First New Eastside School In 80 Years Has A Lot to Live Up To

By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer

A new $106 million state-of-the-art school named for a couple who sued to end school segregation and discrimination in the 1940s and won, opened this week in the densely populated eastside neighborhood of Aliso Pico.

Located near the First Street Bridge and Mission Road in Boyle Heights, the Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center is the first school to be built on the eastside in more than 80 years, and the newest member of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

In a school district where a growing movement to give greater control of schools over to parents seems to be taking hold, Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez for whom the school is named may be the perfect role models for what can be accomplished when parents refuse to accept the status quo and get involved.

“I remember that my mother had braided my hair really pretty, I had a really pretty dress on, and we all went to school that day and were told we could not enter that school. It was very sad,” Felicitas and Gonzalo’s daughter Sylvia Mendez told EGP about the day in 1943 when she and her brothers Gonzalo Jr., and Jeronimo were turned away from an all-white school near their home in Westminster (Orange County) because it was segregated. She was in the third grade.

On Saturday, during the school’s grand opening, she told parents, students and educators that her parents fought the system and won. It took three long years, she said, but in 1946—eight years before Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed segregation nationwide—they won their lawsuit, Mendez vs. Westminister School District, and made history.

“Sometimes when you want something you have to fight and persevere for a long time,” said Mendez. “Our students who are dropping out of school should know that they have people like the Mendez’s, Estrada’s, Palomino’s, and Ramirez’s that have fought for them. And they have to know that their parents are also fighting for them to have the very best.”

Johanna Mendez-Lizardo, granddaughter of Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez, told the crowd that her grandparents were ordinary people “just like you and I,” and they too wanted a better life for their children.

“It took a lot of courage and perseverance on my grandparents part to fight the system against prejudice, injustice and segregation,” said Mendez-Lizardo. “They could have easily given up or felt intimidated, but they fought for their three children,” she said

Mendez-Lizardo told EGP that students need to know it is important to persevere and work hard no matter what obstacles arise.

“As you pass by this school or enter its gates, you must always remember the history that lies behind the name ‘Mendez,’ she said. “I hope that you will always remember and be proud of this important part of history which marked the very first time a Federal Court Judge in the United States ruled against racial segregation in public schools,” said Mendez-Lizardo. “May it always inspire you to do your best and to persevere no matter what obstacles you encounter, or what difficulties may lie ahead.”

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the school was the result of years of activism, and recalled the 1968 ‘walk-outs’ when students were demanding more resources, books, and facilities.

“Four decades later and we are still fighting because we believe our kids deserve the best education possible,” he said, speaking to parents in Spanish and stressing the importance of parent involvement.

Villaraigosa credited Councilman Jose Huizar (CD-14) who was Los Angeles Unified School District’s board president at the time, for his leadership and vision in making the school a reality.

“He said no way, we’re not building any more schools until we build a school for the eastside,” Villaraigosa said.
LAUSD School Board President Monica Garcia called Huizar’s vision for a small school environment “cutting edge.” She said his “amazing leadership” and community and parent dedication for the campus that will open on Sept. 9.

“I am very thrilled,” said Garcia to EGP, noting that the name Mendez embodies the “whole spirit of struggle and confidence in the possible.”

Garcia and Huizar said building a new high school in the area was a challenge because land was scarce and a new school would need to take homes and businesses.

“For years the district didn’t have the guts to make those difficult decisions,” Huizar told EGP, adding that eastside school facilities had been neglected for years.

The councilman said it took creativity to identify a site, but with help from the Housing Authority for the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), they were able to minimize the impact on the neighborhood.

One of the school complex’s two campuses will focus on math and science disciplines; the other on technology and engineering. Huizar hopes the math and science programs, as well as the proximity to public and private resources like the LA Department of Water and Power, Metro, and architectural firms located in downtown Los Angeles, will prepare students to take the high paying jobs of the future.

“In order to be high performing, these kids are going to need real life experiences and you get them by bringing the mentors here, sending these kids to do internships during the week and not waiting for the summer,” said Huizar. “Have them shadow people at their jobs—it’s that real life work experience that gives these kids an idea that ‘hey, I can do this.’”

He pointed out that in working class communities advanced math and science jobs seem abstract because many of the jobs held by parents tend to be blue collar.

Huizar told incoming freshman Rosalina Villarreal and her parents on Saturday that the biggest difference they will see is the individual attention she will receive. He told Rosalina that she will know all her teachers, administrators and school counselors and advised her to take her freshman year seriously, and start her high school career with a good Grade Point Average.

“A lot of what it takes to have success is simply ‘ganas’ and hard work—and by that I mean—have the will to do something and put in the time that it takes to get there,” Huizar told students and parents..

The two schools at the Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center are composed of four buildings with specialized classrooms for technology and science labs. Each school will have no more than 550 students. There is no senior class this year while the school goes under review for accreditation. The campus will also have wireless Internet, as well as a parent center, spaces for dance and drama classes, multi-purpose rooms, and outdoor physical education facilities.

But while Roosevelt has long had a reputation for being overcrowded and low graduation rates, not everyone is completely thrilled about leaving.

Alex Cividanis will be a sophomore at the technology and engineering campus this year. He and his mother, an alumnus of Roosevelt, had looked forward to him becoming a Roughrider.

“We’re going to miss Roosevelt. I wanted him to go to Roosevelt because all our family graduated from Roosevelt,” said his mother Maria Galindo.

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September 3, 2009  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


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