Above, Alvaro Cortés joins Superintendent Michelle King and civil rights advocate Dr. Adrian Dove at the Kingdom Day Parade.

KNX-AM recently honored Alvaro Cortés as its Hero of the Week in recognition of his service and commitment to the students of L.A. Unified.

By Melissa Franklin
Senior Marketing Representative
Office of Educational Services

Ask Alvaro Cortés how he feels about being honored as a KNX Hero of the Week for his work to support students, and the 42-year L.A. Unified veteran will growl, “There is no ‘I’ in ‘hero.'”

Instead, the senior executive director of the  Beyond the Bell Branch (BTB) will divert the conversation to the District leaders and colleagues who work with him to provide year-round academic enrichment and recreation programs to students of all ages.

“I think it’s a wonderful recognition of the District, of schools, and of teachers – not necessarily of me, but of who I represent,” says Cortés, who has overseen BTB for the last decade.

As humble as he is about the recent recognition of his service, Cortés’ accomplishments speak volumes:

He creates and oversees before– and after-school programs that serve more than 160,000 K-12 students.

He created the Take Action Leadership Campaign, which inspired students to fight hunger and homelessness and to advocate for the environment.

The Beyond the Bell Branch sponsors the All-District Honor Marching Band, which performs annually in the Tournament of Roses Parade.

He launched the Cyber Security Education Program as a job incubator that trains students for tech careers. L.A. Unified students now participates in the prestigious CyberPatriot competition, and the District is the only one in the nation to have teams place in the top 12 in the nation each year.

Drawing on his experience as a first-generation English speaker, he helped create Language in Action to fast track English-as-a-second-language learning among students.

The Daily interviewed Cortés to hear and learn first-hand about this District hero:

Q: If you had to describe your path to where you are today in one sentence, what would it be?

AC: Fun. Because, why do something I don’t enjoy? I’ve enjoyed my career as an educator, administrator and now, in leading Beyond the Bell, it has all been fun. I enjoy getting up everyday and look forward to it.

Q: What makes it most fun?

AC: The interaction with the kids. As a teacher and administrator, it has always been great to see the children grow, develop and blossom. We are able to see kids engaged in wonderful activities – some of them life-changing – and to watch them bloom as athletes, artists, musicians and students.

Q: How do you feel about being honored as a KNX Hero of the Week?

AC:  I think it’s a wonderful recognition of the District, of schools, and of teachers – not necessarily of me, but of who I represent. All too often, we don’t look at the joy and courage it takes to work with children and it is fun to see our collective efforts being recognized in this way.

Alvaro Cortés says his interactions with students are his favorite part of his job.

Q: Who is your hero?

AC: My father. He lost his job due to a change in the Costa Rican government and was dismissed from his position as Consul General for Costa Rica in the U.S. My mother went out and got a job as a seamstress while he sold encyclopedias, worked in an auto-body shop, and sold insurance to make ends meet. We, as their children, just kept on living and never missed a beat. My parents both went at it and became successful. My father regained his position and my mom continued to work. I saw two pretty brave adults faced with difficulty and respond. That was difficult to ignore and easy to respect.

Q: What is your favorite student memory?

AC: I have many. A lot of my former students are finding me and reminding me that I am getting old. I ran into one of my former students, Alfredo Ortiz, at a principals’ meeting. He is now a principal at Grand View Elementary School! He was a student in one of my first classes as a teacher. I’ve had many former students who are now staff at L.A. Unified. It is nice to see that they still remember the positive influences we as educators have on their lives.

Q: What motivates you in your work?

AC: I was always told that even if you make a difference in one child’s life, you are successful. I endeavor to do that every day, and it has been fun. I’ve enjoyed knowing that what we do positively effects children’s lives.”

NBA greats Lucius Allen, left, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar work with Beyond the Bell’s Alvaro Cortés and Gerardo Salazar to support L.A. Unified students.

Q: Why Beyond the Bell’s work so critical?

AC: Equity. The enriching opportunities that students have through our programs is a way of providing equity for our students. I was able to provide my own children with opportunities to be involved in youth activities. I paid for them to be able to do so. Students grow from relationships with other students, exposures to arts, team sports, etc. BTB allows us to do that for our kids for free. We are able to provide them with those opportunities which they otherwise might not be able to have access.

We have students in our District who have never walked on the beach or played in the snow. Through our camps, they are provided with opportunities to have those experiences, which is a wonderful thing to see. Giving our students the opportunity to play at the Hollywood Bowl, to dance at the Staples Center, to walk across the stage at the Grammys or meet elected officials through our CyberPatriot program is amazing.

As an immigrant student myself and having to learn English, it’s wonderful for me to be able to tell kids that they too can be whatever they want to be. The U.S is the greatest place to do that.

Q: What are some words of encouragement you can share with parents?

AC: Assume the responsibility.  Raising children seems to get harder and harder, but make sure you make it a point to enjoy them every day, because before you know it they’re grown up.