Through A City Education, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the opportunity gap and ending the dropout crisis.
On a cold Saturday morning in October, the smell of coffee and pan dulce filled the air while the Boyle Heights community in Los Angeles gathered at Mendez High School for the school's second annual College and Career Fair. Many Mendez students will be the first in their families to graduate from high school and attend college, but the school's focus on getting them there was evident in the fair’s slogan: "College is not a dream, it's a plan!" And, even though the fair took place on a Saturday, the City Year Los Angeles team showed up to help and offer our support. As college graduates ourselves, we are dedicated to passing on our passion for learning, and supporting that passion within the Boyle Heights community.
Indeed, creating a culture of college attendance is a key part of the learning experience at Mendez. Although the student body is predominantly low-income and the neighborhood is underserved, the kids are used to having clear goals and talking about ways to achieve them. Last year, Mendez increased graduation rates by 27 percent, the largest jump in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The school's intention is to help students and their families succeed well beyond high school graduation.
To that end, Mendez's community decided to immerse local students and their families in a day of planning so that they can begin to see the possibilities that are available for students after high school. The morning was full of workshops that were hosted by community leaders and volunteers. The workshops informed students and parents about financial aid, the FAFSA and DREAM Act, and college readiness. One session, entitled "College for Dreamers" educated attendees about the aid available to them even if they don't have immigration papers. To ensure full participation, all sessions were led in both Spanish and English.
I observed families engaging with the speakers and taking advantage of the participation of organizations like InnerCity Struggle, a local nonprofit that has spent the past 20 years working "with youth, families and community residents to promote safe, healthy and non-violent communities" on Los Angeles' Eastside. Success was hearing parents asking questions like "¿Como puede ayudar a mi hija?—How can I help my daughter?"
Following the workshops, students and their families were able to hear a panel of speakers talk about a variety of topics—ranging from student debt, to balancing academics and a social life—as well a range of careers, including law, government, art, and music. Students were able to ask the panelists questions like, "What was the most challenging part of attending the police academy?" The panelists delved into the good, bad, and ugly, and were open with the students about the challenges and rewards of their careers. In turn, the students appreciated the panelists' honesty and the chance to see that turning a dream into reality is possible.
The final (and my favorite) part of the day was the college fair. Mendez hosted recruiters from nearly 20 colleges and universities from all over the country. After a day full of preparedness and planning, the students were really ready to sink their teeth into the buffet of educational and career inspiration.
Together as a community, we are molding students' ideas of what is accessible to them, and more importantly, what is possible. As a City Year Los Angeles corps member, I personally take on this task with my students by challenging them to push beyond the obvious and to exceed expectations. I take every opportunity to investigate the inner workings of their young minds, fishing for the gems they keep hidden away under a hardened mask of defiance, so that they too can see their potential.
Educators must invest in their students with the same expectation of excellence we would want them to demand for themselves. The way the students at Mendez engaged in the college fair, and the dynamic conversations I saw them having about their futures, is proof that kids just need a chance to uncover the possibilities a college education can provide. I want life-long success for all my students—and I know they'll get there—but for now, I am serving them up with a can-do attitude to help them start believing in a dream a plan to succeed beyond high school.