By Lauren A. Jones, Contributing Writer
In the center of a newly renovated strip mall in Inglewood, California, that houses a McDonald’s, a DD’s Discount and a beauty supply store, lies an inconspicuous office building, housing a remarkable resource center for students in pursuit of their high school diploma called Learn4Life. The educational institution provides a safe space for young adults, many of whom have experienced trauma or adversity that discouraged them from traditional schooling, including homelessness, incarceration, and foster care, those who have aged out of the school system and young parents.
Learn4Life, at a glance, is a network of nonprofit, tuition-free public schools that serve more than 49,000 students across California. It was founded to combat the growing concern around the country for students dropping out of school, and to give those students an alternative option to pursue an education. Around the country, schools are facing nearly 1.2 million dropouts annually.
At a roundtable prior to the pandemic, sat three students at the Inglewood center. Jordan Williams, Dionjala Hardeman and Iefanyi Anoh ,alongside the school’s principal, Norma Vijeila, their community liaison, Eunetra Rutledge and Learn4Life’s Senior Vice President of External Affairs Bob Morales. Each of the students and members of the executive team and faculty detailed their perspective of the center; how it has impacted them and their community.
Learn4Life student Jordan Williams, Principal Norma Vijeila, and fellow students Kiara Bailey-Kourtney Peoples pose for a photo at the EmpowerHer Summit at Learn4Life Center in Inglewood, Calif. (Courtesy Learn4Life)
The Inglewood Learn4Life center’s population of students is made up of predominantly African Americans whereas many of the other centers are majority Latino, ranging from ages 17-24. Students generally enroll with a 4th or 5th grade education and are at least one grade level behind in terms of credits.
Anoh is considered an anomaly because of his age; he enrolled in the center directly from middle school.
“I feel safe here,” said Anoh, who is a part of the center’s leadership program. “I come in here every day sometimes just to show my face.”
He is on track to graduate with his high school diploma a year early with aspirations of ultimately becoming a surgeon.
His story, however, is unlike the majority of his fellow students at the center who have had some experience in a traditional high school setting.
Williams stumbled upon Learn4Life after moving from Memphis, Tennessee, through a friend who had recently graduated from the center. When she moved to Los Angeles, she was dealing with the loss of her father who had passed away. Due to her circumstances, she missed school for nearly half a year and was in need of a fresh start.
“I do feel this school is a gateway and just an escape,” eighteen-year-old Williams explained. “In regular school, there’s more distractions and more focus on other things rather than education. Here, I feel like you have more time to just really learn discipline and time management.”
Now, in her third year, she has taken advantage of the many offerings by the center, including the work study program, philanthropic field trips and traveling opportunities.
“This is not just a learning center, this is a second home,” remarked Williams.
Though her focus remains on her coursework and developing practical skills, along the way, she discovered a positive outlet to deal with her past. One of her teachers, Mrs. Wayne, gave Williams a journal when she opened up about her trauma and prompted her by asking, ‘What are you going to do about it?’
“She taught me how to express myself,” Williams said. Out of this exercise of writing things down and confronting her feelings, birthed her passion for poetry.
“I found the poet in me through Learn4Life,” she expressed. “Learn4Life gives me purpose.”
In part, the school has been successful in impacting the lives of its students because each member of the administration and faculty is hired and vetted based on their investment in student’s success.
“Everything that we do here, from the teachers, the front desk, the principal, every person has to share that they care for the kids,” said Vijeila, who has an unique connection to her students as a high school dropout. Her journey to ultimately earning a doctorate degree was unconventional. The empathy that she has for each individual student is what she requires of her entire staff.
“Our teachers are much more like life counselors,” said Morales. “Students come because they feel safe. They realize that they have resources, counselors and tutors available for them. We make them feel a part of these centers.”
Dionjala Hardeman, 20, was able to finally feel a sense of belonging at the center after years of jumping from school-to-school.
“I’ve always had trouble, especially in high school,” she stated.
