You are seeing this message because your web browser does not support basic web standards. Find out more about why this message is appearing and what you can do to make your experience on this site better.

The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

Terms of Use ▼

View all interactive cases

an interactive case is also availableCase Narrative

Paulo, sixth grader
Rachel, community college outreach program director
Alberto, Paulo’s father
Sarita, Paulo’s mother
Alicia, family friend
Miguel, Alicia’s son
Nancy, Paulo’s math teacher

Introducing Paulo
Paulo Domínguez sat around a table with a number of his fellow sixth graders eating potato chips and cookies. He and his classmates listened as a woman named Rachel Marquez talked about a program that would help prepare them for college. All sixth graders in the community were being recruited to submit applications to the program, which was designed to support them through middle and high school in learning the study habits, decision-making skills, and “college knowledge” needed for college preparation and careers. The program, named Más Allá (connoting the meaning “beyond” in English), represented a long-term partnership between the town’s community college and the larger nearby university. Its mission is to engage girls and boys into a program that builds long-term networks for academic success and support for pathways to college.

“Your lives consist of many worlds,” Rachel began, “and each world contains all the different people or groups in your life, like a family member or a friend, or sports teams, classmates, and church groups.” She began passing out colored pencils and paper to the students and invited each sixth grader to think about the different worlds in his or her life. As Paulo began to draw pictures of his family, school, and church, he thought about his present life in California and his future dreams of working with computers and designing video games.

Rachel then urged the youth to think about the positive and negative influences in each of their worlds. Paulo looked over at his two best friends making faces and amusing gestures behind Rachel’s back. Paulo began to feel self-conscious about following Rachel’s instructions, turned his paper over, and started drawing video game characters instead.

When school let out, Paulo walked home. He lives in a small trailer in an RV lot with his parents, older brother, and two younger siblings. His parents came to California as Mexican immigrants.

“If I tell my friends I want to join the college outreach program, they’ll think I’m a schoolboy. But Mama always says that if I don’t go to college, I won’t have a good future. My mom loved to go to school, but had to quit school to start working when she was 12. Her mom didn’t let her do her homework, even though she really liked to do homework. Instead, she had to do chores. Mama tells me that I need to go to college if I want to get a good job and buy a house. Going to college helps you get a job instead of being a drug dealer or other things that cause you to get in trouble with the cops.”

However, Paulo, who was always a good student, had been slipping. His math teacher had recently recommended him for the remedial track, and more and more frequently he was not turning in his homework. When Paulo reached home, his mother was in the kitchen cooking dinner while his father was reading the newspaper at the kitchen table. He had been in the fields picking strawberries since 5 that morning. “Hola mi’jito [hello my son],” his father said as Paulo poured himself a glass of water, “Como te fue en la escuela [how was school]?”

As you read the case, consider applying the following theoretical perspectives in your analysis:
  • Families, Time, and Learning: What factors make this a critical period in the development of Paulo’s ability to self-regulate? How are the significant individuals in Paulo’s life influencing his life pathway (camino de la vida)?
  • Media in the Lives of Families: How can Paulo’s interest in video games become a platform for motivation to address his math challenges? How do his parents and teachers view his interest in video games? What can community programs do to educate families and schools about the potential uses of digital media for learning?
  • Ethnic and Racial Diversity: How are Paulo’s parents’ parenting practices affected by their past experiences? How do their beliefs influence their dreams and goals for Paulo?

Paulo’s Family

Alberto Domínguez, Paulo’s father, spent his childhood in Mexico and completed an elementary education at a primaria (elementary school) in a rural village where there was no middle or high school. When he moved to a nearby town in an adjacent state to find better work, he met his future wife, Sarita.

After Sarita and Alberto were married, they decided to make the trip to California to find work and give their children an education and a better start in life. Sarita started working in a factory on an assembly line while Alberto worked in the fields picking strawberries. Sarita took English classes at night until she became pregnant with their first child, Raul. She attended other classes in Spanish, including birthing and child care. Since then she has had three other children and continues to work part time in the factory.

Sarita, Paulo’s Mother
“I’m quite concerned about Paulo. His father and I want him to be safe, both physically and emotionally, and we want him to have an equal chance to learn and succeed. But lately, I see him being less with the family and more with his friends. I know this is a time for him that’s difficult. He’s getting older, and relationships and friendships get harder, but I want to help him make the right decisions so we can guide him to college and to stay on the good path. I don’t want him to get into drugs or a gang, or get a girl pregnant.

