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God Wants You to Graduate
Image: Courtesy of the Office of Mayor Julián Castro
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro says evangelicals are "at the vanguard of improving education and the democratic participation o

Samuel Gimez still dreams of a life outside San Antonio's West Side.

For now, the 21-year-old is living in this historically impoverished community of low-wage workers, modest homes, and a surplus of neighborhood churches.

He grew up in church with his parents urging him to follow the path of his older brother, who had parlayed a bachelor's degree into a comfortable insurance career and suburban home ownership.

But Gimez dropped out as a junior in high school.

His high school has a perpetual battle with high dropout rates and truancy. Administrators lock classroom doors once the bell rings. Pregnant teens frequent hallways. The lure of gang life competes fiercely with the appeal of graduation.

"The influence was too strong," said Gimez of his decision to drop out. "I wanted to fit in with the crowd and be accepted."

Gimez lives with his parents in federally subsidized housing. Last year, he said, he was saved through the ministry of Youth for Christ. Now, he's a YFC intern, getting a small stipend and eager to help teens encounter God while mulling his own future.

High Hopes After High School

About a quarter of Hispanics nationwide drop out of high school, according to Hispanic America: Faith, Values and Priorities, a November 2012 study by the Barna Group.

Despite recent signs of progress in Hispanic college enrollment, the battle remains challenging in Latino communities where youth struggle to envision themselves with high school and college degrees and professional jobs.

How should the Hispanic evangelical church respond? What's at stake should sizeable numbers of its youth continue to remain in the ranks of the uneducated in this country of opportunity?

More and more Hispanic churches are tackling this problem, taking a hard look at this perennial issue and calling for new ways to elevate Hispanic education as a critical step toward fulfilling the Great Commission.

"It's cyclical, but as churches mature, we're seeing them be more aware of education," said the Rev. Eliezer Bonilla, pastor of San Antonio's Abundant Life Church of God and a member of the executive committee of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), the country's largest organization of its kind with 40,000-plus congregations.

"Obviously, the gospel comes first, but as families are integrated into the church's culture, the other areas of life come to the forefront."

The NHCLC has worked to advance church awareness of education. Education is one of its seven directives, and in 2008, it created the Alliance for Hispanic Christian Education whose chair is Carlos Campo, president of Regent University.

The alliance convenes educators with this same passion and has set a goal of reducing the Hispanic high school dropout rate to 10 percent by 2020.

To reach this goal, member churches are adopting high schools in their communities.
The principal and the pastor make an agreement that every student in the church who attends the school will graduate, said Sammy Rodriguez, president of the NHCLC.

The church uses its after-school programs and appoints mentors, especially in single-parent households, for tutoring and accountability.

The student signs a "covenant agreement" to commit to graduating and to reporting absences and discipline issues so the church can come alongside and give support, he said.

The moment a baby is presented in the sanctuary some churches start a scholarship fund to show "we are already sowing into your college education."

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God Wants You to Graduate