Election Shakes Up Local Boards

November 5, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Incumbents on the Montebello City Council and the Montebello Unified School District were ousted from their seats Tuesday, according to semi-official elections results from the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/Election Division.

In the city of Montebello, Mayor Jack Hadjinian received the most votes – 1,695 – in the city council race that had two seats on the five-member council up for grabs.

Jack Hadjinian

Jack Hadjinian

Challenger Vanessa Delgado – a developer – received the second highest number of votes at 1,469, unseating incumbent Councilwoman Christina Cortez who received 1,122 votes.

Vanessa Delgado

Vanessa Delgado

Two out of five seats were also up for election in the MUSD school board, which represents schools in Bell Gardens, Commerce, Montebello and, parts of Monterey Park, East Los Angeles and Pico Rivera. Board President Edgar Cisneros will be returning to the dais, receiving 3,396 votes. Challenger Joanna Flores – a professor at East Los Angeles College – garnered 3,119 votes, enough to win her the second seat on the board.

Edgar Cisneros

Edgar Cisneros

Joanna Flores

Joanna Flores

Longtime board member David Vela was a distant third, receiving only 2,668 votes.

Montebello voters also had the opportunity to elect a new city treasurer and city clerk. None of the incumbents chose to seek office, leaving challengers to face off against each other.

In the race for City Treasurer, Charles Pell, a criminal prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice, passed the 50 percent mark with 2,061 of votes casts, beating out former councilwoman Rosie Vasquez. Pell is the son of MUSD’s Chief Financial Officer and former superintendent, Cleve Pell.

The city-clerk elect Irma Barajas received 1,614 votes, enough to beat out Christina Gonzales. Barajas is married to city councilman Art Barajas.

Most MUSD Students Fail to Meet New State Standards

September 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s only been a few weeks since students in the Montebello Unified School District returned to school, but standardized test results released last week show more than three quarters of them did not make the grade and are already falling behind.

According to the results from the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, (CASPP), fewer than 20 percent of MUSD students tested met the state standard for mathematics and less than a quarter met the standard for English Language and Literacy.

MUSD Deputy Superintendent Art Revueltas told EGP he believes students at the district are doing better academically than the test shows.

“This is the first administered test so there is a learning curve,” Revueltas said. He did acknowledge, however,  “We have our work cut out for us.”

The computerized test was administered to 3.2 million students statewide last spring to assess how well the Common Core curriculum has been implemented. Only students in grades three through eight and eleven were required to take the test.

Nearly 17,400 MUSD students took the new test, which replaced the previous Standardized Testing and Reporting program known as STAR. The results will serve as a starting point for each school district.

“All high schools and intermediate schools performed about the same, the big difference we saw was in the elementary schools,” said Revueltas, citing the district’s large number of English Language Learners for the lower English language scores.

“Bottom line the test is in English,” and getting students in the elementary grades to dominate the English language has to be a priority, he said.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said the new standards and test are challenging for schools to teach and for students to learn. Only nineteen percent of the students tested statewide met the math standard and only 28 percent met the standard for English.

Overall, only 13 percent of MUSD students tested met the state’s standard for math; 4 percent exceeded the standard and only 28 percent met the standard for English Language and Literacy while 6 percent exceeded the standard.

Even more alarming, close to half of all students tested, 43 percent, did not even come close to meeting English standards.

Unlike previous tests, education experts say the CASPP is supposed to test what a student has actually learned in the classroom and not just their test taking skills. It is intended to test a student’s critical thinking skills and how they apply what they’ve learned.

The test results showed MUSD students had trouble applying mathematical concepts and procedures, with more than 60% falling below the standard. In contrast, almost 50 percent of students were at or near the math standard that involved demonstrating ability to support mathematical conclusions.

Most students also struggled with demonstrating an understanding of literary and non-fiction texts and producing clear and purposeful writing. More students were close to meeting the standard or even exceeded in testing portions that covered investing, analyzing and presenting information and demonstrating effective communication skills.

“You can’t study or cram for this test,” acknowledged Revueltas when asked why MUSD students did so poorly in comparison to past testing measures.

“Our number one objective is to teach the new common core standard,” he said, recognizing the challenges ahead for the school district.