“But I do worry. At the same time that we want Paulo to succeed in school, I’m afraid we’re not able to help him. I don’t like to go to the school much. Raul, my oldest son, dropped out of school a few months ago, but when he first started having trouble, I got a call from one of his teachers. They called me to go there. I was very scared because I was unfamiliar with the system and the language. No one spoke my language except for the principal and one other teacher who translated for Raul’s teacher. I asked them both about the problem involving my son, and the principal and the teacher weren’t very helpful. I just felt like they wanted me to leave. Raul dropped out a few months later.

“We aren’t here in the United States because we like working here or love living here. We live better in Mexico. But I make this sacrifice because I want my children to study, to learn English, and have a better life than me and their father. It’s not that I don’t think we have a good life; it’s just I want Paulo to have a better life. We provide encouragement and use our own lives as examples of how limited your options are with a poor education.

“And now I see Paulo, just like Raul was a few years ago, at this crossing in the road. He’s on el buen camino de la vida [the good path of life] now, but some of his friends, I think, are making it hard for him to stay on it. I know that his father and I can’t always help with his school learning. I still don’t feel comfortable going to the school like I probably should. Already, he has more education than me and his father. I’m worried about him.”

Alberto, Paulo’s Father
“Any type of job is acceptable for my son, as long as it isn’t in the fields. When I was very young, I started to pick vegetables on the rancho, and I wouldn’t want him to do that. Right now, Paulo is a very serious and good boy. I would like for Paulo to get to college, but the way things are now, who knows? We don’t have much money to send him to school. I know that college is not the only definition of success in life, but I look at our lives in the factories, fields, hotel kitchens—and we want our son to be a doctor, teacher, lawyer. Or even one who works with computers and makes those games that he plays. I’d like him to live well. Really, that is the dream that one always has, that one’s children succeed, that they are better off. That they do the things one was not able to do.

“His mother and I, we are very poor, but we don’t give our children bad examples about anything. We behave well, hoping that they will learn to behave. If they see that we behave and are good parents, hopefully they will do the same. This will keep him away from malas amistades [negative friendships].”

Comadre Alicia (Madrina)1 and Her Son Miguel
There was a knock on the door, and Paulo put down his pencil and homework assignment and went to answer it. His madrina, Alicia Robles, and her oldest son, Miguel, had arrived for dinner. Alicia greeted Sarita with a kiss on the cheek and began to help her fix dinner. Meanwhile, Miguel went over to Paulo and asked if he needed any help with his homework. Alicia and Sarita met at a Sunday church soccer game in which their husbands were playing and quickly became close friends. Alicia’s oldest son, Miguel, was only a few years older than Paulo’s brother Raul. Because her family had been in the United States longer than Sarita’s, Alicia felt like it was her job to take Sarita under her wing.

Lately, Alicia had been sending Miguel over to help Paulo with homework. Miguel was one of the first students involved in the community college outreach program and currently attends the local community college with a scholarship from the outreach program.

As the two boys worked together, Paulo put down his pencil and rested his chin against his fist.

“This work is getting really hard—especially these word problems! I never get them right. If you’re not here, I don’t even have a chance. I don’t see why I should be learning this math. I should just quit.”

“I know how you’re feeling, Paulo. This math work is hard, but it’s important that you stick with it. You know those guys who make videogames? They use math all the time and you could be one of them. That race car game you like needs math to design different courses and calculate the size and slopes of loops. You’d need to be familiar with concepts like speed, velocity, and acceleration to program whether cars make it to the finish or crash.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“I can show you on your computer some cool websites on math lessons and word problems.”

“Ok, if you think that would help. Oh, that lady Rachel came to school today to tell us about that program you’re in.”

“Hey, that’s great, Paulo! Do you have the application? We can get to work on it right now. You know, it was the program that really opened up a lot of doors for me. They helped me get a job tutoring other kids when I was in high school and have kept me employed since then. And that scholarship sure helped me pay for college. Now I work at the program’s partnership with the university as a researcher to help make the program better and as a college mentor. So take that application out. Let’s look at it!”

When Paulo explained that he had been too embarrassed to get the application form, Miguel talked to him about all the reasons he really should get involved. Miguel added that besides all the benefits for the future, they had state-of-the-art computers, tablets, and portable media players, and there were also cute girls who often attended.

