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Guadalupe Chavelas's grades took a dip when she started 9th grade at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, Calif. That year, her older brother and closest confidante was incarcerated for the first time. Chavelas said the lack of empathy she found from teachers at her school did nothing to help her situation.
"I felt like I had no identity; my teachers rarely knew my name," Chavelas said. "I just felt like another body there, and I didn't feel like anybody genuinely cared about me."
Chavelas said her mindset changed after she transferred to the Social Justice Leadership Academy of the Esteban E. Torres High School and one teacher finally took notice of her and took her under her wing. "She took the time to say, 'You have a lot of potential, regardless of how you look, regardless of where you come from, regardless of your story,'" Chavelas explained.
Chavelas graduated in 2012 in the first cohort of the Torres High School, which opened its doors in 2010 as the first new school in East Los Angeles in 85 years. Until then, the area had only two public high schools: Garfield High School and Roosevelt High School.
Now, Chavelas works as the college and career pathways planner for the same institution that she said gave her the opportunity to start anew. She and Torres High School Senior Community School Coordinator Cristina Patricio presented stories about overcoming adversity in their own past educational journeys and shared strategies for how they are now empowering their students to do the same.
In the Monday morning session, "Eastside Stories: Youth Organizing for a Better East Los Angeles," Patricio began by explaining the "Five Californias," which divides the state into five disparate socioeconomic classes based on measures of longevity, standards of living, and access to knowledge. East Los Angeles, Chavelas noted, falls under the label of "Struggling California," which boasts a Human Development Index (HDI) of 3.07—a full 6.19 point below the 9.26 HDI score of the upper-class "One Percent California."
Historically, the standard of the East Los Angeles public schools mirrored the locality's low HDI score. When Patricios was a student at Garfield High School more than a decade ago, the school had a 50 percent dropout rate, severely out-of-date learning materials, and a population of 5,000 students in a facility built for only 1,500.
The narrative began to shift, however, after the opening of Torres High School, which comprises five smaller pilot schools, including the academy that Chavelas attended. The school focuses on the goal of building community wealth, explained Patricio, which means that "instead of us coming to the table and telling our students, 'This is what you need to do to try to succeed,' we changed that strategy to ask, 'What do you know, and what can we do to expand that so you can teach us how to help other students?"
To best help the students at Torres, Patricio said that staff focus on implementing the Los Angeles Education Partnership's six core elements for a structured school: high-quality instruction, teacher leadership and collaboration, college and career readiness, parents as partners, educational equity, and youth empowerment. To ensure low dropout rates from the get-go, Torres implemented a mentorship program to help ease incoming students in their transition from middle to high school. "I wish I'd had someone to guide me through my high school experience," Chavelas said.
At Torres, each incoming freshman receives a personal—and often glitter-adorned—handwritten letter during their new student orientation from an upperclassman who has been in their shoes. Each freshman also receives a tour of the school from their mentor, along with peer-to-peer advice for navigating difficult classes and the high school social landscape.
As students continue to progress through school, providing students with college-readiness tools becomes the main action item, especially because many of the students' parents never attended or even considered attending college themselves, Patricio said. She shows parents a graphic of the Chicano Educational Pipeline, which illustrates that from a sample of 100 Chicano elementary students, an average of 63 will graduate from high school, 8 will receive a bachelor's degree, 4 will receive a master's degree, and 0.03 will receive a doctoral degree. These statistics are lower than most parents expect, Patricio said, but college is invaluable for helping lift first-generation out of poverty and into a higher economic echelon.
"The moment that you deny your student the opportunity to go to a four-year university, whatever sacrifices that you and your family made often go unnoticed," Patricio said.
Finally, Patricio outlined how Torres provides career development training to ensure students are equipped for success well after their studies are over. Chavelas hosts mock interview sessions with students, bringing in professionals from different backgrounds like business and social work who volunteer their time to give students face-to-face experience with real professionals. They also offer a community closet filled with professional clothes that teachers and stakeholders donate for students to wear to work and interviews.
By paying attention to students' needs, Patricio said, Torres High School's five pilot schools have raised their graduation rates from 50–75 percent in 2012 to around 90 percent in 2015. As the schools continue to push forward, Patricio and Chavelas said they will continue using their own stories to find common ground with their students and then build on that foundation of trust.
"Once we're able to share these stories and make ourselves vulnerable, our students are able to understand that we come from the same place and that we want them to succeed," Patricio said. "When we welcome our parents in, we tell them, we [were] your kids. We were in your seats a few years ago. We understand what your kids are going through."
Emily McCormick is a third-year student at UCLA with a major in Communication Studies and minors in Entrepreneurship and Music History. She is also currently the Music | Arts editor at UCLA's Daily Bruin. Contact Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org. .
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