Over 2,000 students this week sat for the first time in classrooms at Esteban E. Torres High School—realizing an opportunity fought for by generations of East Los Angeles residents.
For some, the first day of school at the brand new campus signals an end to decades of dilapidated facilities, overcrowding, and low-expectations on the Eastside. The school makes history as the first built in unincorporated East Los Angeles in 85 years, and the first new school on the eastside to open with pilot schools approved under the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Public School Choice Initiative.
High school junior, Sintia Garcia, told EGP that she is both excited and nervous to be attending Torres High.
“…The best part is that I will be the first in my family to graduate from Torres High School as part of the senior class of 2012, representing the struggle for a better education in our communities,” she wrote in an email.
For Maria Leon, Torres’ opening day represented more than just a promising future for her children, it also marked a decade of struggle as an activist parent.
“It is like a dream, because we fought for 10 years,” Leon told EGP, speaking in Spanish. “I remember when we started, when we were negotiating with the homeowners here, then the construction delays with the Los Angeles Unified School District… we campaigned to get the construction moving… and then campaigned to get the pilot schools,” she said.
Leon’s daughter, Myra Alvarado, is a sophomore at the new Humanitas Pilot School and aspires to be a lawyer or doctor.
While the school’s opening offers hope to college-bound students in the form of rigorous academic preparation, Leon says it will also provide more opportunities for parent empowerment and school accountability, something she says has been lacking during her 26 years living on the eastside.
As a campus under the Public School Choice process—an LAUSD reform that allows outside education agencies to run schools with low student achievement and graduations rates, as well as at all new campuses—the performance and progress of Torres’ pilot school students and teachers will be carefully monitored. If the school fails to meet required benchmarks, measures will be taken to identify and correct the problem, according to Rachel Bonkovsky, School Improvement Policy and Program Development Advisor for the Office of the Superintendent.
The Esteban E. Torres ‘Home of the Toros’ is composed of five pilot schools: East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy; Humanitas Academy of Art & Technology; Leadership Academy; East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy, and the Engineering & Technology Academy. Each pilot school has enrolled approximately 400 freshmen, sophomore and juniors.
Retired Congressman Esteban E. Torres, for whom the new school is named, advocated with InnerCity Struggles and the East Los Angeles Education Collaborative for pilot schools at his eastside namesake.
On opening day, Torres told students to treat the campus as if it were their own home: keep it clean, graffiti free, drug free and gang free, he said.
“Eleventh grade students, you will be the first graduating class. There will be no drop-outs! Graduate! Graduate and then go on to a college education,” he said. “You and those that will follow are the future for a better tomorrow for East LA, for California, and America.”
Torres told EGP that he felt like it was his first day of school. “I’m so honored and humbled by this great achievement that is taking place here on the eastside. It’s really a symbol of what a united community can accomplish,” he said.
According to InnerCity Struggles’ Maria Brenes, the high school opens after a decade of petitions drives, protest marches, community education efforts, and parent mobilizations to demand a new high school be built on the eastside.
“This victory actually fulfills one of the demands in the original 1968 student movement: A school that prepares all students for college,” she said during the opening day assembly. “So this school represents a legacy of struggle that started with the work of Congress member, Esteban E. Torres. He was a labor organizer, a veteran, a US ambassador, a founder of TELACU, and a congressman for this community.
Know that we are inspired by him, and he is a true hero, not just for Los Angeles but for this entire country, and our school is named after him.”
LAUSD School Board President Mónica García encouraged students to dream and to work hard to achieve those dreams.
School Board Member Yolie Flores, in whose district Torres High is located, put the opening day celebration in context for the students:
“I know that in our community we face obstacles and challenges all the time. I know because my family is very much probably like your family,” said Flores, the sponsor of the Public School Choice resolution. “My parents didn’t speak English, they had very-low wage jobs… I ask you to ask for help when the obstacles confront you. I want you to always think, in your mind, that walking out is not an option.”
Flores said that she, and everyone else at the school would do whatever it takes to make sure the students have everything they need to graduate, go to college, and succeed in their careers.
“I know it is tough, but there is nothing more important to all of us here today, than to see you succeed… you represent so much, not only for yourself, your own dignity, your own… great life, but for the history of this community, for your parents, and really for this world. We need brilliant people like you… Count on us! If you don’t see the best in this school, let us know,” she said.
“Come every day, work hard, think about the future you want. Expect it, demand it and get it.”