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In Napa, civic leaders try to grow a Hispanic middle class

Napa Valley is home to one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the nation. Leaders are using education to grow a middle class.

Hispanic parents gathered at McPherson Elementary for a program called Parent University.

Kai Ryssdal: A report out here in California last week shows that less than half the families in this state are middle-class anymore. Yes, part of that's a bad economy, but the Public Policy Institute of Calfornia says it's bigger than just that -- that it's part of 30-year trend.

The wine-growing mecca of Napa, Calif., is trying to change that. Marketplace's Jeff Tyler reports.


Jeff Tyler: The road sign welcoming visitors to Napa Valley quotes Robert Louis Stevenson: "The wine is bottled poetry." Locals are happy to elaborate.

Wine taster: There's a little tiny bit of a vanilla character. And a little bit of toastiness. We have a depth of fruit, but it's really delivered in a silky package.

Napa Valley is a pastoral playground for the wealthy: health spas, world-class restaurants and 400 wineries. But there is another Napa.

Tyler: Jose, what do your parents do for work?

Jose: My mom works at McDonald's. And my dad works at a winery.

Tyler: And what do you want to do when you grow up?

Jose: I want to be a winery person, like my dad.

Winery jobs draw mostly Hispanic workers. Napa has one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the nation. The Valley basically gets two kinds of newcomers: affluent retirees at the top...

Terence Mulligan: And at bottom, you see people coming here not to retire, but to work: in agriculture, construction, hospitality, manufacturing -- sort of the central engines of our economy.

Terence Mulligan is president of the Napa Valley Community Foundation, which funds local programs aimed at bridging the wealth gap.

Mulligan: Our greatest worry about our future in Napa Valley is that we will look like Vail in 20 years because the growth in this community is at the very top and at the very bottom.

He says Hispanic immigrants at the bottom need to move up the economic ladder if there is going to be a middle class here in 20 years. And in order to qualify for professional middle-class careers, Hispanic kids need to start doing better in school.

Leslie Medine: As an example, last year, at one particular high school, only 18 kids out of 250 had taken the right classes to even apply to a public university.

Leslie Medine is executive director of a nonprofit called On the Move. She's focused on education as the key to growing a middle class.

McPherson Elementary School is almost entirely Latino. A variety of programs have been tailored to help students excel. Starting in fourth grade, leadership academies teach kids about various careers. For parents, there's a family resource center, where Pablo Trujillo works.

Pablo Trujillo: I'm teaching them how to sustain themselves with their finances. Basically, help them with budgets.

Most immigrants know very little about our school system. So, a program called Parent University teaches them the basics.

Parent University lecture

Hispanic mothers fill a classroom. They've come to learn about a foreign concept: the parent-teacher conference. Fabiola Osorio helps run Parent University. She remembers how hard it was when she moved here from Mexico with her son.

Fabiola Osorio: It was frustrating not knowing how to help him with homework, how to communicate with the teacher, and even harder trying to understand the test results. It was very frustrating for me.

The program is pragmatic, but also symbolic. Again, Leslie Medine.

Medine: Even though many of our parents never even graduated high school, the idea that the parents are going to Parent University and they're calling it "university" also helps the kids say, "Oh, my mom or my dad is going to university."

She hopes the kids on the playground today will be inspired to go to university themselves someday. Then come back and serve as role models to show other Hispanic kids that middle-class careers are attainable. That's a long way off, but they're making progress. On recent test scores, McPherson's students -- the kids of poor Hispanic immigrants -- showed as much academic progress as the rich kids at the best-funded schools.

In Napa, I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

Hispanic parents gathered at McPherson Elementary for a program called Parent University.

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We would like to make sure that our key partners, who work with us to make the McPherson Neighborhood a reality, are highlighted here. This Initiative focuses on 2,000 children in one neighborhood in Napa, California. Teenagers from the neighborhood lead the Initiative and believe that their neighborhood will be the first Democracy Zone in the country.

We could not possibly have created all of the Initiative's moving parts (Leadership Academies, Family Resource Center, Parent University, Community Gardens, art programs, and post high school, college, and career programs) in the past 5 years without our key partners. They include:

Andrus Family Fund,
Auction Napa Valley,
City of Napa,
First 5 Napa County,
Germanacos Foundation,
Kaiser Permanente Foundation,
McPherson Elementary School,
Napa High School,
Napa Valley Community Foundation,
Napa Valley Unified School District,
Queen of the Valley Medical Center,
S.H. Cowell Foundation,
St. Joseph's Health System Foundation,
United Way,
and the Whitman Institute.

With Generous Support From...