In 2022, Promesa Boyle Heights became one of the U.S. Department of Education’s new Full Service Community School grantees—one of forty-two nationwide. The $2.5-million grant supports Promesa Boyle Heights and its implementation of the Community Schools Model in each of its five schools in Boyle Heights. This commentary will offer a snapshot of a week at Promesa Boyle Heights and its community school model.

Staff Meeting

Location: Promesa Boyle Heights Headquarters, Tuesday

In the heart of Boyle Heights, in Los Angeles, California, fourteen Promesa Boyle Heights staff members sit down around a long desk for a staff meeting. This weekly meeting takes place in a space that serves various purposes, including storage, office space, and, today, a staff meeting room. In one corner, you’ll find shelves filled with arts and crafts supplies; in another, you’ll find toys used to entertain kids during community meetings so parents can focus. In one area, you’ll find a coffee machine with some creamers and sugar; in another, you’ll find a room divider signaling the start of someone’s office. The walls are painted white and magenta, and a “Dream Act Now!” poster hangs on one of them. Pan dulce sits in the center of the table, ready on a first-come, first-serve basis. It’s time for the meeting to begin.

Boyle Heights is a Hispanic neighborhood next-door to downtown Los Angeles. The community has historically seen several waves of immigrants from many places of origin, but those from Mexico are the neighborhood’s most prominent and most permanent residents. It is currently one of the lowest-income communities in Los Angeles, but this doesn’t bother too many Boyle Heights residents. With increasing costs and gentrification seeping into their neighborhood, their goal is to keep Boyle Heights affordable, and not to have gentrifiers come and take over. As long as residents have a roof over their heads and public schools with free education, they’re fine without Starbucks all over the place—they like their own coffee shops better anyway.

As long as residents have a roof over their heads and public schools with free education, they’re fine without Starbucks all over the place—they like their own coffee shops better anyway.

Promesa Boyle Heights is a non-profit that empowers the residents of Boyle Heights to fight for their rights, specifically through education. And that’s why they gather for their weekly meeting each Tuesday morning. This Tuesday, the team starts the meeting with shoutouts. Jenny and Jocelyn, two of the younger members on the team, get a shoutout for holding down Dreamers Club, a club for recently arrived immigrant students, at Roosevelt High School. Carolina and Araceli, two community school coordinators, get a shoutout for getting some certificates to parents for their volunteering efforts. And Elizabeth, a wellness coordinator, gets a shoutout for increasing her workload since joining the team.

Elizabeth is unique in this group in that her bilingualism is still emerging, while everyone else present is already bilingual. As the wellness coordinator on the committee of community residents dedicated to advocacy, she supports schools with parent engagement and leads workshops—all in Spanish. Elizabeth is still learning English and even translates the staff meetings through her phone in real time. She sometimes laughs when she knows the translation is way off. Yet, even with her emerging bilingualism, Elizabeth is a vital asset on the team, in that she can connect with parents on an authentic and genuine level. She will host the Abriendo Puertas program on the coming Saturday, where parents learn how to support their students better.

Throughout the meeting, the team discusses a variety of subjects, such as upcoming events like career days and college fairs and community school updates. The community schools model is an approach at which Promesa Boyle Heights specializes. While they are very focused on education generally, their community school work is their specific focus. Community Schools are public schools designed to meet the unique needs of their neighborhoods. They offer various services, including free meals, health care, tutoring, and broader initiatives that support families. By partnering with community organizations like Promesa Boyle Heights and businesses, these schools enrich the educational experience and become focal points for community involvement.

Claudia Lara, English learner coordinator for Promesa Boyle Heights, says the need for community schools has grown post-pandemic. “There has been an increase in the need for mental health services and academic services because of the learning loss that has happened. There’s a big need to help students in a way conducive to their learning.” So, the organization has filled that need with five community school liaisons at five different schools throughout the district. The organization has added two schools to its load since 2021 and now supports the following five schools: 1st Street Elementary School, Mendez High School, Roosevelt High School, Hollenbeck Middle School, and Sheridan Elementary School. According to the Student Equity Needs Index, which measures the percentage of foster youth, homeless youth, low-income students, chronic absenteeism, and eleven other factors, all five schools are high-needs. Community school liaisons connect with these schools to ensure students receive the resources they need to thrive emotionally and academically.

