In a roundtable event hosted by Equity Alliance for LA’s Kids, recent LAUSD graduates reflected on their navigation of an often difficult, educational experience.
Graduates from East LA and South LA high schools, identified by the Student Equity Needs Index (SENI) as some of the highest concentrations of high-need schools, shared their challenges from policing to housing, while also highlighting their support systems in and outside school.
Equity Alliance for LA’s Kids is composed of local community and in-district organizations such as Catalyst California, Community Coalition, InnerCity Struggle and the Partnership for LA Schools, organizations that these graduates are part of.
- Kevin Vallardes, recent graduate of Mendez High School, attending UC Berkeley this fall.
- Lay Jointer, recent graduate of Washington Preparatory High School, attending Cal State University of Los Angeles this fall.
- Estrella Salazar, recent graduate of Lincoln High School, attending the University of Southern California this fall.
- Ana Gonzalez, recent graduate of Augustus Hawkins High School, attending Los Angeles Trade-Technical College this fall.
- Ana Baena, recent graduate of Roosevelt High School, attending UC Berkeley this fall.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
From 1 to 10, how would you rate your K-12 experience? What is an experience that shaped your rating?
Vallardes: I would rate my experience a strong seven… It could have gone much higher, but there were a few elements that made it go low…In my middle school there was a lot of policing… the dean made me feel unsafe… school is for education, like they’re supposed to make you feel empowered.
Jointer: My K-12 experience was pretty interesting. I enjoyed a lot of my time at school. I’m also the eldest of five siblings, and… so managing that, it was really, really difficult for me. As well as bouncing around like from house to house, especially in my high school years… For me personally, school was my safe space.
Salazar: I gave it a high rating of 8.5. I had friends who were there for me and people I could truly rely on. And I had teachers who believed in me and sincerely wanted to see me grow… But I think I lowered my rating to an eight because… not all students have that same experience… some students didn’t get that extra support and or care.
What places or people were beacons of hope, growth or motivation for you?
Gonzalez: Definitely from the first day of freshman year, it was one of my teachers, my English teacher at the time, Ms. Moore… And then another was definitely Community Coalition…They would be like, ‘Hey, are you graduating?’ because they knew I was going through a lot, especially with my job at the time, and I did graduate.
Salazar: Definitely our PSA counselor, Ms. Espinosa…My dad passed away between the 10th and 11th grade… When I went back to school… I was connected with Ms. Espinosa because my mom had called the school… and she provided me with that safe space where I was able to unravel any stress that I had.
Baena: When I joined InnerCity Struggle, I was motivated but at the same time I was drained and exhausted, just because it was online learning… They had this energy [to] them that I never saw at home… It was just amazing to see that I had a home here and people that actually cared enough for me.
What were some challenges or obstacles that you all faced during the past four years and how did you overcome them?
Baena: Some of my challenges were moving around a lot. It did drain me, and knowing that I didn’t have a stable home really affected me… People who supported me throughout this journey and helped me overcome this was InnerCity Struggle.
Vallardes: My challenges started off in elementary school where I was always labeled behind or below average, and it kind of made me feel like I did not belong there… It was difficult because I felt like my teachers didn’t support me because I was always taken out of class… Eventually, I got tired of it, which is what motivated me to push myself to reclassify and get into the normal class.
Jointer: Towards the end of my junior year, I was assaulted, and that really took a toll on my mental health… It most definitely impacted my performance in school… I was always known as this gifted student, and so like that was a lot of pressure.
I know some of you mentioned that you’re first gen. So I was wondering, what was that process like applying to colleges or any plans after high school? Did you feel like you felt supported at LAUSD?
Vallardes: I wasn’t supported by LAUSD, but I was supported by the people around me… but like the college counselors that we advocated for, I think those really supported me. Even my teachers, like they would like triple check, quadruple check on [my] essays, scholarships…So it was like those people who really ended up helping me.
Baena: As a college peer counselor, I did see… a difference between students who are highly motivated and not motivated at all, and so those students who are highly motivated… they would literally just come in, check in with their counselor. But for those who aren’t, we couldn’t send them [school] passes sometimes because some teachers [didn’t] support the college counselors.
Jointer: I remember running into the college office and I was asking for help.. my GPA at the time was low because I had been struggling so much in school academically… she’s like ‘sweetie I don’t even think the Cal States are going to look at your [application].’ And I was like, ‘Oh,’ and that kind of killed my whole drive.
What is one recommendation you have… based on your own experiences, what would it take for students to be successful and thrive?
Jointer: You can’t do everything alone. It’s really, really good to have a support system to be there for you.
Salazar: Definitely relying on the pillars of a community school and redefining what the school system looks like now. I did a lot of work with Ana with ICS, InnerCity Struggle, revolving around SENI, which is the Student Equity Needs index, and fighting for what students truly deserve, which is a family.
Baena: We did advocate for SENI which is this formula right now of high need schools [need] more and distribute more resources equitably. I do believe that.. the main support system for students is like the teachers, the staff members there, because without them, we wouldn’t be as motivated as we are.