On a warm Friday morning in September, Principal Karin Kroener-Valdivia is seen walking through her small school campus, greeting her students as they step out for lunch in the garden. She takes a moment to remind two young women about the first student leadership meeting of the year that is set to start in five minutes. “We got you, Ms. We’ll be there!”, the students nod as they respond in unison.
Principal Kroener-Valdivia proceeds to ensure students are lining up properly to receive their lunch. The setup looks more like a pop-up than your typical school cafeteria. The lunch worker unzips a large red insulated bag and starts handing out small paper trays filled with food, fruit, and a carton of milk.
Kroener-Valdivia says a couple more hellos before stepping into one of the school’s three classrooms, where she’ll facilitate the leadership meeting. There are about seven students sitting in the back three rows –some checking their phones, others laughing with their peers as they eat their warm food– before they are interrupted by a voice filled with elation: “Welcome, students! I am so happy to see you here today! Let’s get started.”
Although it’s shared a campus with Theodore Roosevelt High School since September 1979, this Boyle Heights Continuation High School didn’t benefit equitably from Roosevelt’s recent $173 million modernization project. Despite being underfunded, the continuation high school is a campus filled with caring staff, where students are given a second chance to graduate and pursue a higher education.
Students in alternative schools have been historically labeled as troublemakers that don’t care about their education; however, many students end up here due to personal circumstances that include physical and mental health issues or family conflicts. For some, it’s an environment that better supports their diverse learning needs.
The school has four bungalows that include three instructional classrooms and one main office. The garden, located at the center of the small campus, serves as a cafeteria where students have their lunch, a lounging area, and a site for physical education classes.
Lucia Angeles, age 17, is a senior who transferred from Esteban E. Torres High School last school year. She says having more attention and care from her teachers at Boyle Heights Continuation High School has made a difference in her learning.
“They put a lot of focus on [students]. They’re always on me like, ‘Oh, like you’re not coming to school’ or ‘We saw you failing this class. What can we do to help you?,’” Angeles recounts “I very much like that they’re on top of [us] and they don’t give me the impression that they don’t care because they do,” she said. “That’s what I like.”
Richard Oliva, who is 17 years old and currently a senior, struggled with his attendance at Esteban E. Torres HS because he felt he wasn’t learning anything and was distracted by his peers. Now at the Continuation school he’s more motivated to show up and do his schoolwork.
“I like [Boyle Heights Continuation HS] to be honest. It’s smaller and you don’t have as many classes as a [bigger] school, so you don’t have to be there bored. I actually do my work here now,” Oliva says.
Kroener-Valdivia became the Principal of Boyle Heights Continuation High School in October 2022. However, she is not just a principal, she’s also a teacher, a standardized testing coordinator, and a student leadership and restorative justice facilitator. She describes her students as, “sweet, creative, amazing, intelligent, strong-willed students, who, for various reasons, are in need of a second chance. Not a second chance of more of the same, but a second chance of teaching and learning in a different way.”
Students are eligible to attend Boyle Heights Continuation HS as long as they are at least 16 years old and lack the necessary credits to graduate on time. Although the public perception of alternative schools is that students come here because they don’t take their education seriously, many students end up here because of things that are out of their control.
“The majority of the kids that come here have either been doing okay until something hits, like some sort of trauma in the family, or some sort of [temporary] major health issue,” Kroener-Valdivia says. “That causes them to take a semester off which puts them off track in their graduation credits.”
Following similar educational trends across the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic and online learning impacted students’ mental health and their educational journey in an unprecedented way- leaving many no choice but to seek alternative schooling.
“I think the pandemic and Zoom school had a big impact on general motivation,” she said. “We do have a number of students here with anxiety, and depression issues, which makes getting up in the morning, attending to school, and all of those tasks, very difficult.”
Although Angeles never found school very engaging, the remote learning environment took a toll on her social life, academics, and mental health.
“The anxiety and depression during quarantine really just messed me up,” Angeles says. “I was in my head a little too much, and since I didn’t have any connection with friends I feel like that also messed me up a lot. I felt bad.”
The need for mental health support is a common issue among the Continuation students. To address that need, the school currently depends on a LAUSD Psychiatric Social Worker that offers individual and group counseling to students twice a week.
When asked how Boyle Heights Continuation HS benefited from Roosevelt’s recent $173 million modernization project that included the construction of a new administration building, a wellness clinic, a new gymnasium, and a performing arts center, Principal Kroener-Valdivia said, “I wasn’t here at that time but I know we got new flooring, new desks, and new paint on the walls.”
Despite having just three teachers who teach multiple subjects due to a decline in enrollment –currently, about 60 students– the school has plans to enhance its educational offerings to include Project-Based Learning which will embed real-world and meaningful projects into their learning. Pending funding for new laptops, Kroener-Valdivia also hopes to begin offering dual-enrollment courses in the spring so students can earn college credit at no cost while building their skill sets and resumes.
In addition to the counselor who ensures students remain on track to graduate, the school also has a College Empowerment Counselor who supports seniors once a week. For the Class of 2023, 87% graduated with a high school diploma and 71% went on to pursue a post-secondary education.
Gianni Salazar, an 11th-grade student who transferred from Helen Bernstein High School in Hollywood, can already sense the school making an impact in her education and future career endeavors in the arts and media.
“I see myself going to college. I want to keep learning. I want to better my education,” she states.
For many students like Salazar, Boyle Heights Continuation HS represents a second opportunity for students to thrive academically and aspire to fulfill their dream careers, which challenges the stereotypes and misconceptions many have of the students.
“They didn’t end up here because they’re bad, or they did something wrong,” said Kroener-Valdivia “They just didn’t fit the other model. And they’re beautiful, amazing, capable students, the same as you would find on any other campus.”