CPS helps immigrant, refugee students become entrepreneurs

CINCINNATI – Jacqueline Hernandez said she wants to be a nurse when she’s older, but fears the language barrier and other challenges she faces will make the career less realistic for her.

The 17-year-old girl speaks Spanish as her primary language.

For that reason, the Aiken High School Senior applied to the Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program. An initiative through Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) aims to help immigrants, refugees and non-English speakers in the neighborhood learn important life skills and prepare them to start their own businesses or expand a family business.

What do you need to know

  • Entrepreneurship Mentoring Program provides resources for immigrant and refugee students in Cincinnati Public Schools
  • The goal of the program is to help students overcome barriers such as language and immigration status
  • The pilot has 55 students from four high schools this year, but expansion is planned in the future
  • Topics include things like getting a small business loan and setting up an employer identification number

In addition to traditional classrooms, a group of 55 students ages 17 to 21 meet several times a year at the CPS Learning Center for focus sessions. Topics range from starting a business to immigration issues. The group had its second meeting of the school year last Wednesday.

Adam Cooper created the Cincinnati Public Schools' Entrepreneurship Mentoring Program last year.  He plans to expand the program in the future.  (Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Public Schools)

Adam Cooper created the Cincinnati Public Schools’ Entrepreneurship Mentoring Program last year. He plans to expand the program in the future. (Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Public Schools)

“My future plans are to go into nursing, but if that path is not available to me, then I would like to do business,” Hernandez said.

The program is directed by Adam Cooper, chair of the English As Second Language Council in CPS schools.

It grew out of conversations between counselors, social workers and teachers who wanted to improve the four-year graduation rate among many English learners and many multicultural students, Cooper said. The group has seen many students in that population drop out of school and stop attending classes, Cooper said.

While Hernandez grew up in Los Angeles, many of the students in the programs are immigrants or refugees who had limited or interrupted formal education before coming to Cincinnati, Cooper said. Some face additional issues regarding immigration status.

Withrow University High School, for example, offers business courses, but language barriers and a lack of background in basic education prevent many of those students from meeting state requirements, Cooper said.

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For most in the program, there is no option to go straight to college or enlist in the military. Finding a typical job situation can also prove to be a challenge for them, Cooper said.

“A significant portion of these students see no reason to graduate from high school because they do not see themselves as capable of pursuing traditional postsecondary studies,” he added. “We’re working to not only re-engage them as students, but to prepare them to find some form of success.”

Creating opportunities for those in need

The program launched as a pilot in 2021 with a handful of 11th- and 12th-grade English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at neighboring Gilbert A. Dater and Western Hills high schools. This year, it expanded to include upperclassmen at two other schools: Aiken High School and Withrow.

55 students participate in the program.  They come from four high schools across the district.  (Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Public Schools)

55 students participate in the program. They come from four high schools across the district. (Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Public Schools)

The new cohort is scheduled to start in the fall. There are plans to expand the pilot program in the future, Cooper said.

“I would like to extend it to even younger students to get them involved before they show that disinterest,” he added.

Right now, students are referred to the program by their school counselors based on information students share about what they plan to do when they graduate or graduate from high school.

Cooper emphasized that the program is not just for those who are unsure of what the future holds. They also want to offer opportunities for students who show a desire in business.

Some types of business include things like health care or running a restaurant or convenience store. Others may choose to train to become barbers or beauticians who run their own shop.

It also helps students who want to get additional certifications and training to go into things that could also include things like IT, Cooper said.

If nursing doesn’t work out, Hernandez would like to own or operate a clothing or jewelry store.

“This program proves that you don’t have to be someone in particular, like a doctor or something, to do what you love,” Hernandez said.

Developing a community of support

One of the main partners involved in the program is Cincinnati Compass, which works with community partners to make the region more welcoming to immigrants and refugees. It does so by promoting the development and expansion of economic, cultural and educational opportunities available to these groups.