The common core state standards were developed in consultation with teachers and parents across the country and established what students need to learn but not how a teacher should teach. The focus is to teach critical thinking and problem-solving emphasizing the need to reason out the best answer during a test not memorize the correct response. It was implemented in the district two years ago.

“We can’t compare this test to the old test,” Revueltas told EGP. “This is our baseline, by next year you will see growth,” he assured.

When compared to their neighbors to the west, MUSD again came close but still performed worse than the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In the LAUSD, 16 percent of students met the mathematics standard and 23 percent met the state standard for English.

Of the grades tested at MUSD, a higher percentage of students in the eleventh grade met the English standards compared to students at elementary and intermediate schools. Only 14 percent of third and fourth graders met the English standards compared to 34 percent of 11 graders who did.

Third graders, however, performed higher on the math portion of the assessment than other grade levels.

Some critics of the new test were worried that tests scores would be affected by switching from pencil and paper to a digital exam, but Revueltas says he had an “Ah-Ha” moment when he visited classrooms during the testing.

‘There was no disconnect, the kids were engaged,” he said.

Starting in 2016, the new API formula will be calculated using the new test results. Sixty percent of the API score will be linked to the assessment while 40 percent will be based on graduation rates, a-g courses and other indicators of a student’s college and career readiness.

“We’re happy we started and got the first test out of the way,” said Revueltas. “This is our baseline and we now have our target.”


Information from City News Service was used in this report.

Reading In Two Languages Is Fun

September 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

During back to school night last week, students at La Merced and Winter Gardens Elementary schools received free bilingual books to promote reading in English and Spanish.

Read Conmigo, a nationally award winning literacy program donated the easy to read bilingual books to the two Montebello Unified School District schools.

“These books are powerful tools in the pursuit of bilingualism and are right in line with our goal to promote diversity and academic excellence in both English and Spanish,” said MUSD Board President Edgar Cisneros.

The two school sites are home to the district’s Dual Language Immersion Programs.

The giveaways are part of Read Conmigo’s mission to combat the “summer slide,” an academic loss children experience during summer break.

Parents at the event were also encouraged to register to receive a new book every four months. Some of the books students took home included “Matteo and His Abuelito/Matteo Y Su Abuelito,’ written by Manuel Martinez and Erika Perret-Martinez with illustrations by Salomon Duarte.

“These books expose students to literacy in both languages and promotes bilingualism and effective communication,” Erika Garcia, parent of a second-grader at La Merced, said.

“I like that both languages are in the same book because some students don’t know English, but can still read in Spanish,” added Kenneth Perez, a third grader.

Candidatos de MUSD Hablan Sobre Desempeño Académico de Estudiantes

September 3, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Estudiantes del Distrito Unificado de Montebello han regresado a la escuela y los candidatos para dos puestos en la Junta de Educación dicen que quieren asegurarse que los estudiantes esten en camino a ingresar a la universidad o con una carrera después de la graduación.

A través de los años, el distrito escolar predominantemente latino, ha hecho grandes avances en la mejora de la tasa de graduación, que de acuerdo con el Departamento de Educación de California se sitúa actualmente en el 94 por ciento.

Read this article in English: MUSD Candidates Take on Student Performance

“Es el más alto en años”, cuenta David Vela, miembro de la Junta quien está postulándose a la reelección.

Vela y el presidente de la Junta, Edgar Cisneros, se enfrentarán entre si y ante sus retadores Joanna Flores de Commerce y Nancy Hernández de Montebello en las elecciones del 3 de noviembre. La junta de MUSD supervisa diecisiete primarias, seis escuelas intermedias, cinco preparatorias y dos escuelas de continuación en Bell Gardens, Commerce,  Este de Los Ángeles, Montebello, Monterey Park y Pico Rivera.

El Distrito une sus números de graduación a su baja tasa de abandono del 1.4%: Ambos el condado y el estado tienen las tasas de abandono de más del 3%, mientras que cerca de tres veces más estudiantes abandonan el distrito vecino de MUSD al oeste, el Distrito Unificado de Los Angeles.

Pero Flores dice que las tasas de graduación no cuentan toda la historia. Ella dice que las mediciones académicas muestran que demasiados estudiantes todavía se están quedando atrás.

“Cuando comparamos el Distrito con otros en el estado nos quedamos cortos”, dijo la oponente para un asiento en la Junta.