By the end of the meeting, the team has touched on various subjects, from social media posts to building relationships with schools. The meeting ends with a humorous court-like gavel at the end. Just like that, Promesa Boyle Heights wraps up its staff meeting and returns to doing what it knows best—serving its community.

First Street Elementary School: An Effective Community Schools Model

Location: 1st Street Elementary School, Thursday

On the Wednesday during my visit, Promesa Boyle Heights hosted a guided tour of 1st Street Elementary School, one of their partner schools, and some panels to accompany it. California Community School liaisons from across the state have come to learn more about the partnership Promesa Boyle Heights and 1st Street Elementary School have developed—a partnership so strong it serves as an example for the Community Schools model in California.

Entering the building, seven students wearing navy blue shirts with the school’s mascot, a tiger, on them awaited visitors. One student, Luis, was excited to be a tour guide for the group that just entered the building. As he walked through the school, he described the different bulletin boards: one is for grade-level attendance, one is to show the first grader’s classwork, and the other is for the fourth grader’s classwork. Walking through the courtyard, he pointed to the library and then to a row of jugs filled with coins for a coin collection the school is doing for the 100th day of school. He beamed with pride as he described the various features of the school. He is an expert on 1st Street Elementary: this is his school, and he feels a sense of ownership over it.

He is an expert on 1st Street Elementary: this is his school, and he feels a sense of ownership over it.

Many Boyle Heights residents also feel some ownership of 1st Street Elementary School. Established over a century ago in 1890, it has long been a staple in the neighborhood. At 1st Street Elementary, 94 percent of students are on free and reduced-price lunch, 97.6 percent are Latinx, and 29 percent are English learners, reflecting that the neighborhood’s residents are socioeconomically, culturally, and linguistically a minority-majority community.

At the meeting of Community School liaisons, Promesa Boyle Heights described its Community School model to other districts looking to implement something similar. Carolina, the Community Schools coordinator, talked about their method. The Promesa Boyle Heights Community School model focuses on four areas: academic support, health and wellness, post-secondary success, and family and community engagement. They engage in these areas in various ways. For instance, when families said they needed access to dental care, they collaborated with Ultimate Dental to bring a mobile dental office to campus. When students struggle in school, they identify gaps and student supports, create early warning indicators tracking systems, and connect high-potential students to targeted intervention. Promesa Boyle Heights is also working with IMPACTO to hire 2 Academic Case Managers to serve 1st Street and Sheridan St. Elementary Schools’ students.

At 1st Street Elementary School, their collaboration with Promesa Boyle Heights has produced outstanding academic results. When examining test scores from the 2018–2019 school year to the 2022–2023 school year, we see that on Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) math tests, the school has grown from 15 percent of students meeting proficiency to 31 percent of students. On SBA English Language Acquisition tests, the school has grown slightly from 24 percent of students meeting or exceeding proficiency to 26 percent of students meeting proficiency. Regarding English Learner reclassification rates, the school has gone from 5 percent of students reclassifying in the 2020–2021 school year to a whopping 30 percent in the 2022–2023 school year. 1st Street Elementary School and its collaboration with Promesa Boyle Heights is working.

As the meeting neared an end, Carmen, a dedicated volunteer at the school for nearly a decade and mother of a 1st Street Elementary School student, expressed profound gratitude for the services her 8-year-old son has received. Carmen noted a remarkable transformation in her son’s academic abilities, particularly in reading fluency, and highlighted a newfound confidence in his academic work. This positive change has empowered Carmen to engage more actively with the school community, a privilege she cherishes deeply.

The meeting reflects community organizations’ power to work directly with schools to provide wrap-around support and increase children’s chances of academic and life success.

Dreamers Club: Creating Community for Newcomers and Undocumented Students

Location: Roosevelt High School, Thursday

On the Wednesday of my visit, Jenny and Jocelyn from Promesa Boyle Heights laid out snacks for the Dreamers Club in Mr. Mendez’s room at Roosevelt High School. Dreamers Club is a lunchtime club where students who are undocumented or newcomers can find community with each other and learn more about the resources available to them. Students arrived in groups of two and three, some with their cafeteria lunch in hand and some empty-handed. Most of them stopped by the snack table to pick from Nature Valley Bars, fruit snacks, and the premier snack of Dreamers Club, Hot Cheetos.