Hardeman was a product of the local Los Angeles school system. She attended Dorsey High School before her father fell ill with kidney failure and was hospitalized for months. At the recommendation of Dorsey, she enrolled back in continuation school at View Park Continuation High School, but struggled mightily as she attempted to assimilate back into the school system after a year off.
“I was falling behind,” she said. “I really wasn’t doing my work and I just felt like I was lost.”
Once she saw a commercial advertising Learn4Life, she decided to give school one last try.
“From the moment I came, I was feeling like ‘oh yes, this is the right choice for me,’” she expressed.
In a short time at the center, Hardeman has found community through field trips, like a visit to Loyola Marymount University for a political rally. Prior to that day, she said she would attend her classes but had not forged any meaningful connections with her classmates.
“At school, we can’t really talk, but when you’re out somewhere you have the ability to talk with people,” Hardeman smiled. Through this shared experience, she bonded with other students, it being her first time setting foot on a college campus. “It was a different environment and I felt like we could be more free.”
Hardeman and Williams are both a part of the workforce program and are dually enrolled in an online college success seminar through West Los Angeles Community College. Once their school day wraps, they put on their blue vests, signaling the start of their work shift. For 15 hours a week, they help out around the center to keep it clean, restocking supplies and other miscellaneous tasks.
“It makes me feel like I have a purpose,” stated Hardeman. “I feel important now. I feel like I’m doing something that will look good on my resume and I’m doing something for my school that I really love.”
The work internship program was created for similar students who need to earn a living wage because of their financial responsibilities. Instead of work being another deterrent from attending school, it is a part of their weekly routine without the challenges of transportation or scheduling.
The center has made it a part of the school’s mission to eliminate as many barriers to a high school diploma as possible and that means providing resources to ease those challenges. Rutledge, who has served as the Inglewood campus Community Liaison for the last five years, has solidified partnerships with numerous corporate partners, nonprofits and community organizations.
“The beauty of it is we are able to assess the individual needs of our students, so when the teachers or the administration comes to me and says they have a student in need, even if it’s just one student, it’s my job to go out and find a partner or a resource that can help us serve that student.”
One such partnership was derived from the school’s HOPE program, which is for students who are unable to attend a traditional school due to pregnancy, having to care for their siblings or who is a young parent. It is a 5-week cohort that teaches health and hygiene, healthy relationships, financial literacy and outlines a post-secondary plan. Their partnership with Baby 2 Baby, a nonprofit, provides products from diapers and strollers to wipes and car seats for students in need.
Another distinct program based on the center’s experiential learning model is it offers free international trips to students to explore China, Italy and Cuba for 10-12 days.
“Many of our students have not left their community,” Morales stated. “Many of our students have not been on an airplane before. For them to be able to go there, at no expense to them, is a life-changing experience. Give them opportunities that they would never otherwise have; it’s really something that we invest a great deal of effort and money into, so that our students have that opportunity to go.”
The long-list of partnerships include access to professional clothing for job interviews, food banks, eye exams, a workforce pipeline with UPS, and exposure to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Not to mention, the exhaustive on-campus resources like a school psychologist, school counselor who focuses on career planning, and one-on-one tutoring, along with peer tutoring and mentorship.
The challenges that led many of these students into this alternative schooling still exist and due to the global pandemic, students are being faced with new ones. With students having to navigate the trauma associated with the pandemic, in addition to having their families marginalized due to loss of work, reduced access to hi-speed internet and a lack of suitable at-home learning accommodations, there is a fear that these students will be left further behind the achievement gap.
The COVID-19 outbreak has led to nationwide school closures, which has forced Learn4Life’s coursework to transition to an online setup that allows students to schedule one-on-one meetings with teachers and tutors through Google Hangouts, a private YouTube curricular channel and instant messaging.
With the future uncertain, Learn4Life continues to provide innovative adaptations that include offering hot spots and devices to accommodate the needs of its students.