This fall, the Los Angeles Unified School District will open the doors of the first new high school in Boyle Heights in 28 years. The Mendez Learning Center, located at 1st Street and Mission Road, is scheduled to open one year ahead of schedule. Of all the exciting projects underway in Boyle Heights, this one is particularly significant to the community because of the profound impact it will have on the educational opportunities for our young people in the area.
When I joined the Board of Education in 2001, plans to construct a new high school in Boyle Heights were four years behind schedule. Roosevelt High School, which has a student population of about 4,600, is one of the most chronically overcrowded schools in the country. A new school has long been desperately needed to relieve overcrowding and to allow students in Boyle Heights to learn under the traditional academic year and to get rid of the academically inferior year-round calendar.
With this in mind, and as a Boyle Heights native who felt the need to improve educational outcomes for our students in the area, I set out to speedup the process. I identified the school site and negotiated a 75-year, $1-per-year lease with the City’s Housing Authority (HACLA), the owner of part of the land. As part of the process, I worked with HACLA, the local community and groups such as Inner-City Struggle, to ensure that construction at the site moved ahead without glitches and that the revitalization of this area included improvements to the adjacent Utah Elementary School.
I have maintained from the start that the school should be a high performing campus focused on math and science, and I am pleased that the Mendez Learning Center will house two schools – a math/science school and a technology/engineering school.
Located at the base of the 1st Street Bridge that connects Boyle Heights with downtown Los Angeles, the school is in close proximity to numerous public and private agencies focused on engineering, architecture, and other similar fields that can provide useful partnerships. For example, the Metropolitan Water District, the Department of Water and Power, and Metro are just a stone’s throw from the school. Students can have access to mentors, internships, and training and employment opportunities while employers can train and recruit a highly skilled workforce right in their own backyard. Moreover, there is an incredible opportunity to partner with East Los Angeles Community College and California State University Los Angeles (which recently opened a math and science charter school). Both have shown a keen interest in partnering with the Mendez Learning Center.
A successful partnership will help fill the tremendous void that the nation is facing in math and science fields. HENAAC, a Latino-based non-profit that promotes careers in science and technology, estimates that by 2025, the country will need more than 11 million workers for high-technology fields. Latinos, in particular, are woefully underrepresented in these careers.
While there is much to celebrate with the schools’ opening, we must recognize that there is much work ahead for all of us.
If we do the math, the school is scheduled to open in about five months, and we have almost a full year’s worth of work getting the all-important academic curriculum and associated elements for a high performing high school prepared.
It takes time to cement sustainable partnerships between pubic agencies and the private sector that can provide useful mentoring and internship opportunities. It also takes time to recruit qualified faculty and establish theme-based curriculum.
The good news is that a design team made up of various stakeholders, including representatives from my office, HENNAC and others, has formed to support the administration and faculty at the Mendez campus. The design team will provide community input on the general instructional direction and governance of the campus.
And after much deliberation, LAUSD handed over control of the two schools this week to Mayor Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.
Still, we have reached a critical stage if we want to fulfill our vision of opening and operating a high-quality math and science school. We now need the entire community to join us to ensure that the Mendez campus is the school Boyle Heights deserves when it opens in September.
I once asked the outgoing principal of the high performing Bravo Medical Magnet School in Boyle Heights what made her school so successful. The principal, who had worked at the school since its inception in 1981, responded simply by saying: “From parents, to students, to teachers and administrators, we had high expectations for the school from the moment we first opened up our doors.”
With deadlines looming, we owe it to the community and students who have fought long and hard for a new school, to create the support structure at Mendez needed for success. And so I offer LAUSD, the Partnership for L.A. Schools and the entire community the same challenge I’ve given myself: Over the next few months, let’s ensure the curriculum is as solid as the new buildings, and that we create a safe, nurturing, learning environment for the students.
If we do, this new community addition, more than any other new asset, will add up to a bright and prosperous future for our children.
José Huizar is a Los Angeles City Councilmember for the 14th District. He is also a former Board President of the Los Angeles Unified School District.