At the snack table, a bulletin board created by Mr. Mendez labeled “Dreamers” had a variety of resources available for the attendants: One was a flier from Catholic Charities that states “Servicios de Inmigración y Refugiados” (Services for Immigrants and Refugees); another flier said “Programa Después de Escuela” (Program After School); and another from the Boyle Heights Immigrant Rights Network said “Preparación Familiar” (Family Preparation). About twenty-one students had filed into Room 232 by the time the session started. The group had a mix of a few loud personalities and many reserved personalities. “La Bachata” by Manuel Torizo played in the background and was cut off as the session began. Today, students would learn about a topic they’ve been asking about for the past few sessions: job opportunities.

The club had tapped work-based learning (WBL) coordinator Christopher Chavez to run the session. Christopher is a former English teacher who has transitioned to the coordinator role, seeing a need to strengthen learning pathways and work readiness for Roosevelt High students. While there are three WBL coordinators in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), Roosevelt is the only school with one on-site at all times. As Mr. Chavez started speaking, students ate their lunch and listened to the presentation, eager to understand how to acquire meaningful work.

Mr. Chavez started his presentation by addressing some common issues young newcomers may face in the workforce. First, he explained how minors can technically only work four hours per day on school days. He said newcomers need to hear this workforce policy because it typically isn’t enforced when newcomers work with a family business or get paid cash. When employers ask students to work overtime on school nights, Chavez wanted them to know their right to say no. Second, he addressed students’ worry about documentation for employment by explaining that students can get paid with stipends for many summer work opportunities. This information is helpful to undocumented students because, with stipends, the lack of SSN information or citizenship status does not pose an obstacle. As he provided this information, students took in the information and quietly listened; some smiled as they learned that their documentation status doesn’t have to be a barrier to employment.

Chavez then described upcoming career development and job opportunities to his students. When he brought up a Kollab-Youth event coming on February 5, a student in a blue hoodie in the back of the class raised his hand and asked, “Do I need to drive there, or will there be transportation?” Unfortunately, there wouldn’t be transportation for this event. However, the February 23 career fair co-hosted by Promesa Boyle Heights and Roosevelt High School would be at the school, and so transportation wouldn’t be an issue. The question was one of the few asked throughout the session. For the most part, the dreamers listen quietly. He ended the session by letting students know they could stop by his office if they needed help.

As the bell rang, students exited for the next period. The student with the blue hoodie left the classroom with a “Bye, mister” to Mr. Mendez. Several students said bye to the Promesa Boyle Heights staff on their way out, energetically making their way to the next class. Meanwhile, two girls in the back of the classroom stayed and asked more questions one-on-one with Mr. Chavez. More individualized mentorship was standard amongst students in Dreamers Club. While they listened attentively throughout the session, they preferred to ask questions one-on-one to avoid interrupting the presenter. Their questions were about the different job opportunities. Where do they apply? How much is the pay? Once Mr. Chavez had answered their questions, they headed to their next class. The room that was a haven for Dreamers for the thirty-minute lunch period resumed its role as Mr. Mendez’s English class, and a new batch of students began to file in.

Next week, Dreamers Club will meet again at the same time, same place: this time, they’ll be doing a scavenger hunt around the school to find the different resources available to them. While the Dreamers Club lasts a lunch period, the hope is for it to become an after-school program at some point. Until then, the students will stop by for these thirty minutes of community and support each Wednesday.

Abriendo Puertas: Supporting Parents as Their Child’s First Teacher

Location: Promesa Boyle Heights Early Childhood Education Center, Saturday

Abriendo Puertas convenes on Saturdays at the Promesa Boyle Heights Early Childhood Education Center. This weekly program supports parents as leaders of their families and their child’s first and most influential teacher. The Saturday of the week I visited, the program was trying something new. Promesa Boyle Heights typically holds the event at the Promesa headquarters; this time, two events would happen simultaneously, one at the Early Childhood Center and one at the headquarters, in response to parents saying it was difficult to attend at the latter due to transportation issues. I attended the session at the former.

As parents filed in, they read the agenda on the board. The session was to be held in Spanish, and the facilitators would talk with parents about being “El primer maestro de sus hijos,” or “the first teacher of your kids.” Throughout the session, parents discussed various aspects of parenting and bounced ideas off each other on what being an excellent example for their kids looks like. Numerous productive conversations took place throughout the session.