The next morning Paulo got up and went to school. He was still thinking about the community college outreach program. The night before, Miguel had reawakened Paulo’s desire to approach Rachel and ask for an application. As he entered the school, Paulo glanced at the quilt hanging in the lobby. His math teacher, Nancy, and another teacher had asked their students to create a picture of their hopes and dreams, then asked families in the community to sew on the different parts. Paulo’s patch showed a computer video game.

“Hey, Paulo!” Robert yelled as Paulo approached his math class. “Come over here!”

Paulo walked over.

“Yo. A few of us after school today—we’re gonna meet up with some guys up the street. You in?” asked Robert.

Paulo hesitated, “Um . . . well, I might need to stay after school and work on some math homework. I’m failing.”

“Paulo, man. Don’t worry so much about your homework and school. It’s not worth studying so hard. There are easier ways to get a job and money,” answered Robert.

“Maybe man, yeah, I’ll see,” answered Paulo just as the bell rang.

Nancy Brown, Paulo’s Math Teacher
Nancy Brown had been teaching math for 9 years. During her first years teaching at the high school, she had witnessed several students, especially low-income, ethnic minority, and immigrant boys, leave school and its career opportunities too early. So she switched to a sixth-grade math classroom at Bay Vista Middle School a few years ago, hoping to help get youth in the community on the right track to math earlier in their school careers while they were still on “the good path.” Bay Vista is a primarily Latino, low-income school with high numbers of English Language Learners whose primary language is Spanish. Families mostly come from Mexico to work in the fields, picking strawberries and lettuce, and in the packing plants.

“I see it as my job not only to teach mathematics but to also try to encourage the dreams and goals of Latino children and their families. Lately, I am concerned about Paulo. I see him spending time with some really questionable kids, and I’m worried about his math and his goals. I had to recommend him for the low-level sixth-grade math class. This upsets me because I see that he comes to school regularly, and he’s curious and pays attention in class. I told him that he’s got a lot of potential, but that he’s not working hard enough. He appears to spend a lot of time entertaining himself with video games.

“It seems he has an older friend at home who helps him with math, but when he’s on his own, he just can’t figure it out. So now I know he’s trying, but there’s only so much I can do. There are standardized benchmarks of achievement that determine eligibility for college-prep classes in high school like algebra 1, geometry, and algebra 2, and if you’re in low-level math in sixth grade, it’s really hard to place into a higher level afterwards and pass algebra by ninth grade. I just can’t put him in these classes without him being prepared.

“I see so many times that too many of our Latino students get placed in low-level math ability groups early on that sends these students toward these remedial tracks. I want to work to untrack these youths, but they need support—as well as the skills—to know they can succeed. In Paulo’s case, he hasn’t been doing his work and has made some new friends who don’t seem to value school. It’s really affected his grades.”

Rachel Marquez, Community College Outreach Program Director
Rachel Marquez walked into the cafeteria at lunch with her friend Nancy Brown. Rachel wanted to invite more thoughts and questions from students about applying to her program. She had directed the community college outreach program, Más Allá, since its start 6 years earlier. The program currently enrolls 500 low-income youth and offers tutoring by college students, Saturday academics and summer institutes, family engagement activities, and academic guidance from sixth grade through high school to help students stay on track to college. Upon graduation from high school, students are awarded $2,000 scholarships to attend the community college.

Más Allá also uses a research-based partnership with a local university to better understand students’ and families’ perspectives about resources and challenges to getting into and succeeding in college. In an ongoing cycle of action research, the program hosts regular meetings between program and research staff, as well as youth leaders, to identify ongoing questions and integrate data collection and analysis into program activities. Findings from the research suggested that both males and females see their peers as the greatest source of difficulty in attaining their academic and career goals. At the same time, mothers were the greatest resources. And students who continued in the program drew increasing positive support from both peers and mothers over time, a pattern that makes Rachel think that one key way her program works is by building networks of college-bound peers.