Estudiantes del Distrito Escolar Unificado de Montebello utilizan computadoras para tomar sus exámenes. (Archivo de EGP)

Estudiantes del Distrito Escolar Unificado de Montebello utilizan computadoras para tomar sus exámenes. (Archivo de EGP)

De acuerdo con datos del estado, sólo dos de 17 escuelas primarias de MUSD han alcanzado la meta estatal de 800 en el Índice de Rendimiento Académico API: Montebello Gardens y Potrero Heights. Macy Intermediate es la única escuela media para llegar a la meta, pero ninguna preparatoria ha alcanzado la puntuación de 800 en la evaluación orientada a medir el rendimiento y progreso académico de las escuelas públicas.

Mientras que los candidatos de la junta escolar pueden sacar resultados de exámenes pasados para incrementar su posición, el sub-superintendente Art Revueltas le dijo a EGP que los resultados de API son una cosa del pasado. El año pasado estudiantes fueron introducidos al Consorcio de Asesoramiento Balanceado Inteligente (SBAC). El nuevo examen es diferente a los anteriores de lápiz y papel, ahora los estudiantes toman un examen en computadora que incluye secciones de respuestas largas sin límite de tiempo; los estudiantes incluso están permitidos a tomar el examen por segunda vez.

“Es imperativo que no comparemos estos resultados con cualquier otra cosa”, dijo. “Vamos de naranjas a manzanas”.

Los resultados de SBAC aún no se han revelado, pero Revueltas dijo que espera que los estudiantes obtengan buenos resultados porque SBAC pondrá “a prueba lo que los maestros enseñan en el aula”.

Sin embargo, es difícil alejarse del uso de los datos de prueba en la evaluación de desempeño, Por ejemplo, de los 2,114 estudiantes que se graduaron el año pasado, sólo 583 se inscribieron en los cursos A-G requeridos para las admisiones de Cal State y la Universidad de California.

Vela dice que los miembros de la Junta están conscientes de la desigualdad y han adoptado iniciativas innovadoras para mejorar la situación, como por ejemplo las 10 vías curriculares ofrecidas en todo el Distrito.

A través de las vías, los estudiantes toman los rigurosos cursos A-G destinados a prepararlos para la universidad y una carrera, como ingeniería, artes culinarias, computación  o  salud.

Todavía no está claro cuántos de estos estudiantes llegan a algún tipo de universidad después de la graduación.

Flores, profesora en el Colegio del Este Los Ángeles, cree que la participación de los padres es clave para el éxito del estudiante. Ella quiere que el distrito escolar este más comprometido con los padres y les dé un papel de liderazgo para lograr que los estudiantes de MUSD estén preparados para la universidad.

“Como primera generación graduada de la universidad, sé lo difícil que es tratar de navegar a través del proceso de la universidad”, dijo Flores.

Vela está de acuerdo y dice que el Distrito ha iniciado programas para ayudar a los estudiantes a entrar a la universidad. Señala la colaboración de MUSD con la organización no lucrativa College Bound Today, que se ofrece en todas las preparatorias y empata a un número selecto de estudiantes con mentores para guiarlos a través del proceso de solicitud de la universidad. El año pasado, el 100 por ciento de los estudiantes en el programa se matriculó en la universidad, dijo Vela.

Según Revueltas, el 80 por ciento de los graduados de MUSD terminan una carrera de 2 o 4 años. Un 2 por ciento adicional se enlista en el ejército.

Los datos muestran que, incluso aquellos en la universidad tienen problemas. Durante el año académico 2013-2014, poco más de 1,500 de los más de 10,000 estudiantes de MUSD tomaron exámenes de nivel avanzado. Para la mayoría de las universidades se requiere una puntuación de 3 para recibir crédito por el curso de la universidad, pero muchas universidades sólo aceptan las puntuaciones de 4 y 5.

Ese año, sólo 363 estudiantes que tomaron el examen recibieron una puntuación de 4 y apenas 158 recibieron una puntuación de 5. El problema, sin embargo, no es exclusivo de MUSD: Alrededor del 15 por ciento de estudiantes de preparatoria de los grados 9 a 12 del LAUSD inscritos en cursos AP sólo obtienen una puntuación de 3 o menos, según el Departamento de Educación.

