01/07/2013 03:24 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2014

TORCH Program Helps Raise Latino College Graduation Rates In Minnesota (VIDEO)

Northfield, Minnesota is home to the Tackling Obstacles and Raising College Hopes initiative, better known among the community as TORCH.

The program, which focuses mainly on Northfield’s Latino and low-income student population, was designed to address and improve the graduation rate of Hispanics in the school district—which at the time TORCH was created was only 36 percent.

Since the program’s start, however, the graduation rate for Latinos in the area has increased to more than 90 percent.

How does TORCH work?

“TORCH is a very individual program which tries to work with each student to attain whatever their goals are,” Beth Berry, High School TORCH Coordinator told VOXXI. “Initially our task was developing a sense of hope that a future was possible. So many kids would immediately tell me that they could not achieve what they wanted because they were ‘poor’ or due to their status.

“Once we had a couple of students who were graduating and pursuing their dreams it became contagious—success breeds success.”

Berry explains participants start the TORCH program with individual counseling to develop a plan which is continued with tutoring support.

“And we have worked to put our students into being role models; utilizing our high school students to work with elementary students in after school programs and summer programs,” she added. “So we now have elementary students who are talking about how they are going to college.”

Among the program initiatives, TORCH runs homework help three times a week, provides transportation for students who stay after school for assistance, and offers elementary and middle school activities programs for siblings of TORCH participants so older children do not have to hurry home because they are needed for childcare.

TORCH also encourages and pushes participants to join activities themselves. “We currently have eight students who auditioned and were selected for, what is for us, a prestigious Rock N Roll Revival which will be performed in March,” Berry said. “In addition, seven are now in speech activities and a group in wrestling — and half of our varsity soccer team is Latino.

“We see activities as the way that we get engaged,” she said. “I look at the Es as the steps to getting to Education. They are Engagement, Exposure, Expectations and Experience.”

While social involvement is important to building confidence, TORCH counselors’ primary goal is to steer students toward a college education. Participants are encouraged to leave basic level classes and register for AP courses, something Berry says bumps up their expectations of themselves and the expectations of the staff. Students are also placed in positions of responsibility and signed up for community service projects to help bolster a college application and line them up for potential scholarships.

When the time comes for TORCH participants to start seriously considering college application, TORCH counselors not only assist students with course enrollment but also visit college campuses with them and their parents in an effort to find one which best suits the student’s needs.

“Poverty is more than lack of money,” explains Berry. “It is lack of opportunity, so the exposure to opportunities is one of our big roles. So exposing kids to summer programs in their field of interest, introducing them to a mentor in the community, handing them an application for a local board looking for a student rep” are all ways TORCH increases opportunities for the Latino and low-income community.

The demand for the TORCH program has increased considerably. Initially created to serve 100 youth, the initiative is now able to offer services for more than 200 students and 70 alumni. TORCH is funded entirely by grants and donations.

Originally published on VOXXI as TORCH program: Helping Latino students achieve college success