Beating the Odds: High School ‘Dropouts’ Earn Diploma At East LA Program Facing Big Cuts

By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer

While the 2011 season for pomp and circumstance has already wrapped up at Los Angeles area schools, not until last week did nearly three-dozen students at an East Los Angeles-based academy finally received their diplomas. It was a privilege they thought they forfeited when they dropped out of high school, and one which may not be available to as many students in the future due to federal funding cuts.

Thirty-three students graduated during the ceremony held at the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens. Fifty more students are expected to graduate in the winter. EGP photo by Gloria Angelina Castillo

Twenty-one-year-old Luz Avila struggled in high school. She attended Garfield High School, Garfield Adult school, another program, and then Cesar Chavez Continuation, but on July 14, she received her high school diploma through LA CAUSA YouthBuild, a non-profit organization and charter school she says allowed her to experience high school, go to grad night, volunteer; everything “without the drama,”

she said.

“I used to be scared to ask questions in class … I would get red because there’s — how many students in each class? Like 25-30 in one class and it’s all cramped, and you try to ask the teachers something but they explain it to you the way they explained it to everybody else,”

she told EGP.

The LA CAUSA YouthBuild program “was my second chance. I’m actually going to graduate on stage,”

she told EGP before the ceremony.

Sylvia Guerra, who earned straight A’

s, is another graduate. She was elected to student government and participated in leadership opportunities locally and in Sacramento during the intense nine-month program.

Both young women want to be nurses and say LA CAUSA helped put them on the track to achieve their dreams.

LA CAUSA YouthBuild students and executive director pose with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis during her visit to East Los Angeles last month. Labor Department has cut the program. (La Causa Youth Build)

Administered by the Inyo County Office of Education, the charter school accepts students ages 16 to 24 who have dropped out of high school. Students receive vocational training in environmentally friendly trades and take college courses with students who took the fast track from high school to college. The multi-faceted program also rehabilitates dilapidated homes and creates leaders out of men and women who accept the responsibility to improve their community, according to school staff.

LA CAUSA students will proudly tell you they’

ve created a garden at Humphreys Elementary School, promoted organic produce at a health fair in Atlantic Park, learned to install solar panels, spent time with seniors and have participated in mentoring opportunities.

They are also subject to random drug tests, receive bus-passes whenever needed, learn life-skills and anger management, get help paying for childcare, and even have a school-employee accompany them to court if they have a hearing. Some have Individualized Educational Plans, or IEPs.

Twenty-one-year-old Gabriela Diaz has a 4-month-old infant and says the program gave her the flexibility she needed to care for her daughter. Paula Yanez, LA CAUSA supportive services manager, said Diaz is fiercely motivated.

“I wasn’t a bad student. What messed me up was the overcrowding in the schools. … I got mad because they were trying to give me adult school classes when I didn’t even need them. I was on track with my credits and I didn’t think it was fair. I passed my CAHSEE, I didn’t take them here,”

Diaz said, saying a school counselor obstructed her ability to take a lab science class she needed.

Read this story IN SPANISH:  Recién Egresados Habían Abandonado sus Estudios 

While reforms are underway to improve Los Angeles area schools, these soon-to-be-graduates say they were pushed out years before the two new high schools on the eastside opened.

“We don’t feel like we dropped out, we feel like we were pushed out,” said Ramiro Godinez, 21, a former Roosevelt student. Godinez didn’t live near the campus and didn’

t always get there on time.

“One time the police gave me a ticket for being tardy. That’s when I felt like they went overboard,”

he said.

Twenty-year-old Luis Juarez, an East LA resident and former Garfield student, received his diploma last summer but still attends the campus for job training. This summer he began his second semester at ELAC.

“My teachers are very good here. They help you get your diploma, they get you into college, they help you apply for financial aid, they take their time to help you with your class work, whatever you need to do,”

he said about LA CAUSA.

LA CAUSA is located at TELACU’s Corporate Headquarters on East Olympic Blvd, where it has classrooms, construction space and offices all on one site. TELACU offers affordable rent, as well as professionals who volunteer to partner with students in the organization’

s mentoring program, according to LA CAUSA staff.

About 25 percent of LA CAUSA students have had some type of interaction with law enforcement or the courts, some are young parents, and the majority come from neighboring schools such as Garfield, Roosevelt, Wilson and Montebello.

“These are students with dreams and aspirations to succeed in life. They are talented and gifted and have much to offer their communities if they are given the opportunity,”

Yanez said.

Sylvia Guerra [left] and Renay Rodriguez [right] had the distinction of being the student speakers during the ceremony that included the Dolores Huerta as the key note speaker. EGP Photo by Gloria Angelina Castillo

During her graduation speech, Guerra thanked the LA CAUSA staff for helping her achieve her goal of graduating and not becoming a high school drop out statistic. Rodriguez said LA CAUSA helped her “prove my point that I am capable and deserve my damn diploma.”

However, LA CAUSA’s primary source of funding through the Department of Labor has been cut.

 Originally financed by the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, the program started with assistance from then Congresswoman Hilda Solis who provided space for the YouthBuild program at the Maravilla Service Center in 2003, according to Robert Zardeneta, executive director of LA CAUSA YouthBuild. Ironically, Solis is now the Secretary of Labor.

In May, over 120 YouthBuild programs across the country learned they had lost federal funding through Congressional budget cuts. The funding is administered by the Dept. of Labor’

s Employment and Training Administration (ETA), which awards grants directly to local sponsors of YouthBuild programs on a competitive basis.

The cuts come on top of cuts made in 2010.

Only 228 of the 273 YouthBuild programs in 45 states were funded for 2009 -2011. Only 107 will receive grants this time around, and only one is in LA County in El Monte, according to the National YouthBuild Coalition.

LA CAUSA, whose logo is a raised fist, is not taking things lying down and has joined YouthBuild USA’

s national effort to get cuts restored so the programs can continue to serve their respective communities, Zardeneta said.

If another funding source is not secured before the program’

s current funding runs out this summer, Zaedeneta says he may have no choice but to layoff five or six employees.

He said LA CAUSA takes pride in the fact that it “hires youth from within our own community,” and it breaks his heart that an organization that strives to give people the skills they need to be in the workforce “

could potentially put 5 to 6 residents out of work.

“It’s really hard not to feel like the rug is being pulled out from under us,”

Zardeneta said.
LA CAUSA YouthBuild is an outstanding example to other YouthBuild programs, according to Charles J. Clark, Vice President for Asset Development for YouthBuild USA.

“Unfortunately the reduction in the appropriations resulted in many excellent YouthBuild programs”

losing their funding, forcing them to come up with other sources of funding until they can compete for the 2012 YouthBuild grants, Clark told EGP.

While LA CAUSA has shared their model with other programs that have gone on to duplicate it in other parts of the country, legislators see it as an expenditure instead of an investment, Zardeneta said.

However, LA CAUSA is not ready to shut its doors, but hopes instead to enroll more students next year with money raised through the launch of a capital campaign being chaired by Emanuel Pleitez, a Stanford Alumni and East LA native who ran for Congress in 2009, said Zardeneta.

To learn more about LA CAUSA YouthBuild, or to participate in fundraising efforts, visit

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July 21, 2011  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


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