La desconexión se puede encontrar en la demografía socioeconómica del alumnado, de acuerdo con Flores. De los 29,000 alumnos matriculados en el Distrito, casi el 96 por ciento son latinos y casi el 87 por ciento califican para comidas gratis o a precio reducido, debido a los bajos ingresos familiares.

Para Cisneros, la tecnología puede ser un gran ecualizador. Dijo que MUSD está haciendo que los estudiantes sean más competitivos mediante la mejora de su acceso a la tecnología y la modernización de la infraestructura.

“Yo quiero que tengan acceso a la tecnología que se va a utilizar en el mundo real”, dijo.

“Quiero ver clubes de computadoras, robótica y tecnología en cada escuela”, dijo con entusiasmo.

Los costos, sin embargo, a menudo pueden ser un obstáculo para la velocidad y la calidad de la ejecución de esos programas.

Asegurarse que las escuelas están cumpliendo con las normas fundamentales comunes, requerir a los distritos que estén tecnológicamente listos ha sido un reto incluso para los vecinos al oeste de MUSD, señala Vela.

El último Plan de Responsabilidad de Control Local (LCAP), que distribuye fondos adicionales para las escuelas con gran número de estudiantes de bajos ingresos, los estudiantes aprendices de inglés (EL) y los niños de crianza será de vital importancia en la aplicación de la tecnología en las aulas, dijo Vela. La fórmula de financiación revisada tiene como objetivo reducir la brecha de logros en las escuelas de más pobre rendimiento.

Alrededor de un tercio de los estudiantes de MUSD son estudiantes aprendices de inglés, un número mayor que en el LAUSD.

En el distrito escolar de Montebello, cerca del 98 por ciento de los estudiantes aprendices de inglés hablan español. Otras lenguas incluyen cantonés, armenio, vietnamita, mandarín y una docena más. El año pasado, el 9 por ciento de los estudiantes aprendices de inglés fueron reclasificados como Dominantes Fluidos del Inglés, la mayoría de ellos para el tercer grado, dijo Revueltas.

Revueltas señala sin embargo que el número de estudiantes aprendices de inglés está disminuyendo debido a un menor número de inmigrantes que se están mudando al Distrito.

Mantener financiación LCAP dependerá de la asistencia, algo que mejoró el año pasado, pero sigue siendo un reto para el tercer distrito escolar más grande del condado de Los Ángeles, reconoció Cisneros.

Revueltas dijo que la disponibilidad de fondos LCAP permite tener clases con tamaños más pequeños en las escuelas primarias, guarderías de día completo y mejorar el acceso a la tecnología en todo el distrito.

“Cada año el reto es algo diferente, pero la prioridad es siempre el rendimiento estudiantil”, dijo Revueltas.

Con la elección de la Junta Escolar a sólo dos meses de distancia, titulares y aspirantes deben comenzar los detalles de sus planes para lograr ese objetivo.

Nancy Hernández no respondió a la petición de EGP para hacer comentarios.


Twitter @nancyreporting


MUSD Candidates Take on Student Performance

September 3, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Montebello Unified students have returned to school and candidates running for two seats on the Board of Education say they want to make sure students are on track for college admission or a career beyond graduation.

Over the years, the predominately Latino school district has made great strides in improving its graduation rate, which according to the California Department of Education currently stands at 94 percent.

“It’s the highest it’s been in years,” boasts Boardmember David Vela, who is up for reelection.

Vela and Board President Edgar Cisneros will face off against each other and outside challengers Joanna Flores of Commerce and Nancy Hernandez of Montebello in the Nov. 3 Election. The MUSD board oversees seventeen elementary, six intermediate and five high schools as well as two continuation or day schools in Bell Gardens, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Montebello, Monterey Park and Pico Rivera.

The District ties its graduation numbers to its low 1.4% drop out rate: Both the county and state have drop out rates of over 3%, while nearly three times as many students drop out of MUSD’s neighbor to the west, L.A. Unified.

But Flores says graduation rates don’t tell the whole story. She says academic measurements show too many students are still falling behind.

“When we compare the District to others across the state we fall short,” the school board challenger said.

