How a Blue Ribbon high school in downtown LA is daring its low-income Latino students to dream bigger — and guiding 87 percent of them into four-year colleges
Esmeralda Fabián Romero | January 29, 2018
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*Updated Feb. 7
Jesús González Saucedo’s parents knew that even though he was born with a cleft palate that made it hard for him to speak, he could develop his potential and rise above the life they could offer him as street vendors. They just had to find the right school.
“They had to sell food in the street, and every Saturday and Sunday I’d go help my parents,” Jesús said. “As I got older, I was able to understand why we were chased by cops and my dad was arrested by cops or why the cops would throw away my mom’s food cart. But seeing that as a little kid was traumatizing.”
His parents knew his fears, and they knew kids with disabilities can be bullied. They wanted a school with teachers who would hear his struggles and give him the right support. That’s what they found at Alliance Dr. Olga Mohan High School.
“I was able to find comfort and the support I needed from an environment where people understand me and took care of me so I was able to focus on learning. I felt since the beginning that I was more than the kid with a cleft palate problem,” Jesús said. “My parents realized that at a small school like Mohan, I was going to have that extra support that could make the difference.”
Mohan High School, an independent charter school serving 450 students near downtown Los Angeles, was one of two high schools in LA awarded the 2017 National Blue Ribbon Award, which recognizes schools with exemplary academic success or significant progress in closing the achievement gap for low-income and minority students.
Its student body is 99 percent Latino and 95 percent low-income. Of Mohan’s 2016 graduating class, 99 percent graduated, and 87 percent were accepted to four-year colleges, including Jesús. Mohan is ranked in the top 1 percent of high schools nationwide by U.S. News & World Report and among the top 25 “Most Transformative” high schools in the nation by Newsweek.
“It’s not an easy job, but we think our students deserve the best,” said Loreen Riley, who has been Mohan’s principal for the last five years and started as a teacher when the school opened in 2006.
Neighboring high schools with similar demographics have lower 2016 graduation rates and test scores. At LA Unified’s Santee Education Complex, 82 percent of Latinos graduated, and 78 percent did at West Adams Preparatory High, according to the California School Dashboard data released in fall 2017.
On the 2017 CAASPP exam, 79 percent of Mohan’s 11th-graders scored proficient in English — an 18-point jump from two years earlier — and 59 percent were proficient in math. At Santee, 61 percent were proficient in English and 16 percent in math. Less than 32 percent at West Adams were proficient in English and 17 percent were in math.
But for Jesús, Mohan has been more than a school with “good numbers.”
“When we talk about greatness, we tend to look at numbers. We try to focus on quantitative data that pretty much paints a big picture of why a school is great, but there are other factors that simply can’t be quantified,” he said. “I think at Mohan, as much as they have success with numbers, (they have) the same success in building a community.”
An important part of Mohan’s success is helping teachers build positive relationships with students and their parents, Riley said. “As educators, we should constantly know who our students are and constantly be involved in trying to have strong relationships with them.”
Like Jesús, the majority of students at Mohan have strong relationships with their teachers and counselors who understand their needs. “That’s what breaks us from the mold from other traditional schools,” Riley said.
Mohan has a large number of immigrant families, so teachers and counselors facilitate open discussions to hear their concerns. Frequent events include breakfast with the principal for students and coffee with the principal for parents, and the students invite their teachers to potluck dinners.
“Over the last year, the fear of deportation and separation of families has been more prominent than in the past, so it has become even more important now to hear the struggles they have and how we can better support them as a school,” Riley said.
Jesús’s parents worried that trauma from watching how they had been treated by police would cause him to struggle socially, and that teachers would underestimate his potential because of his speech impediment, so they sought a smaller school where he could receive emotional support on top of a good education.
“I see how my cousins or people in my neighborhood continue living in that culture of fear and not exploring opportunities outside. My parents realized that at a small school like Mohan I was going to have that extra support they couldn’t provide for me and my siblings to have different, better life expectations,” Jesús said.
“The majority of our students are Hispanic, and a small student population are African-Americans, underserved and socially and economically disadvantaged coming from traditional schools that may have not been able to meet their needs as we do here at Mohan,” Riley said.
