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After high school graduation, they left Boyle Heights to pursue their dreams. A few years later, they returned to help a new generation of students achieve their academic goals.

Diana Ochoa, 23, Matthew Valenzuela, 23, and Jassmin Flores, 22, all attended Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School in Boyle Heights before going off to local high schools and then college.  They returned as part of program called City Year Los Angeles, which placed them in their old middle school for a year. City Year, a national education nonprofit, is part of AmeriCorps, a public service program operated by the Corporation for National and Community Service. City Year aims to to bridge the gap between what students need and what schools can provide.

In Boyle Heights, the nonprofit supports four schools: Hollenbeck and Stevenson middle schools and Felícitas and Gonzalo Méndez and Theodore Roosevelt high schools. City Year LA also supports multiple schools in the South L.A., Pico Union/Westlake and Watts areas.

Each school day, the City Year participants arrived at school at 7:30 a.m. to check in with teachers, welcome students and prepare for the day. College graduates like Ochoa, Valenzuela and Flores help teachers within classrooms, meet one-on-one with students on academics and engage students in community-wide events.

While City Year pulls from students all over the country, this trio was unusual in that all were products of the community they were serving.

“When my kids start giving up on themselves, I want to cry, because I’m feeling angry because I know they have the potential,” said Ochoa, a former Boyle Heights Beat reporter who graduated from Roosevelt in 2013 and the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2017.

The three Stevenson alumni understand what many students experience in middle school here, from worrying about their parents being able to make ends meet to defining their own identities.

“I remember when I was studying in Boyle Heights, some of the teachers spoke Spanish, and I loved Boyle Heights because of this,” said Flores, a 2014 graduate of Media Arts Charter and Entertainment High School, who went on to double major in sociology and Spanish, with a minor in education, at UC Santa Barbara. “That’s why I’m glad to be back, and I hope to provide the space for students’ talents and skills to be valued and recognized.”

The Corps members made themselves accessible to students by eating lunch with them and creating strong relationships through academic one-on-ones.

 “This is what we call near-peer relationships,” explained Luz Maria Castellanos, managing director of communications for City Year Los Angeles.  “It’s by design. We understand that the students will relate more to our Corps members. Those students who are having struggles at home and in life will gravitate to our corps members.”

After school, City Year participants tutored kids struggling with academics and life skills, host and participate in community events and build a sense of community.  These young educators work nearly 50 hours per week, not including the trainings they attend. Each earns a $600 weekly stipend.

“Our Corps members are not volunteers. They are service members, and they get paid a stipend. It’s a tremendous sacrifice. All of them have moved back with their parents,” said Castellanos, as the Corps members sighed in agreement.

According to City Year, 3,200 people participate in the program nationally, 56 percent people of color. In Los Angeles, there are 270 City Year members. Nationally, 47 percent go on to jobs in education, with 84 percent teaching at least three years. The program serves 234,000 students nationally and 12,000 in Los Angeles.

While the work is demanding, participants say the experience they gain makes it worthwhile.  All three Corps members from Boyle Heights are planning to continue to work in education.  Ochoa wants to get a master’s degree in social work or school counseling.  Flores plans on becoming an elementary school teacher, and Valenzuela says he will continue to work in some capacity in the education sector.

“City Year was my way of dipping my toes into education,” Valenzuela said. “I realized it takes people like us that want to give back and relate to the students to impact the students.”

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