According to state data, only two of MUSD’s 17 elementary schools have reached the state goal of 800 on the API Academic Performance Index: Montebello Gardens and Portrero Heights. Macy Intermediate is the only middle school to reach the goal but no high school has achieved the 800 score on the assessment aimed at measuring the academic performance and progress of public schools.

While school board candidates may pull out past test results to bolster their positions, Deputy Superintendent Art Revueltas told EGP API scores are a thing of the past. Last year students were introduced to Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests. The news exams differ from the pencil and paper tests in years past, now students are taking a computer-based exam that includes long answer sections without a time limit; students are even allowed to retake the test.

“It’s imperative we don’t compare these results to anything else,” he said. “We’re going from oranges to apples.”

SBAC results have not yet been released but Revueltas said he expects students will perform better because SBAC will “test what teachers teach in the classroom.”

It’s hard to get away from using test data when evaluating performance, however.

For example, of the 2,114 students who graduated last year, only 583 were enrolled in A-G courses required for Cal State and University of California admissions.

Vela says board members are aware of the disparity and have adopted innovative initiatives to improve the situation, such as the 10 curriculum pathways offered across the District.

Through the pathways, students take rigorous A-G approved courses aimed at preparing them for college and a career, such as engineering, culinary arts, computer graphics or health.

It’s not yet clear how many pathway students go on to some type of college after graduation.

Flores, a professor at East Los Angeles College, believes parent engagement is key to student success. She wants the school district to become more engaged with parents and to give them a leadership role in getting MUSD students college-ready.

“As a first generation college graduate, I know how difficult it is trying to navigate through the college process,” Flores said.

Vela agrees and says the District has initiated programs to help students get into college. He points to MUSD’s collaboration with the non-profit College Bound Today, which is offered at all high schools and matches a select number of students to mentors to guide them through the college application process. Last year, 100 percent of the students in the program enrolled in college, Vela said.

According to Revueltas 80 percent of MUSD graduates end up at either a 2-year or 4-year college. An additional 2 percent enlist in the military.

The data show that even those on the college track struggle. During the 2013-2014 academic year, just over 1,500 of over 10,000 MUSD high students took Advanced Placement exams. For most colleges a score of 3 is required to receive college course credit but many universities only accept scores of 4 and 5.

That year, only 363 students tested received a score of 4 and a mere 158 received a score of 5. The problem, however, is not unique to MUSD: About 15 percent of LAUSD’s 9-12 high school students enrolled in AP courses only to obtain a score of 3 or below, according to the Department of Education.

The disconnect can be found in the socio-economic demographics of the student body, according to Flores. Of the 29,000 students enrolled in the District, nearly 96 percent are Latino and nearly 87 percent qualify for free or reduced meals due to low family incomes.

For Cisneros, technology can be a great equalizer. He said MUSD is making students more competitive and marketable by improving their access to technology and modernizing infrastructure.

“I want them to have access to technology they are going to be using in the real world,” he said. “I want to see computer, robotics and technology clubs at every campus,” he said enthusiastically.

Costs, however, can often be a deterrent to the speed and quality of implementing such programs.

Ensuring schools are meeting common core standards, requiring districts to be technology ready has been a challenge even for MUSD’s neighbors to the west, Vela points out.

The latest Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), which distributes additional funding to schools with large number of low-income students, English Learners, EL, and foster children will be vital in implementing technology in the classrooms, said Vela. The revised funding formula is aimed at reducing the achievement gap at poorer performing schools.

About one third of MUSD students are English learners, a number higher than in LAUSD.

In the Montebello school district, nearly 98 percent of English learners speak Spanish. Other languages include Cantonese, Armenian, Vietnamese, Mandarin and a dozen more. Last year, 9 percent of English learners were reclassified as Fluent English Proficient, most of them by third grade, said Revueltas.

Revueltas points out however that the number of English learners is decreasing because fewer immigrants are moving into the District.

Keeping LCAP funding will depend on attendance, something that improved last year but remains a challenge for L.A. County’s third largest school district, acknowledged Cisneros.

Revueltas said the availability of LCAP funds allow for smaller class sizes at elementary schools, full day kindergarten and improve access to technology district-wide.

“Every year the challenge is something different but the priority is always student achievement,” Revueltas said.

With the school board election just two months away, incumbents and challengers should start to detail their plans to achieve that goal.

Nancy Hernandez did not respond to EGP’s request for comment.

