Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The American Dream Isn’t Dead. This Is How Immigrant Families Are Achieving It

November 9, 2015
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The American Dream Isn’t Dead. This Is How Immigrant Families Are Achieving It
Juan Salgado jokes with students at the Instituto del Progreso Latino, which is located in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. Photo by Alex Wroblewski for NationSwell
Vocational training comes full circle at the Instituto del Progreso Latino, where new MacArthur Fellow Juan Salgado pioneers a sustainable approach to rising above poverty.

Every year, more than 20 Americans are named MacArthur Fellows and given a $625,000 stipend for being, well, geniuses. Across the arts and sciences, their personalities and contributions often loom large — this year, think Lin-Manuel Miranda (the playwriting prodigy of Broadway’s “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” fame) or Ta-Nehisi Coates (perhaps the foremost author and voice of the black American experience in the news media today).

Some MacArthur geniuses, however, labor in significantly less lauded roles, doing their work on a much smaller scale. That’s the case for Juan Salgado, who has spent the last 15 years at the helm of southwest Chicago’s Instituto del Progreso Latino. The adult vocational training school appears modest on the surface. Yet dig in, and you’ll find an educational program with a surprisingly high 80 percent graduation rate — better than most high schools and college degree programs across the nation — and a radical approach to community support. What’s the Instituto doing? It’s asking poverty-level working parents to give up their evenings (over the course of three or more years) to improve their potential for employment through language and vocational training. It’s promising to lift families out of poverty and fulfill their American dreams. And it’s working.

Students congregate after classes let out from Instituto del Progreso Latino on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015.Photo by Alex Wroblewski for NationSwell

Forty to 60 percent of residents of south and west Chicago are living below the poverty line, according to data collected by the New York Times. Those who come to Instituto are usually facing even more dire straits: they are often immigrants, and their average annual income is between $14,000 and $18,000. Having just around a 6th grade level education, they’re underemployed, working menial labor jobs, and supporting an average of 3.1 children.

So how do you help these families move forward and upward? When the Instituto opened in 1977, it focused on basic adult education needs for the local Latino community: how to pass a citizenship test and how to improve English-language skills. In 2001, Salgado became president and CEO of the Instituto and realized that these tools weren’t enough.

“We weren’t really connecting that adult learner with a specific career path where there were going to be jobs — where there was going to be opportunity to build. We weren’t connecting them to post-secondary education in a meaningful way,” he explains. Recognizing that assistance needed to stretch even further, Salgado emphasized that the second generation, the kids, would have to be part of the solution, as well.

It’s this holistic circular vision — a center that caters to the full needs of an entire family, from basic learning to career pipelines to childcare — that has fueled the success of Instituto in recent years. It takes a village, and Salgado has made the Instituto that much-needed community support system.

Juan Salgado, president and CEO of Instituto del Progreso Latino, in his office.Photo by Alex Wroblewski for NationSwell

Mirna Holton, who served as associate director of the Instituto for three years and now sits on its governing board, notes that the increase in focus came at a critical moment. “It was a phenomenal time for big ideas… We challenged ourselves in the way that our families and individuals challenged themselves by shifting perspectives.”

The first step: identifying nearby career opportunities. Salgado sought out industries with robust job markets and gains that Instituto participants could realistically access. Manufacturing and nursing stood out as the most promising options. From there, the Instituto prepares students for the secondary degrees they need to enter those career paths with its Carreras en Salud and Manufacturing Technology Bridge Programs. Each has specialized training to bring adult students up to speed and introduce them to the skills and language they’d need. The important thing was to transform a 6th-grade-level education into a high-school-graduate education, but in fewer than the six years it normally takes to get there.

Participants spend five nights a week in classes for four or more hours at a time‚ the equivalent of attending high school while working a full-time job and managing a family. “We turn that into a 3-year deal,” emphasizes Salgado. “We’re doing accelerated learning. We’re doing contextualized learning. And we’re focusing in on a career occupation that the student is motivated for.”

To help students with the rigorous schedule, the Instituto offers a key service: family support. The nursing preparation track, in particular, draws a crowd of single mothers; Salgado estimates that 60 percent of its students provide for their children independently. Since they need childcare while they’re in class each evening, the Instituto provides it, along with a healthy meal. “The trick is, how do you get [the mothers] to juggle one or two fewer things?” asks Salgado. “It’s all about reducing complexity so they can be successful in the learning process.”

Nursing program participants have found that success. In less than a decade, about 500 students became licensed practical nurses, and more than 200 are currently enrolled. “Once they’re licensed nurses, 100 percent of them get a job,” boasts Salgado. Along with employment comes a significant pay raise. Instead of making less than $10 an hour, they’re now receiving $24 an hour and up. “It’s life changing.”

Finally, seeing that the kids need schooling to match their parents’, Salgado identified a third need: educating children. So the Instituto opened two charter high schools for the next generation.

Full circle support.

Inside Chicago’s Instituto del Progreso Latino.Alex Wroblewski for NationSwell

It’s “creative leadership,” as the MacArthur Foundation puts it, that defines Instituto’s success. With more than 10,000 people receiving some form of assistance each year, according to ThinkProgress, the organization is an integral part of the Windy City. And because of its “collectivist manner,” as Holton describes it, nothing is embarked upon without taking the queues from the community itself.

But as Instituto has expanded, it has also encountered a common roadblock: funding.

Right now, the organization depends equally on private and public support, accessing funds from the government and from local Chicago philanthropies like the Chicago Community Trust and national organizations such as the JP Morgan Chase Foundation, Forbes Foundations and the Aspen Institute. But Salgado and his team are not satisfied. Without a sustainable solution, they’re just another drain on the charitable economy. If the purpose of the adult training program is to provide a pathway for long-term career development, Salgado believes that the Instituto needs its own forward-thinking growth plan.

For that, he’s looking to new models — specifically, a revolving loan fund with the promise that students don’t pay unless their careers are set and their income is stable. “If we don’t get you there, you won’t pay us back,” says Salgado. “That’s risky, but our results have been pretty solid,” he says. A loan fund would keep the capital flowing, removing the Instituto from a nonprofit’s typical Sisyphean struggle of fundraising and spending. Instead, Salgado wants to put in motion a self-sustaining cycle of mobility.

“You know, in the business world, they take a bunch of chances, and there’s a whole culture for taking chances, right? And people get extremely rewarded for taking chances, right?” he muses. “In our work, there are all these disincentives to take chances, so everybody plays it safe, right? And as a result, we don’t often make as much progress as we actually need to.”

Salgado’s ready to take a risk in order to bring Instituto’s best practices out of Chicago and onto the national stage. Already, the Instituto provides technical assistance to groups looking to emulate their techniques in California, Indiana, Minnesota, and Texas. With the MacArthur grant, that list is likely to grow further. Because, as he says, “Almost every one of our cities could qualify for this.”

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