“I personally like to share some stories of students so we all can remember where these students specifically come from. I think it’s important for me, and everyone else on my campus, to remember that these students come from families that struggle, so we can better serve them.”
INVEST IN TEACHERS AND COUNSELORS
Mohan’s goal is “to find the best teachers, the best educators,” said Riley, but serving a high-needs student population requires more than excellent teaching skills. The right teachers for Mohan are the ones who “understand the kind of students we serve,” she said. “Not only do we find the best teachers, but we train them to be effective inside and outside of the classroom.”
Teachers receive weekly professional development and feedback from in-class observations, which can lead to additional training. “There’s a lot of investment specifically to support our teachers to be the best they can be,” Riley said.
Jesús said his teachers encouraged him to participate in extracurricular programs such as the Alliance District Junior Statesmen of America (JSA) and the LAPD Cadet youth program.
“Not many students have that space to harbor that confidence to speak about the issues that affect them, but I did have that at Mohan,” he said, adding he wants to work in politics when he graduates from college.
In the LAPD Cadet youth program, he learned about topics like ethics and morality, finance, and health. But Jesús’s goal was to overcome the fear he developed toward the police after his parents’ experiences selling food on the street.
“There is a culture of fear in immigrant communities,” said Jesús, who since he was 6 years old has helped his parents on weekends sell elotes and hot dogs on streets near downtown Los Angeles. “I remember my mom being so scared of police that she didn’t want me to join because of the many years we felt criminalized for selling in the street, but thanks to the program I have been able to change my family’s mindset.”
It was through the JSA program that he was able to tell his story about growing up as the son of street vendors. He collaborated with other Alliance chapters to distribute a survey to more than 700 urban high school students about street vending and whether it should be made legal, which the City of Los Angeles was considering.
He then co-authored a 15-page report analyzing the survey data and presented it along with his personal testimony a year ago to the Los Angeles City Council, before it voted unanimously to decriminalize street vending. That helped him win a JSA scholarship, which allowed him to study speech and political communications at Stanford University over the summer.
Excellent college counselors are another strategic investment at Mohan, Riley said.
“Our counselors are really involved in ensuring that our students get to college. It’s not just about saying we’re going to get to colleges,” Riley said.
Jesús said the counselors in Alliance’s College Success program and his teachers’ support made college possible for him.
“If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am right now,” Jesús said. “My advisory teacher, Ms. Richmond, was my moral support, and all my other teachers expected more of me. They made me feel like I’m more, like I can do more, and I should do more.”
There is one counselor per grade level at Mohan, and they stay with the same students for their full four years. “We rotate our counselors so they can have a relationship with the students since their freshman year and support them in what their needs are for college,” Riley said.
In LA Unified, there is a ratio of one counselor for every 700 students. At Mohan, that ratio is about one counselor for every 120 students.
One of Mohan’s counselors, Yvette Díaz, was named 2017 Alliance Counselor of the Year. Michael García, an English teacher at the school, said, “Mrs. Diaz believes her job is to honor student dreams. She helped one of her students get into his dream school, Brown University, by communicating with him and his family regularly to discuss ways for him to become a competitive candidate for an Ivy League school. She helped edit his personal statements and college and scholarship applications and also enrolled him into College Match for extra support.”
Jesús also qualified for the College Match program, which Alliance partners with to help get low-income students into top-flight colleges. Through it, he received one-on-one tutoring at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, which influenced his decision to go there for college.
Jesús is now in his first year at Occidental, which is included in Alliance’s list of the top 150 colleges with the highest graduation rates for underrepresented students of color. He’s pursuing a degree in economics with a minor in Latin American studies.
His advice for Latino students: “Don’t let a certain idea or system define you, because you can define your own potential, with the right support. We have that potential as a community.”
*This article was updated with the graduation rate for Latinos at Santee Education Complex, which was 82 percent for 2016, and to clarify that graduation rate for the three schools mentioned are based on the 2015–16 four-year cohort graduation rate released by the California School Dashboard in the Fall 2017. The most recent available.