News Column

Catching the Drop-outs

May 2004, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Nonprofit profiles by Senior Editor Joel Russell, and Contributing Editor Jennifer Riley

Ronald Blackburn-Moreno
Ronald Blackburn-Moreno

"There is no greater satisfaction, and no greater motivator, than to see someone you helped become successful."

So says Ronald Blackburn-Moreno, executive director of The Aspira Association, who recounts a recent example of his philosophy. "About a year ago, I received a call from Jose, a young fellow from Bayamon [Puerto Rico] who was in a science program I directed many years ago for high school students. I remembered Jose well. I had been constantly after him to finish his work, to do well in school, and had helped his parents select a college and to get financial aid. After he graduated and left for college, I lost track. He just called to thank me for helping him in that program over 10 years ago. He had finished college, gotten an MBA and was now vice-president at a major brokerage firm in New York. Jose and the many like him start a fire under me every day."

As executive director at Aspira, Mr. Blackburn-Moreno guides an organization dedicated to addressing the high school drop-out rate among Puerto Rican students. The organization works on the principle that youths should direct their own development, and it implements that view through Aspira Clubs in schools. Mr. Blackburn-Moreno estimates 50,000 students participate in the agency's programs around the country. High-profile Aspirantes (program participants) include former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, and former Small Business Administration Administrator Aida Alvarez.

Last year, the organization had revenues of $41.85 million and ranked fourth on the 2004 Top Nonprofits directory. About 70 percent of the agency's money comes from government grants, with the vast remainder coming from corporate (15 percent) and foundation (12 percent) grants. When pitching for funds, Mr. Blackburn-Moreno points to his organization's 40-year track record of success. Although the national Hispanic graduation rate hovers below 60 percent, 95 of Aspirantes finish high school. More than 80 percent finish college. "We can show not only the need still exists in our communities, but that Aspira's strategies and programs actually work," he says. "Funders realize that supporting Aspira is a sound investment."

In addition to the clubs, Aspira has more than 100 community technology centers to help close the Digital Divide. A financial education program helps youths learn to create wealth. In addition, Aspira acts in an advocacy capacity for Hispanic K-12 education. "Aspira has worked to ensure that the curriculum in schools serves the economic advancement of students," says Manuel Mirabal, CEO of the National Puerto Rican Coalition. "For many years, minorities and especially Latinos were steered toward vocational occupations. Aspira ensured curricula to enable students to go into business and other professions."

"The most critical challenge Aspira is facing, as is the entire Latino community, is the effect that education reform will have on our youth," Mr. Blackburn-Moreno says. "We want to make sure that our children are not the ones left behind. We want to make sure that the schools our children go to have high standards, but that they also have the resources to ensure that all students can reach them. We want to make sure that the new accountability systems aren't ways of driving our students from school or placing them in 'failing schools.' "

Even with new challenges, Aspira retains its focus on preventing drop-outs, and on the satisfaction its success in that arena brings. The organization's nearly 1,000 employees continue to find their own version of Mr. Blackburn-Moreno's "Jose" story. "I have dedicated my entire life, both in Puerto Rico and here, to fighting for what I believe is right and against what I see as deep social injustice in our society," he says. "I just can't stand by and watch our people live in the conditions that many of our people do poor, without an education and without hope and not be outraged."



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