MUSD Students Head Back To School

August 27, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Nearly 65,000 students in the Montebello Unified School District said goodbye to summer and hello to the new school year this week.

Students from transitional kindergarten to adult school returned to classrooms equipped with backpacks and pencils. This year, transitional and full-day kindergarten will be offered at all 17 elementary schools in the district, which stretches across Bell Gardens, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Montebello, Monterey Park and Pico Rivera.

Students at Washington Elementary in Montebello can’t hide their eager smiles during their first day of school Monday.   (Montebello Unified School District)

Students at Washington Elementary in Montebello can’t hide their eager smiles during their first day of school Monday. (Montebello Unified School District)

“We are extremely excited to offer rigorous and engaging programs this year for our entire District community of students,” said MUSD Board President Edgar Cisneros, who Monday welcomed parents and students back to school at Washington Elementary.

Montebello Unified Realigns Top Posts

July 9, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

After years with co-superintendents, the Montebello Unified School District has returned to its previous administrative structure with just one superintendent at the helm.

The school board voted June 25 to promote Susanna Contreras-Smith to the top post of Superintendent of Schools effective July 1. Contreras-Smith has served as superintendent of education since 2013; Co-Superintendent Cleve Pell will now serve as the District’s new chief financial and operations officer.

MUSD created the dual superintendent positions in 2011 both as a cost saving measure and to give the school board more time to conduct a national search when Edward Velazquez left to become superintendent of the Lynwood School District. Long-time district administrators Cleve Pell and Robert Henke were made official co-superintendents for a term that was to run through August 2012. Each was given a $25,000 pay boost, the combined amount substantially less than what a new superintendent would have cost MUSD.

(Montebello Unified School District)

Susanna Contreras Smith, was promoted June 25 to Superintendent of Schools at Montebello Unified School District. (Montebello Unified School District)

“Our District is under great leadership and in qualified hands with both Cleve Pell and Robert Henke. Between these two; they have nearly 80 years of experience working within the Montebello Unified School District,” said then-MUSD Board President, David Vela. He added the District would save “about $15,000 a month by tapping into the talent we already have” while the nationwide search for a permanent superintendent is underway.

But the position was not filled until now.

Contreras-Smith started her career in education more than 40 years ago at MUSD as an instructional aid, going on to become a teacher, principal and take on other leadership roles. She returned to MUSD in 2012 as associate superintendent of accountability and compliance, later replacing Henke as co-superintendent when he retired.

“With more than 40 years of experience – both in the classroom and as an administrator – I cannot think of anyone more capable and well suited for this position,” Pell said.

With the changes to district budgets with the LCAP (Local Control Funding and Accountability Plan) and LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula), Pell’s new position was created to shift his focus on the district’s long term fiscal planning, according to district officials.

Born and raised in Boyle Heights Contreras-Smith previously told EGP that despite having opportunities elsewhere she decided to return to MUSD to give back to the community where she grew up.

“I will continue to work collaboratively with parents, teachers, staff and our community partners to ensure all students have access to a stellar 21st century education,” Contreras-Smith said.



Mental Health Awareness Coming to Montebello Schools

May 18, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

Social workers at all four high schools in the Montebello Unified School District will conduct interactive activities next week to teach students techniques aimed at releasing tension, coping with stress and providing information about the various peer-support groups on campus.

The programs have been scheduled to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month.

Christine Mariano, a social worker at Vail Continuation High School in Montebello, says the district wants to reduce the negative stigma tied to accessing mental health services.

“Mental health comes in all shapes and forms” and not everyone readily recognizes the signs, Mariano said Tuesday.

Students often believe they only need to speak to a social worker or counselor if they are “crazy,” Mariano explained, adding she’s seen it all.

Vail High School student Jorge Leal speaks about his day with on-site social worker Christine Mariano.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Vail High School student Jorge Leal speaks about his day with on-site social worker Christine Mariano. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

“Yes there’s schizophrenia, yes there’s bipolar or suicide,” but these illnesses start with other feelings before that, she said. That’s “why we’re here,” to be proactive, she said.

The National Institution of Mental Health reports that about 8 percent of teens ages 13 to 18 have an anxiety disorder, however, only 18 percent of the teens received mental health care.