The first fruitful discussion happened when the group discussed the “dicho,” or popular saying, of the day. For this session, the dicho was “de tal pallo tal astillo,” meaning “from such a stick, such a splinter.” In Anglophone American culture, this saying would be similar to “like father, like son.” As the parents read the dicho, they discussed its meaning and gave examples. One parent said that kids follow your example, so if you leave your clothes out everywhere, they will leave them everywhere. Another parent talked about how if you curse at home, your kids will begin to curse. As the conversation continued, the seed was being planted: as a parent, kids follow your lead. The example you set matters.

As the conversation continued, the seed was being planted: as a parent, kids follow your lead. The example you set matters.

Another fruitful discussion was concerned with how to give kids agency. As parents reflected on their upbringing, they had a lively conversation about how, in Latino households, kids typically just do what they’re told to and don’t have a say. When asked, “How do you give your kids agency?” one parent in a purple sweater, a mother of two, talked about how she tries not to invalidate kids’ feelings when they say their food is too hot or too cold, something that she experienced as a child and is trying not to do with her kids. Another parent talked about how she has had to adapt to hearing “no” from her kid, something she initially took as disrespect. As the conversation continued, it plants another seed: your kids’ voices are valid, and just because you experienced something negative as a child doesn’t mean that your kid has to go through it as well.

One of the more fruitful discussions came out of discussing the importance of the early years of a kid’s life. The parents talked about how, from ages 0 to 5, kids develop 90 to 95 percent of their brains. The facilitator, Elizabeth, admitted that it wasn’t until her kid was 2 years old that she learned this. Instead of thinking that most kids’ brain development happens from 0 to 5, she believed their brains develop each year equally throughout their K–12 schooling. As the parents continued the discussion, they concluded that in the early years, kids are sponges, and parents should support kids particularly intensely in the 0-to-5 age range.

To further parents’ understanding of how connections build their child’s brain and how they can impact early brain development, the staff performed a “Building a Brain” activity with the participants. Elizabeth started with a ball of yarn, and once she had named an enriching activity, such as “singing to your kid,” the ball of yarn was passed around three to five times to different people, creating a web among the participants. The web continued to grow as enriching activities such as “taking your kid to the library” or “talking about the colors of fruit” are stated. Elizabeth explained that each person represented a brain cell or neuron, and that the string represented pathways in the brain. Activities such as “singing to your kid” or “taking your kid to the library” build pathways and develop kids’ brains.

The opposite is true when harmful activities take place. When “rarely taking your kid to the library” was mentioned, parents passed the ball once—and in a turn of events, when “not singing to your kid” was mentioned, the host asked a parent to grab a pair of scissors and cut a pathway. The activity emphasized that parents strongly influence their kids’ development from an early age.

As the session ended, the parents took some time to chat before heading out. They would all leave with a better understanding of how vital their role is in their kids’ lives. They understood more fully that they matter, that their kid doesn’t need to go through what they experienced as a child simply because they themselves did, and that the early years are crucial in their kids’ development. Without the Promesa Boyle Heights’ Abriendo Puertas program, it’s unsure whether they would have ever considered these topics. Parents left with better tools to support their kids, as well as with a community of other parents going through the same situations. Thanks to gathering for just two hours on a Saturday morning, they could discuss these topics and learn how to support their kids better—as well as how to feel more deeply how meaningful parenting can be for the parent, too.

A Beacon of Hope

Promesa Boyle Heights works hard, and in myriad ways, to support and empower the vibrant community of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. From their Dreamers Club at Roosevelt High School, which provides a safe and supportive space for immigrant and newcomer students; to their Abriendo Puertas program, which underscores their commitment to empowering parents as the first and most influential teachers in their children’s lives; to their effective community school model implemented in partnership with local schools, Promesa Boyle Heights demonstrates a deep understanding of the unique needs and challenges facing their community. By addressing these needs head-on and providing comprehensive support services, they have created a nurturing environment where students can thrive both academically and emotionally.

As Promesa Boyle Heights continues to expand its reach and impact, it is a shining example of what is possible when community organizations and schools unite to uplift and support one another. Through their collaborative efforts and unwavering dedication, they are shaping a brighter future for the residents of Boyle Heights and beyond.