Tenth graders Karolyn and Jonathan stood at the front of their English classroom, presenting to a group of strangers about what it was like to begin learning English a mere four and five years earlier when they were in middle school. Jonathan is from El Salvador and Karolyn is from Ecuador, and both came to the United States when they were 11 years old and spoke no English.
Being pulled out of class for beginner English classes, being teased for not getting a word right, finally meeting an invested teacher, seeing the loneliness of other students a few years behind their progress — these were all realities that the two shared in their “Speaking My Truth” presentations, a culminating project for sophomores at the Community Health Advocates School (CHAS) of Augustus Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles.
CHAS is one of a handful of pilot schools now populating the public education landscape through the Los Angeles Unified School District, offering students a career “pathway” toward a specific career through interdisciplinary studies carefully crafted by their teachers, administrators, and a network of community partners to impact the local community. Here, students set their sights on careers in social work and health care.
Unlike a magnet school – an easy comparison to make on the surface – CHAS is a unique resource exclusively for youth in the neighborhood. There is no special application and no bussing children in from all over the city. Instead, it is a program created by local teachers, for local children, who are now being prepared to fill the needs and strengthen their community as professionals one day. For students like Jonathan and Karolyn, who face compounded obstacles as English language learners, this school plans to give them tools to move one step closer to their dreams of becoming a pediatrician and a math teacher.
CHAS shares a campus with two other small pilot schools, all coming together under the banner of Augustus Hawkins High School as if they were colleges making up a university. The walls inside CHAS are adorned with murals and quotes about growth and service, reminders to its students about what they should set out to accomplish with their time in these halls, and on behalf of the South L.A. community.
In South Los Angeles, 31 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line (in contrast with 17 percent in L.A. County overall), a statistic which brings with it the other harmful outcomes that frequently accompany poverty, such as more limited access to health care and higher levels of violence. The neighboring Compton Unified School District has come under fire in a recent lawsuit about its failure to address trauma faced by students.
Trauma-informed curriculum is fundamental to CHAS, and students’ ability to share their own narratives is crucial to the goals for their sophomore year. The Speaking My Truth project is a culmination of efforts the students made within their world history, English and social work and health advocacy classes.
Some students spoke about gender and its influence on their traditional family dynamics. Others spoke about what it meant to them to be Mexican in an election season buzzing with tweets from Donald Trump.
Jonathan and Karolyn chose to talk about language for Speaking My Truth because of what an impact not knowing English had on them and their families.
“I see my parents or my family suffer — like having problems with money — just because they didn’t know English,” said Karolyn, who in her business-attire heels comes up to Jonathan’s shoulder. “I just thought that language would be a good topic to talk about and share some of my experiences.”
Erica Ramirez is one of the teachers behind the project that encouraged students to look at their own personal histories through an advocacy lens. “By speaking about [their own truths], they can actually … create that connection to others that can allow them to see 1) that they may not be the only ones and 2) that others will also feel the same way,” Ramirez said.
As a pilot school, CHAS was created by a collaborative of teachers from another South Los Angeles school who wanted to design a curriculum that was specific to the needs of the community. Ramirez was among the handful of teachers who spoke with community leaders about professional skills that were missing in South Los Angeles.
“We found that one of the greater needs was in social work and health advocacy … particularly students that needed services in Spanish, and families that needed services in Spanish,” said Ramirez. “So who better to be the next social workers, the next therapists and counselors if not the same students who were in the community?”
According to one report published by administration, “[English Language Learners (EL)] are one of our largest and fastest growing populations who remain underserved.” Research highlights that, nationally, these students face a number of challenges in the classroom ranging from trouble communicating with teachers to feeling isolated from their peers.
Both Karolyn and Jonathan have experienced being ostracized as they hone skills in their second language.
“There’s times when I don’t say things right and people just make fun of me,”Karolyn said.
“And like they look at us like we don’t speak English. They’ll be like, ‘Oh you’re Mexican, you don’t speak English. You’re supposed to speak Spanish,’” Jonathan said. “And that like, gets to us, because we know that we’re not from Mexico.”
It is a divide that affects not only Karolyn and Jonathan, but many of their peers. Karolyn’s heart goes out to Spanish-speaking students who don’t speak as much English as she does, whom she often sees sitting alone or seeming isolated.
Being able to advocate effectively is a pillar of CHAS, and it’s stories like Jonathan’s and Karolyn’s that inspired its founding.
In preparation for the future roles they are expected to fill, students have thesis-like presentations at the end of each year, not just the 10th grade, and professionals from around Los Angeles are brought in to listen and critique so that students can receive a wider variety of feedback.
At the end of their presentation, the two students thanked the panel for listening and invited any questions. There were many. Finally, one panelist asked Jonathan and Karolyn if they’re proud of how far they’ve come, and Jonathan’s face broke into a smile.
He explained that sometimes, when he thinks about what he’s accomplished, it brings tears to his eyes.