According to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General, “Early and effective mental health treatment can prevent a significant proportion of delinquent and violent youth from future violence and crime.”

“It also enables children and adolescents to succeed in school, to develop socially and to fully experience the developmental opportunities of childhood,” the report states.

Many students experience low self-esteem, depression, aggression or anxiety, but don’t understand how those feelings relate to mental health, says Mariano, who has also helped students deal with the loss of a loved one.

These problems are especially prevalent at Vail High, a continuation school whose 400 or so students were referred by their home school because they were at-risk of not graduating on time.

“We want them not to be ashamed… everyone deals with anxiety,” said Mariano. For students, feelings of anxiety can be triggered by a romantic breakup, speaking in public, a traumatic experience, school workload, troubles at home or with social situations.

For 17-year old Jorge Leal, who learned earlier this year he would soon be a teen father, the support he has received from Mariano has helped him adjust to the big changes coming in his life. He told EGP he thought he was handling his emotions well, but soon realized the benefit of having someone to talk to about his situation.

“I like to deal with my problems on my own, but I know she is there if I need her,” Leal said about Mariano.

He admits he was at first confused when his guidance counselor recommended he speak to the school’s social worker, not having any idea what that meant or what would be involved.

“I thought it was psychological, with testing involved,” the teen said. “I wondered if they thought something was wrong” with me.

But that wasn’t the case, he said.

According to Leal, he’s never been in trouble for fighting at school, but he decided to join a peer-group focused on dealing with aggression as a way to help him prepare for his new role as a father.

“They taught me techniques I can apply to my life, ways to manage anger,” he explained.

It took time, but Leal says he eventually came to see the peer-group and Mariano as resources to help him deal with the anxiety and stress he would have otherwise tried to deal with on his own, but perhaps not as successfully.

According to Mariano, the school and her goal is to help students deal with their issues, large and small, “so they don’t resort to something negative,” like drugs, drinking, getting into fights, or hurting themselves, she said.

Next week, as part of MUSD’s focus on Mental Health Awareness Month, some district students will be given a stress ball and taught breathing and muscle relaxation techniques to help them cope with the stress in their lives.

Having an outlet to vent and taking the time to relieve tension allows students to acknowledge and address their emotions, according to Mariano.

“It’s okay to have feelings,” she explained. “We just want to teach them the skills to cope with them.”

Something’s Cooking at MUSD High School

April 30, 2015 by · 2 Comments 

When the third period bell rings at the Applied Technology Center in Montebello, students like Jeeb Gonzalez get to work chopping vegetables, measuring ingredients, plating appetizers and cooking everything from breakfast burritos to fried chicken in the school’s state-of-the-art kitchen.

The pleasing aromas from their culinary creations fill the air, sparking pangs of hunger in anyone nearby.

But food is not the only thing students in ATC’s Culinary, Hospitality, and Educational Foundations (CHEF) pathway have been cooking up.

For the last couple of months, the students have been busily planning for the grand opening of their very own, on campus student-run bistro.

Bistro XV, named for the year of the school’s first graduating class, formally opened Wednesday with a special ribbon-cutting ceremony at the café where school staff and visitors can now buy breakfast and lunch meals prepared entirely by students.

Students at the Applied Technology Center chop and prepare ingredients for their student-run bistro.  (Montebello Unified School District)

Students at the Applied Technology Center chop and prepare ingredients for their student-run bistro. (Montebello Unified School District)

“These students are doing everything you would be doing in a bonafide restaurant,” said ATC Principal Sterling Schubert.

Not only do they do the cooking, they also take care of all the details that go into running a restaurant, according to Schubert.

We never dreamed we would one day be serving the food we cook to paying customers, Senior Kimberly Moran, the bistro’s business manager told EGP

Students said they had been pushing school administrators to let them open a restaurant on campus since 2011, when the program first started.

“Now, we finally get to open and serve people,” Moran said excitedly.

“Now you get to see how passionate we are: You get to see how much effort and love we put into every order,” she said.

Moran may only be 17-years-old but she has all the same responsibilities an adult restaurant manager would have, including overseeing the not-for-profit student-led enterprise’s finances.

Similarly, Executive Chef Jose Cruz and Gonzalez, who serves as sous chef, oversee work in the kitchen, making sure all food orders are up to their standard before they go out to the customer.

