DELTA — A simple partnership has had a dramatic impact on a tough education problem here, and the benefit extends far beyond schools and could hold promise for other communities.

Delta used to face a struggle familiar to other schools:  Hispanic reading scores lagged by half of their Caucasian peers; 10 percent of seniors graduated and none of them went on to college.

Teachers got together to try to figure out what they could do to close the gap, Delta Elementary School Principal David Noah explained. They came up with a simple approach:  have high school students read with elementary school students.

It’s called Latinos in Action. LIA students at the high school and junior high serve as role models and para-educators in their local elementary and junior high schools. The program provides opportunities for Latino bilingual students in several dozen Utah schools to serve in their own communities.

Younger students get extra reading attention, using the Utah State Office of Education’s STAR Reading program. Equally important, they get a mentor.

“I look at these kids and see that some of them need help,” said Oscar Gonzalez, who participates in LIA. “But no one necessarily takes the hand to reach out to them individually, so that’s why we come in and play this role.”

It’s the answer the school district has been looking for, Millard School District Assistant Superintendent Scott Bassett said. It helps Hispanic students get more involved in the school and in their own education.

“I think that has helped because we’ve looked at them (Hispanic students) as part of the community, not a separate entity or the Latino kids versus the Caucasian kids,” Bassett said.

The younger students aren’t the only ones benefiting from this program. The teens have made the biggest gains. The gap in scores has narrowed significantly. All of the Latino students involved in the program graduate from high school and half are expected to attend college.

“I feel like I am a hero in a way," Gonzalez said. “Some of them have the biggest smile when they see me. It’s just interacting with them that makes my day.”

The program has changed his attitude about school. He said he used to be a lazy student, but now his GPA is up. The program has also exposed him and other participants to college opportunities.

“I plan on going on to UVU and becoming a nutritionist and get a bachelor’s degree,” high school senior Danielle Hordato said.

The transformation that’s taking place goes beyond the classroom. It’s helping unite a community that has faced difficulty following the shooting death of Millard County Sheriff’s Deputy Jose Fox. She died on Jan. 5 after being shot when she stopped a suspected burglar near Delta. Family members of the deputy and the shooters attended the same school.

"It's been a very difficult thing, and there have been some feelings and we're still healing,” Bassett said.

The program has helped, he adds, because schools were already making inroads in closing the achievement gap and helping community members feel part of a common cause.

E-mail: dwimmer@ksl.com