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The goal, according to Cincinnati Compass Executive Director Bryan Wright, is to prepare these young people for success in light of their specific circumstances.

“It starts with business, but it goes much further, to further academic education or workforce-related training,” Wright said.

“No two cases are the same,” he added. “For some students, that may mean earning a high school diploma or equivalent, while for others it gives them enough resources to go out into the world and be productive.”

Wright himself has a background in education. He is a former academic advisor and director of the Office of International Student Affairs at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. This could use the community college route to jumpstart other vocational training opportunities, apprenticeships or four-year higher education.

“We know that your earning power increases drastically just by earning a high school diploma, but we recognize that some individuals have educational gaps that can stifle their academic growth,” he said. “When you combine these gaps in education with limited English proficiency and/or living in a new cultural or linguistic environment, the ability to earn a high school diploma in the traditional sense becomes more challenging.”

Through the program, Cincinnati Compass works with Cooper and CPS to establish relationships with organizations that have expertise in everything from language services and immigration law to how to get a small business loan.

Each meeting within the Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program has a specific area of ​​focus.

The first event of the year in October was a broader kick-off meeting where students worked to set goals and visions for what they wanted to achieve, whether it was starting a business or helping expand the family business, Cooper said.

Mayra Casas Jackson is one of the mentors participating in the program.  He works for the Immigrant and Refugee Law Center.  (Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Public Schools)

Mayra Casas Jackson is one of the mentors participating in the program. He works for the Immigrant and Refugee Law Center. (Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Public Schools)

“They weren’t just talking about business, they were talking about immigration and the process,” Hernandez said. “As someone who knows a lot of people looking for this kind of knowledge and resources, I can point them in the right direction.”

In addition to CPS staff, the program includes several technical advisors, such as Gina Pinto Williams with Liberty Tax Service.

Pinto Williams offered practical advice on starting a business during Wednesday’s meeting. One of the topics they discussed was how to create a Tax Identification Number or Employer Identification Number.

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Cooper also seeks to identify success stories of past CPS graduates and Greater Cincinnati residents who have immigrated to the U.S. and started their own businesses. Not only can they share tips and tricks, Cooper said, but they’ll serve as proof that it’s possible.

One of the mentors is Araceli Ortiz, CEO of Cincy Cleaning Co-Op, a residential cleaning company. She and a group of local cleaning professionals partnered with the Cincy Co-op in 2018 to create a company that allowed all cleaners to make a good living while having a voice in decision-making.

Several co-owners of the business are immigrants. Ortiz is from Mexico.

Ortiz and other potential mentors plan to speak at the third and final meeting of the year in March. Cooper is still looking for participants.

After the spring event, CPS plans to connect eligible students with case managers for life after graduation.

“The process can seem very daunting. I know that firsthand,” Ortiz said. “I want to support students to achieve their dreams and become business owners.”

While the program may be geared toward students learning about opening their own businesses, it also connects them with community partners like the Immigrant and Refugee Law Center (IRLC). The organization provides free legal immigration services to immigrants and refugees in southwest Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeast Indiana.

Cooper said the students had a lot of questions about their path to citizenship and the formal immigration process, and how it would affect them in the business world.

“Understanding that immigration is one of the biggest barriers our immigrant students face, we want to remind them that immigration status is not a barrier to becoming entrepreneurs and being successful after high school,” said Mayra Casas Jackson, paralegal and case manager. with IRLC.

IRLC’s involvement focused on identifying students with potential immigration remedies to pursue while representing them with US Citizenship and Immigration Services or immigration court.

Programs like the one through CPS help the IRLC connect with community members who may not be aware of their services, Casas Jackson said. This is invaluable, she added, for establishing trust, especially for those who fear they might otherwise be afraid to disclose their legal status.

“Working with schools and students makes it easier for us to reach their families and communities because the school has already built that trust,” Casas Jackson said.


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