LA CAUSA: Causing Students to Get Involved

LA CAUSA students visiting UCLA through the UCLA Green Site partnership. Photo Courtesy of LA CAUSA.

Little Frankie wrote his first essay at age 16. He was so proud, “Can I print it out? I want to show my mom.”

After being pushed out of the LAUSD public school system, Little Frankie ended up at Los Angeles Communities Advocating for Unity, Social Justice, and Action (LA CAUSA), an alternative charter high school in East Los Angeles, to not only finish his high school diploma, but to be introduced to the possibility of going to college.

LA CAUSA from its origins has implemented a different environment and curriculum that is relevant and beneficial to the community. As stated in their mission statement, LA CAUSA “engages historically disenfranchised young people and their families from East Los Angeles to take action against the injustices that impact low-income communities of color.”

Alejandro Covarrubias, now a professor in the UCLA César E. Chavez Department of Chicana/o Studies, was the first executive director of LA CAUSA. “LA CAUSA was more than just a school, I know right now it’s running primarily as a school, but it has always be seen as a creative center that is interested in developing local leadership so then those young people can become active members of actions for change in their own community,” he said.

The culturally relevant curriculum has been essential to create active members of change. The curriculum includes topics such as the prison industrial complex and oppressive relations of power. As professor Covarrubias states, “Education is ultimately about getting people to understand their reality so they can contribute positively to their reality.”

Ely Flores, a 2005 graduate of LA CAUSA, agrees. After facing 3 years of prison and waiting for the arrival of his baby, he came to LA CAUSA and graduated. He now works full time bringing solar and renewal energy to low income communities with GRID Alternative. He has also started his own non-profit organization, Leadership through Empowerment, Action, and Dialogue (LEAD), where he educates youth about public policy.

LA CAUSA takes advantage of its close-knit environment. The current executive director Robert Zardeneta states, “We actively went out and recruited these students to become reengaged in their education. We are a small enough school that we can do that.”

Currently, LA CAUSA has 147 students enrolled. But will it get bigger and replicate problems such as over crowdedness?

“Internally, we have battled with the question of ‘when are we getting too big?’ So now I think that from where we are is as big as we should get before we break off into other satellite programs,” said Zardeneta. He added that they plan on creating programs in Boyle Heights and other parts of East LA because “every community needs a LA CAUSA”

LA CAUSA’s focus has shifted to getting students exposed to college with the goal for them to apply to college. To do this, LA CAUSA has partnered up with local colleges and universities such as UCLA, LA Trade Tech and CSULA, giving their students the opportunity to get college credit while at LA CAUSA.

Robert Zardeneta exclaims, “What’s more radical than taking a young person who is a ‘drop out’ and bringing them to CSULA? To me that’s pretty radical.”

The new College Career Center has been beneficial for the shift of college readiness to take place. Rogelio Medina, the director of Post Secondary Education and the College Career Center, felt it was a disservice not to implement career development and college awareness into the program.

Medina credits the establishment of the College Career Center to the community leadership group called Presente. This group of students was first established as a Community Leadership Project (CLP).  Presente’s mission was to get everyone at LA CAUSA to graduate. “This group was the one who led the movement in LA CAUSA to promote college and graduation,” said Medina.

In  2009, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis visited this community leadership project, prompting awards from the White House. After that, Rogelio made the moves to open the College Career Center. Rogelio says, “This is were you see the genius of having young people in charge. They go large. These young people are powerful.”

Though LA CAUSA has undergone many changes since its early days, the main priority is still the same: offer the community what other public schools have not succeeded.

Professor Covarrubias states, “When you work with a population, your responsibility as an organization is to ensure that that population feels served by your organization. Schools should do that as well.”

Center supports urban youth through self-empowerment and education

Chuco’s Justice Center, on the corner of Redondo and West Blvds., provides outreach and educational programs for Inglewood and South Central LA.

Chuco’s Justice Center, on the corner of Redondo and West Blvds., provides outreach and educational programs for Inglewood and South Central LA.

From the outside, Chuco’s Justice Center (CJC) appears much like the rest of the block: modest and calm.

Once inside, however, a vibrant world filled with graffiti-written quotes reveals a whole different story: several classrooms, some filled with students and some not, a basketball court, a special room where people can do graffiti without getting into any trouble and a busy computer lab with people using the internet.

Serving a proactive role in its community, CJC offers an alternative and perhaps more comfortable setting for students to obtain a GED or high school diploma. Named after community leader, Jesse “Chuco” Becerra, who was gunned down in 2005, CJC offers day and night classes to local youth seeking to finish their high school education.

For these students — the so-called at-risk youth from the South Central and Inglewood area — CJC provides something the public school system struggled to give them: a high school education and adequate preparation to someday attend a university.

Coordinator Kruti Parekh attends students in one of CJC’s classrooms.

CJC strives to reverse the overwhelming number of minority high-school dropouts.
In LA County, one in three African American high school students and one in four Latino high school students dropped out of school, according to In conjunction with large dropout rates, black and Latino enrollment at major universities, like UCLA, are always among the lowest. Last year, the UCLA student body was made up of 4 percent of African American students and 15 percent Latino students.

This is why places like CJC are very important: they have a steadfast commitment to bringing about positive change to their communities. Moreover, without the continued dedication by centers like CJC, minority enrollment in higher education will likely remain low.

Sure, it isn’t like a conventional high school. But considering the overcrowded classes in our public school systems, which struggle to assure the success of every student, this center seems to work best for this group of students.
“I feel more comfortable,” Dawn Spencer, a CJC student, said. “The classes are smaller, so it’s a lot easier to get help.”

In one of the math classes, the student-to-teacher ratio was about 10 to one.
Another important aspect is that students are given the opportunity to instruct the class, which provides the teacher time to answer questions from individuals and allowing the students the experience of being in charge of teaching others.

CJC seeks to reverse the low expectations their students had once grown accustomed to and gives them the opportunity to dream about a different future.

As their fliers say, it helps them “break the school-to-jail track.”