Rachel explained to Nancy the latest problematic trends developing from their research. “Older students seem less interested in program activities compared to younger students. It’s the older ones who are under more pressure from their peers to join gangs, ditch school, spend their time going to parties, and not attend program activities. At the same time, many of them need to work and make money. We also see more girls than boys attending activities. A lot of boys are not applying to the program in sixth grade because even then they think it looks ‘uncool to be a nerd.’ Some older boys have just stopped coming altogether. These gender patterns worry me, and I struggle with how I can keep more boys involved. We just received a grant to buy five computers and all that new digital stuff to bring them in. Even though it’s all too new to see whether it’s working yet, we already know that one thing that is working is Daniel. He’s a student teacher from the university who teaches math at the high school. He’s great teaching at the math enrichment class at our Saturday Academies, and the attendance of the older boys has gone way up since he started. A few guys even bring their ‘homeboys’ and sit in the back of the class, and Danny just pulls them right on into the math.”
Just then, Rachel caught the fleeting and embarrassed eye of a boy sitting amidst his other friends in the cafeteria. (back to top)

Discussion Questions

Major Issues
The purpose of this case is to consider how schools and communities can work with Latino families to increase youth opportunities to go to college and succeed on their life pathways. The case is designed to help educators understand the home, school, peer group, and community factors that influence Latino youth to take el buen camino de la vida (the good path of life) or el mal camino (the bad path) and how to get back on the good path. Specifically, the case focuses on the following:
• The influence of family relationships and personal networks on youth identity
• Building early and ongoing pathways to college, including the role of academic socialization
• The different ecological contexts shaping the development of youth or children in the upper range of middle childhood
• Ways that schools might link with low-income immigrant families and communities

Describing the Situation
• What crucial decision(s) must Paulo make?
• How would each of the different characters who have a relationship with Paulo identify the problem he faces? How are they similar and different in their assessments?
• How does Paulo’s developmental stage affect the situation?
• Identify references to “pathways” and “paths” in this case. What might be some of Paulo’s different possible pathways or life trajectories to high school, college, and a career?
Exploring Contributing Factors
• What do Sarita and Alberto want for Paulo’s future? How are their dreams influenced by Sarita’s and Alberto’s own educational and life experiences? How do they influence Paulo’s identity and choices?
•What is the role of digital media in Paulo’s life?
• How does starting the college outreach program in sixth grade affect Paulo and his family? Would starting the program earlier or later increase the likelihood that Paulo would participate and stay on the path to college?
• What could the school do differently to help Paulo’s parents be engaged in ways that are developmentally appropriate and do not require them to have the technical knowledge about which they feel self-conscious?
•What are some of the natural family networks that exist in this community? How have they served as a resource to Paulo so far? How can they help Paulo see a connection between his current behavior and his future?
•How would you describe Paulo’s relationship with his teacher, Nancy?
•What role does Rachel play as the program director, and what are some of the challenges she faces?

Articulating Possible Next Steps
•What can Nancy and other school staff members do now to ensure that Paulo makes a smooth transition to high school and stays on the path to college?
•What can the school do to develop relationships with Latino parents whose children are at risk of dropping out? How can it ensure that it is promoting family engagement in ways that are developmentally appropriate and effective for the child?
•How might Rachel and Más Allá take a bigger responsibility in helping to engage families in their children’s education in ways that are comfortable for children, parents, and other family members?
•How might Rachel redesign her efforts to sell the program to Latino boys like Paulo? How could she build continuity with the other contexts of Paulo’s life?

Looking at the Bigger Picture
• What are children like during the upper range of middle childhood? How does developmental level influence home-school-community relationships and vice versa?
• How does the social and cultural position of first-generation immigrant Latino families put them at risk for unfavorable youth educational outcomes? What school and community supports should be available to Latino families? To what extent are the supports offered in this case sufficient to keep Latino youth on the right track?
• In what ways can teachers come to better understand the cultural and technological worlds of the students they teach and how these worlds influence their students’ school experiences?
• What other institutions/community organizations can support the school in helping Paulo, and in what ways can they do this?
• Who are the “Paulos” in your school and community? What is being done to reach the needs of these families and children? Identify programs like Más Allá that are available in your community.
• How can creating bridges among the many worlds of adolescents’ lives (e.g., school, afterschool programs, home) foster pathways to college? (back to top)

Recommended Reading

Cooper, C. R. (2011). Bridging multiple worlds: Cultures, identities, and pathways to college. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Hoover-Dempsey, K. V., & Sandler, H. M. (1997). Why do parents become involved in their children’s education? Review of Educational Research, 67(1), 3–42.

Ito, M. et al. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved from

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1991). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31(1), 132–141.

Moran, C., Cooper, C. R., López, A., & Goza, B. (2009). Developing effective P-20 partnerships to benefit Chicano/Latino students and families. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 8(4), 340–356. (back to top)

1. A comadre or compadre is a godparent (godmother or godfather) who helps parents guide their child through life and school. This person is called a madrina or padrina, for women or men, respectively, in their relation to the child.


© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project