As a group, the class discusses the restaurant’s budget, taking into consideration the cost of ingredients before placing orders and developing the Bistro’s menu.

This is nothing like what a typical high school student does, explained Cruz. “I don’t think you can describe the experience,” he said.

Students in ATC’s CHEF pathway attend class in a multi-million dollar kitchen referred to as the “teaching lab.” The equipment they use is of the same quality and caliber found in some top commercial kitchens, says Debbie B. Silveira, an instructor in the culinary arts program.

The goal is for the bistro to eventually be self-sustaining so that it does not have to rely on what it can get from the school’s budget, Schubert said.

The bistro — which currently serves chilaquiles, huevos rancheros and even nopales — has its own separate entrance that allows visitors to enter from the street rather than having to go through the school.

The CHEF pathway is one of four comprehensive, pathways offered at the small school that closely mirrors college and careers. About 160 of the school’s 650 students are in the program. ATC’s instructional approach is project-based learning that requires critical thinking, communication and working as a team. The classes are taught by instructors who have experience in their respective fields.

ATC students in the Culinary Hospitality Foundations Pathway have class in a state of the art kitchen.  (Courtesy of Sterling Schubert)

ATC students in the Culinary Hospitality Foundations Pathway have class in a state of the art kitchen. (Courtesy of Sterling Schubert)

Students working at Bistro XV “are licensed to prepare and serve food to the public,” said Silveira, explaining the students passed the tests required to receive a California Food Handler Card.

The students have also catered events throughout the District as well as a teacher’s wedding.

Gonzalez told EGP that one of his best times in the program came two years ago when the students were given the opportunity to cater a UCLA event at the Rose Bowl. That’s when he decided to pursue a career in culinary arts, Gonzalez said.

“How many high school students do you know have been to the Rose Bowl and catered an event there,” chimed in Cruz, his face beaming with pride.

“We’re high school students, but we have the [same] real world experience of someone in college.”

Bistro XV is open 9:50-10:10am and 12:10-12:45p.m. Tuesday and Thursdays. ATC is located at 1200 W. Mines Ave. 

Schurr High Student Wins National Poetry Award

April 30, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

A Montebello high school student has joined an elite group of poets from across the country, wining national recognition in a contest that drew over 300,000 entries.

Roberto Miranda may only be a junior at Schurr High School, but the young poet has the heart of an old soul, according to the announcement from the Montebello Unified School District.

Miranda’s poem “Gatherings” demonstrates a perspective beyond his years, earning him a Silver Medal in the prestigious 2015 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

Out of the 300,000 submissions, only the top one percent is honored for exceptional achievement, according the District.

“Every student at Montebello is encouraged to think critically and creatively – both within the classroom and about their future,” Montebello Unified Board President Edgar Cisneros said. “We are so proud of Robert for this impressive accomplishment and for being a stellar example of how greatly we value the arts and its capacity to pave the way for bright futures for our students.”

The selection by the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers in New York puts the 16-year-old Miranda in an esteemed group of past award winners such as documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, “Girls” creator Lena Dunham and author Sylvia Plath.

An “avid reader” since the eighth grade, Miranda draws upon an eclectic range of scholarly influences from British playwright Oscar Wilde to American surgeon and essayist Dr. Richard Selzer.

“What I like about Selzer is the lyrical quality of the language,” Miranda said. “It’s poetry in prose and beautiful writing.”

Under the tutelage of English instructor Betty Harbison, a 27-year teacher at the school and founder and sponsor for the campus writer’s group, Spartans of the Plume, Miranda’s writing flourished. “I’m the one dashing off to the post office moments before the deadline,” Harbison said. “It is well worth it. We have so many talented writers.”

In 2014, Miranda’s entry for the National PTA Reflections Arts Program advanced to the state level, he also garnered plaudits in the annual Creative Communications Poetry Contest. Previously, “Gatherings” won a Gold Key for poetry in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards regional level, while his short story “A Requiem” – a harrowing piece about a man with terminal cancer more concerned with his ailing mother – took a Silver Key.

“I’m only starting to realize the implications of winning this award,” Miranda said. “I feel humbled because I didn’t expect my poem to go this far.”

Miranda is the opinion editor for his school newspaper Spartan Scroll and his latest piece advocates the return of teaching cursive writing.

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