In just 20 years, Latino enrollment at Santa Rosa Junior College has skyrocketed, a dramatic trend that is expected to continue into the future.

Nearly 29 percent of students at the college are Latino, up from almost 9 percent two decades ago.

Last year, Latinos made up 42 percent of SRJC's new students, the same proportion of Latino students currently enrolled in the Sonoma County public K-12 school system.

Statistics like these have SRJC officials trying to come up with strategies to address the educational needs of the area's Latino community, and they are enlisting the help of local Latino leaders, business owners and residents.

"We just want to be prepared, and the best way to do it is to go out into the community and have conversations," SRJC President Frank Chong said.

With that goal in mind, SRJC officials have been encouraging local Latino residents to attend one of four "Community Conversation" forums. The forums are an effort by the college to gather community feedback for college district's five-year strategic plan.

Two meetings already have been held, including the first in Petaluma on April 5 and another at the SRJC campus on April 30. School officials said Latino attendance has been sparse and they're hoping that more Latinos attend the third meeting tonight at Elsie Allen High School from 4 to 7 p.m.

In Santa Rosa alone, 62 percent of kindergartners in city schools are Latino. With Latinos representing such a large share of the county's future students, increasing high school graduation rates and improving higher educational attainment will be critical for the success of the local economy.

For many Latinos, SRJC represents the "bridge" from high school to higher-paying jobs, said Ben Stone, executive director of the county Economic Development Board.

According to a 2009 report drafted by the Sonoma County Innovation Council, a broad-based group created by the Board of Supervisors, increasing educational attainment rates for Latinos would boost the local economy by millions.

The study found that narrowing the share of Latinos without a high school degree from 58 percent to 29 percent, increasing the share of Latinos with "some college" by 10 percent and increasing the percentage of Latinos with a college degree by 10 percent would create 5,100 new jobs, increase the gross county product by $700 million and boost government revenues by nearly $42 million.

"The biggest boost to the economy would be through improving educational attainment for Hispanic youth," Stone said. "Santa Rosa Junior College gives students a chance to develop job skills that will have a lifelong impact on their income and opportunities."

One part of SRJC's strategy is declaring the campus as a Hispanic-serving institution, or HSI, a designation that would make the campus eligible for federal grants aimed at improving Latinos' academic achievement.

College officials estimate the funds, which are distributed over five years, could total from $400,000 to $600,000 each year.

Chong said the money could be used to hire more bilingual, bicultural staff who can advise and mentor Latino students, along the lines of the school's Puente program, which prepares students for a four-year university.

Ricardo Navarrette, SRJC's vice president of student services, said the federal dollars also could be used to expand specialized tutorial or in-class assistance and create partnerships with local schools and community groups that bolster SRJC's long-term commitments.

Due to federal sequestration, grant applications for HSI funds were not accepted this year, but the school plans to submit its grant application next year.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com