Kevin Martinez: Los Angeles Educational Partnership (LAEP)- Morningside High School
Interviewed by: Aqsa Rashid
Before Kevin Martinez became a community school coordinator, Morningside High School was experiencing tremendous student turnover. In one year alone, 16,000 students dropped to 8,000. Morningside is one of two high schools within the school district, which is quite small geographically and number wise. So, when students started dropping in such high numbers, school districts grew concerned. Gentrification is a big issue impacting students and families in the region, and the charter schools have a huge impact on student enrollment. In Martinez’s words, all of this made “community school models very important to this site.”
Q: What inequities and barriers did you find at your school?
A: Lack of funding and high turnover rate of staff have been a huge barrier to providing quality education. Teachers are struggling. They’re underpaid. They’re unhappy with the district. It creates a lot of messy things. The work of them are very instrumental. Students haven’t had the adequate and consistent support from the school. They’re trying to not be a band aid solution; they’re trying to connect networks and partnerships.
Q: How do you ensure comprehensive representation of the community?
A: The Los Angeles Educational Partnership (LAEP) has 6 core elements: youth empowerment, parents as partners, college access/career readiness, educational equity, distributed leadership and collaboration. Through a community school task force/committee comprised of parents, students, teaching staff, classified staff, admin, alumni, LAEP staff, we make sure everyone’s voices are heard. The community school taskforce has diverse representation from all stakeholders. We have all day meetings and insert ourselves as facilitators in the process, as collaborators, keeping that in mind, we don’t say “no that’s a bad idea”, we say “okay, let’s honor that, and how can we connect those ideas?” Giving ownership of the ideas is one way to practice that.
Q: What was initially difficult about being a coordinator?
A: The process of building trust has been difficult. As with most schools in high need, high poverty, or high gang violence, these students have a lot of trauma, and one part of their trauma is seeing folks come in and leaving quickly. That sense of no consistency. On the first day I met with the students, the first thing that said was that all of this sounded great but “how long will you be here?” For me, that was an eye opener, and I said I’m here for as long as you want me to be here and I’m willing to work with you and make sure all voices are heard. We aren’t here to save the school, we don’t operate from a savior complex, we opera from a community approach. We acknowledge the students already have assets, unique experiences, we are building off that. It is all about how we can build our work off the assets they do, and how we can collaborate. I was also very conscious and intentional, with letting them know that I was born in South Central L.A., and that doesn’t mean I know what these students went through just because I also grew up in the hood. I’m here to learn from these students about their experiences, so that we can share common ground. They’re the experts in their own lived experiences. With parents, it was similar, although they had slightly less resistance to building that sort of trust. Being bilingual does probably help. There was also that kind of resistance with teachers, but they saw the commitment to the work of community schools.
Q: How did you engage students in the work specifically?
A: The community school center wouldn’t have been possible without the students. We were able to open here, on campus, a community school center with a food pantry, student lounge, a college corner, and an academic study space. It was a high need identified after going through the school to ask them what they wanted. The question we asked was simple: what does a dream high school look like? They told us a bunch of different stuff. Vending machines. College corner. College counselors. A space to feel safe other than the library. A place to go to after school. So we did that. We partnered with a local nonprofit for donations and school alumni sponsored the food pantry. The entire committee came together to support the center. Afterwards, the students helped some more. They came in to decorate, move stuff around, assemble the furniture, and help with other stuff. Having them take ownership of the center was important for them to understand that LAEP is really invested in this and they want the students to take ownership of community school effort. For their parents, we reach out to them via newsletters, try to engage with them at the food pantries, and let everyone know about the community school taskforce committee.
Q: What impact is your work having now, and how are you evaluating it?
A: Every year we do a Skye survey, which stands for school climate basement instrument, so we try measuring the school climate that correlates with our core elements we’ve mentioned. As coordinators, we submit semester strategic plans, where we connect core elements with the work that we want to specifically do. For example, food pantries are about education equity. We layout these strategic plans every month and assign follow up tasks and goals on it. This data instrument is carried through informal conversations and narratives. I’ve heard positive anecdotes from the students, some students telling me that if it weren’t for the college and career center, they probably would not have even applied to college, or thought about graduating. I walk through campus and have students that are always saying hi to me, so it highlights how much trust they have with me. With parents, I think being bilingual have probably helped in me forming good relationships with them. The parents tell us that they are grateful their students have a place to stay in that is safe afterschool too, and they donate a lot to the food pantries.
Q: Why did you want to become a community school coordinator?
A: To do this work, it requires a deep understanding of the community that you are serving. You have to have that deep understanding form the get-go to understand that community. I come from a similar environment not too far from here, near Title I schools, just like Morningside is. I was born to undocumented low-income parents, and I was depending on welfare growing up. All these experiences, on top of my experiences in high school that empowered me to go to college, have inspired me. In college, I majored in sociology and education. So, having my education research background in that field has shaped the way I approach these communities. Community school concepts are new to me, but it was easy to adapt, understand, and act accordingly. Now, I view it as a way to truly serve our students. Its working, and it’s not perfect, but I know there’s ways to improve as long as we continue engaging the community in our process
Q: What are some ongoing projects you’re currently tackling?
A: Currently, I’ve partnered with a local mental health organization for the school. We have a therapist from them on campus every Thursday. It is free for them, but oftentimes there’s only one therapist. I started doing workshops with that organization. We want to target parents as well with this work. Other than that, I am planning on partnering with the L.A. LGBTQ+ center, and they’ll be on campus to do a workshop as well. The homophobic language used around at school does not make them students feel safe. Lastly, I am planning a college graduate panel, where people share experiences navigating college, graduating, and life after college. I would say the most difficult project right now is the LGBTQ+ project, as I do not want to make students feel uncomfortable with that or make them feel like they must come out if they aren’t comfortable with it then. The approach I’ve taken is that it’s an open invitation for students that identity as that or for those who want to learn more.
Q: How can others learn from your work? What have you learned most from your work?
A: Be mindful of the communities that you are serving. Honoring, whether you’re from the community or not, that you’re still in a position of privilege. You want to be inclusive as possible building a community school. Specifically ensure that you are involving everyone apart of the community school to have representation. The moment you leave somebody out, you’re not including the entire school. Also emphasizing the day to day individual actions is important, being kind to students and families, treating them with respect, because oftentimes our education system already sees these students as deficit mindsets, troublemakers, or whatever it is. Treating everyone with respect no matter their history with the school is something I try implementing with my work, and it’s been working. Students feel safe around me based from what they’ve shared. I don’t view my job as work. Being patient is another big one. You won’t see results overnight, but you will see progress through the narratives you get to hear through students’, teachers, and other folks. It can be through little things. Celebrate the small victories. The last thing is also reflecting on what has and hasn’t worked. Always think what you can better do to improve your practice.