnership. One of Dr. Samuels’s overriding concerns was for the Latino students in the NASD who were at-risk for dropping out, and, therefore, she was open to hearing about the mentoring program we were proposing. We also saw the potential for our Cabrini students to learn and grow from such a partnership.


We spent a year reading and planning—we had to get prepared to teach this new Justice Matters curriculum. We needed to adjust our focus from strictly the teaching of language and Latin American and Spanish culture and literature to one that included topics related to Latino education in the United States and the root causes of the high drop-out rates among these students. Thus we decided that the Foreign Language department would contribute to the Justice Matters curriculum by offering Spanish majors and minors a special series of seminars, one every fall semester for the first three years and a senior capstone project for the final year. The courses would also be complemented by a community engagement piece that became the Cabrini Bridges Communities Latino Mentoring Program. In collaboration with the NASD, our Cabrini mentors have sustained their work in the District’s high school and a middle school each semester.


Thus our series, which marks its third year of the rotation this fall, begins the first semester of freshman year with the ECG 100 seminar (Engagement with the Common Good) 100, followed by ECG 200 for sophomores, ECG 300 for juniors, and a senior capstone project, which is an intensive independent study geared towards creating an advocacy project aimed at promoting systemic change. The Departmental series is called   “Our Interconnected Hemisphere”. In the Spanish Department, we approach the idea of the Common Good from a variety of perspectives, focusing on topics related to the Latino population. We ask the freshman to contemplate and interrogate the tensions between individuals and society. We also examine the individual’s position in various communities: family, nation, race, class, gender, and other categories of identity. They are also introduced to the Norristown students by senior Cabrini mentors, who coach these new mentors in their first year thus sustaining the mentoring program. Sustainability is a key ingredient to the success of any mentoring program.

In the ECG 200, we explore through texts and the community partnership how power, privilege and difference affect solidarity, equality and dignity – the essential elements of the Common Good. We explore contemporary, historical and cross-cultural causes of systemic injustice. All work in this seminar is particularly focused on the Latino condition.

In ECG 300, students utilize their assets and the assets of the community partner to expand capacity that   provides them with life-long tools for civic engagement and advocacy. We encourage the students to work for achieving systemic change that will affect greater solidarity with our community partners. In this seminar, we particularly focus on the topic of Latino education and its unique challenges.

The senior capstone project, in collaboration with the NASD, is aimed at promoting systemic changes. By then the students have been working in the Norristown school district for six semesters and have had three seminars. Check out both Spanish and English versions here:

Q: How do you sustain engagement in this program over time?

A: My colleague, Dr. Green and I do a lot of work to recruit students to become part of this program. We communicate with incoming freshman, with an interest in Spanish language studies and education in the summer, to invite them to the seminars. They are informed that they will receive credits for participating in the mentorship program. We try to keep the mentors engaged in the spring semester by giving them a credit to continue their mentorship work. We also build in leadership opportunities for our Cabrini students. Every semester, we invite an upper-class intern, who displays a great deal of leadership and reliability. The intern serves as the bridge between the school district administrators and teachers, the Latino students, and Dr. Green and me, for which they earn two credits of Spanish. This intern serves as an important liaison between the College and the NASD.

Q: How has the partnership between Norristown and Cabrini grown over the past 3 years?

A: The College has seen the value of this program and has added faculty to the program. We have just hired a new full-time faculty to help us, Dr. Natasha Bolufer, who is ABD in Sociology. She will be teaching ECG 100 in the fall semester. We are currently working in the Norristown Area High School and Eisenhower Middle School, but we have begun discussion with the Superintendent about adding Stewart Middle School. Faculty would visit one school each week.

Last year, with the contribution of another colleague from the Graduate School of Education, Dr. Susan Pierson, we added a technology component to the program to help those students who don’t have technology at home. She has done work in Africa regarding technology access. Dr. Pierson met with Dr. Samuels who confirmed that there was a lack of this access for some of her students. As a result of this need, Dr. Pierson wrote a grant to Map your World and we were awarded 10 tablets. The mentors use these tablets with the Norristown students to enhance writing and math skills. Some of the students use the tablets to write poetry.

We are now starting conversations with the Superintendent of the NASD, including administrators, Deborah Chagin (Chief Academic Officer) and Patricia Demnisky (Supervisor of Reading and Title 1 Grant Coordinator), regarding the  new capstone for the rising Cabrini senior mentors,  who will be leading new set of freshman in the fall.

Q: In addition, what do you think about the handbook your students created being so widely used?

A: The Latino Student Resource: A Guide to Scholarships and Grants compiles information on grants and scholarships available, both at the national and state level, and gives very simple instructions on how to complete the applications, requirements, and deadlines. The Resource also includes very accessible information on how to navigate College Board and provides samples of essays to facilitate the application process. Even though most of this information is readily available on the Internet, having it compiled in the Resource makes the process of applying more efficient and less daunting for Latino students and their families. The Resource is also provided in Spanish. We have given it to NASD to use in ways they feel would most benefit Latino families in the District.

Our new capstone project is currently in the design stages but we hope to create templates for Latino students in the District to fulfill graduation requirements for NASD. These templates will include topics such as career aspirations, family narratives, culture and the experience of being an immigrant. Our purpose is to tailor these templates to the needs and interests of the Latino students.

Q: What do your students learn from Norristown students, how does this partnership enhance their learning?

A: The mentoring experience in the NASD allows our students the opportunity to build their language and culture knowledge, thus enhancing their   cultural competence and empathy. This is a reciprocal program benefiting both the Cabrini mentors and the NASD students. No matter what field or career path the Cabrini mentors pursue,  as the Latino population continues to grow in the United States,  our students will be better prepared  as global and engaged citizens of the world..

Q: Do you think other colleges should create similar programs? Why/why not?

A: Absolutely, because, as educators, it is really our responsibility to prepare our students for the global marketplace. Refocusing our approaches has been personally gratifying for Raquel and me. Our partnership with the NASD has been very rewarding. We have one NASD graduate who will be our intern in the fall as well. We hope to grow the number of NASD graduates who attend Cabrini and continue to work with us in this partnership.

In addition to Dr. Halpern and Dr. Green we asked Nan Odenthal, the Grants and Public Relations Manager for the Norristown School District two questions about their partnership:

Q: Nan, how is the handbook distributed within the schools?

A: The college students created the Latino Student Resource – A Guide to Scholarships and Grants to supplement the curriculum. It was approved and welcomed/applauded by NASD administration during summer, 2014.  It provides examples and tips on how to write a college essay, a list of scholarships and grants for both documented and undocumented students, both within PA and other states. It walks students through the College Board website and SAT/Exams, and how to use the College Search tool. It speaks to filing college applications and, highlights those schools that do not require legal status for entry; it discusses deadlines, and financial aid, and much more. Upward of 300 students annually are provided a copy of the guide and the guidance to understand how to use it, which is available in both English and Spanish.

Q: Why do you think this handbook contributes to student success?

A: The handbook provides clear information on the “when and how” of getting in to college. This has greatly helped increase college enrollment. Cabrini students come in to classes to distribute the document personally and there is a lot of face time involved in explaining. On top of college preparation, this handbook sends the message that we want to show our students what is coming up after high school. It’s really sharing information in a culturally relevant way.

Today, nearly 100% of our Latino students graduating from NAHS apply to either a 2-year or 4-year college, according to our college career counselor at NAHS.

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