A few months into the 2023-2024 school year, East LA Performing Arts’ climate is recovering from a tumultuous previous academic year.
Last spring, the magnet on Esteban E. Torres High School’s campus was entrenched with accusations of misconduct towards the school’s former principal, John Edwards Estoesta.
Has the school’s climate changed?
Tony Cortez, the sitting principal, thinks so. He attributes the positive energy to an energetic and engaged student body.
“They’re friendly and they’re kind. They’re very involved and it’s just great,” Cortez said.
Cortez accepted the principal position in May and immediately had to navigate the strained environment at the Eastside school.
Tensions at ELAPA boiled over at the end of April when the student body walked out of classes in protest of the former principal’s behavior. Students claimed that Estoesta was fostering an environment of “racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism and other issues as such that all have gone ignored by LAUSD administration,” according to widely shared posts on social media.
After the April protests, Centro CSO worked with ELAPA families and staff to create an online petition to remove Estoesta from the magnet, with more than 250 people signing in agreement. Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) placed Estoesta on leave on May 1st and launched an investigation into the students’ claims.
LAUSD has since relocated Estoesta to serve as Assistant Principal at South East Senior High in South Gate. Estoesta did not respond for comment.
Lately, Cortez has focused on repairing and redefining the school’s environment to one of belonging and safety. One of his first items of action? Simply listening to his students.
“One of the things that our kids have actually commented and said [is] they appreciate that I listen to them,” Cortez recalled of his first few weeks as principal.
Establishing support systems for the students is a priority for Cortez and his administrative team, and the principal took it a step further to also include “mental health awareness activities at lunchtime and games set up for kids to participate.”
“They talk about how to ask for help and how to get support,” Cortez said. “Those are things that we do with our students and they appreciate that we’re doing these things for them.”
Cortez has also committed to resolving conflicts between students and said there hasn’t been any issues regarding discipline or students feeling unsafe since he started at ELAPA.
Nhayely Leyva, 17, is a former student of ELAPA who circulated posts on social media calling for Estoesta’s removal in April and said that Cortez was introduced two weeks before her class graduated. She recalled that at the end of her school year, Cortez made a noticeable effort to repeatedly show up for student performances.
“We had about six maybe, and he went to every single one. Even the night ones. Even the weekend ones, even though he had already seen the musical before,” Leyva said. “And every single time he stayed and talked to students and congratulated them, and told them that he was proud of us and stuff like that. So he just kind of went out of his way to form a connection.”
And Leyva noticed that if students were uncomfortable with Cortez around, “He would clearly respect people’s boundaries,” she said.
According to Leyva, mirrors in the girls bathrooms were reinstalled after the protests, a few weeks after Estoesta had them removed, reportedly in fear that boys seeing girls observing themselves in the mirror would motivate them to sexually assault their classmates.
LAUSD Board Member Dr. Rocío Rivas recently visited Boyle Heights Beat and said she and her staff have committed to holding conversations around community building and safety to help the school community heal moving forward.
“I will be on top of anything that happens in the school,” Rivas said.
Rivas also acknowledged the students’ outcry as the catalyst for the change in administration and stressed the importance of students speaking out in cases of misconduct, insisting that there would be no repercussions for students who do so.
“Let’s create structures of communication and structures of conflict resolution, restorative justice, and implement all of that in order to build trust, because trust was broken,” Rivas said. “And we need to rebuild it.”
Leyva is still connected with current students at Torres High School’s ELAPA campus today. They tell her that things are a lot better now, and students have significantly less to worry about.
“The teachers are having more fun. The students are having more fun,” Leyva said. “Everyone’s just a lot happier right now.”
Cortez, the new principal, looks to the future with optimism.
“This is a great school,” he said. “The kids are great and they come to school happy. And I get the sense that we’re going to have a great year this year.”