Above, thanks to the generosity of teachers, local businesses and nonprofit organizations, the senior class at Green Design STEAM Academy was all decked out for prom.
Social Studies Teacher and Senior Adviser
Green Design STEAM Academy
I was fortunate this year to join the Green Design STEAM Academy as their new social studies teacher and senior adviser. I was confident about teaching history, but helping seniors was something out of my comfort zone. Early on, I realized one of the biggest challenges facing this particular group of seniors was the financial burden that comes with being a senior. Paying for activities, spirit gear, prom and field trips are expenses that quickly add up. For low-income students in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood of South Los Angeles, it is daunting.
Handcuffed by fundraising policies and with limited resources to tap into, it is difficult to help students who need financial help paying their senior dues. Unemployment, housing and financial struggles facing students’ families face makes it discouraging to even ask them to pay. The reality of this hit me when the father of one senior requested a refund from the student store because he’d lost his job and the family needed the money to paying their electric bill.
Part of the Diego Rivera Learning Complex, Green Design STEAM Academy prides itself on finding ways for all students can participate. Principal William Lupejkis principal believes that prom, Grad Night and other senior activities need to be accessible for all our students, who have earned it through their academic performance. This has become the school’s motivation to find ways to overcome the financial challenges that our seniors face. The belief permeates throughout staff and is embedded in the school’s DNA. Realizing that help isn’t coming, but that we are the help pushes the urgency to find a way.
This year I had the privilege of seeing Green Design’s family at its best. Students and staff of this small school together reached out to the media, non-profit organizations and community businesses to assist. For this to be done by our small school with great needs, we had to find big resources.
Our first big break came from the media attention received by our valedictorian, Eden Nava. Although modest and reserved, she understood the importance of bringing attention to our students’ remarkable accomplishments and need for financial assistance. A straight A-student for the last six years, she spearheaded the mission to getting the assistance needed for her and her peers. Eden and her amazing academic feat in Advanced Placement calculus were featured in LAUSD Daily, and on KTLA-TV and Univision. The attention garnered from her story helped our school to connect with other resources that began to reach out to us and offer help.
The first to reach out to us was HubCities Consortium in Huntington Park, which has employed youth in Southeast LA area for more than 25 years. Through the generosity of Executive Director Joe Martinez and their federal grant program, LACYJ, they were able to employ more than half of our seniors. Priority enrollment in their program was given to our homeless and foster students, followed by those receiving Cal-Works and students from families that are low-income. Students gained valuable experience working maintenance and clerical jobs at our school and also were able to use their earnings to pay their senior dues. Seeing the pride in the students’ faces when paying their senior dues and experiencing the dignity of earning money was priceless.
Next, Green Design was contacted by Erica Salcido, a Pupil Services and Attendance counselor. She connected another group of seniors to the city’s WIOA YouthSource program, which provided training and jobs that enabled them to pay their senior dues. They also earned gift cards and cash for attending job-training workshops.
Regrettably, not all students were able to get employment with one of our partner community organizations because of their immigration status. The Green Design STEAM Academy staff generously donated money so these students could purchase prom and Grad Night tickets.
Afterward, we connected with Cecie Trujillo, who is a case manager at the El Nido Building Stronger Families program in Compton. She was able to get us a last minute reservation to the annual Cinderella and Prince Charming Project, where they provided suits and dress shoes for our boys for prom. While at the event, senior Josue Perez was interviewed by KTLA and expressed gratitude for the generosity shown to him and his classmates. Similarly, through the District’s Operation School Bell, hosted by the Assistance League of Los Angeles, several of our female students received gowns, shoes, purse and accessories for prom.
Three days before prom, I contacted former student Freddy Rocha, who owns Faded Trends Barbershop and Beauty Salon in Walnut Park. He and his staff gave the boys haircuts and the girls updos at no cost to the students.
Last, came an unexpectedly large gift from the Downey Mayor Fernando Vazquez, the owner of Mi Cielo restaurant, who hosted 67 students at the school’s first Senior Banquet. Mayor Vazquez, the son of immigrants, had spoken at our school’s Career Day, giving an an inspirational speech on his life and the importance of students striving for their dream. What I had learned being at this small school is to never underestimate how kind and generous people, the community, and local organizations are. People are good and really want to help.
Maybe the reason I came to Green Design is so that I can write about the about this little school that overcomes. The strength of this small school is personalized service they provide each student based on their needs both inside and outside the classroom. The people at Green Design passionately believe they can makes anything possible for their students, and this is what makes this the little school that could. Full STEAM ahead!