Every graduation is a milestone whether it be from preschool or grad school. A time to recognize the achievement of receiving a diploma at whatever level.
By Cheryl Cabot
At Learning Works Charter School, graduation is a joyous celebration of accomplishments. To be the first in your family to graduate from high school. To succeed when the odds were against you. To be lifted-up when you thought you could never get back up. Most of these kids think they are not capable of graduating, because they have been told that their whole life.
“The students we serve would inaccurately be called ‘at risk’ students. They are in fact, ‘in crisis’ students who have already demonstrated a behavior or condition that exceeds ‘at risk,’ such as becoming pregnant or entering the juvenile delinquency system, or even dropping out of school. We believe all youth in our community need a high school diploma.” (Learning Works Mission Statement)
The graduation is such an exciting event for the Learning Works students, that their exuberance has gotten them kicked out of the two previous graduation locations (something they acknowledge with a slight sense of pride)! But fortunately, the Pasadena United Methodist Church has been more tolerant, and has allowed them to stay. In fact, the pastor at the recent graduation was so moved she sobbed and said, “How great is this?” She then had them do the wave.
The driving force and founder of Learning Works is Mikala Rahn. She originally founded Public Works as an educational consultancy. Her expertise was in doing the research for any program by California Department of Education, the Feds, and local school districts. She has always believed in hands-on experience, so she opened a tutoring center for local students. It was then she discovered many of her students were dropouts and had problems at home.
Over the course of a couple of years Mikala started working with Pasadena Unified and with Rose City School, their dropout retention center. Learning Works became a satellite for them. After a few years of this, Mikala had a clear vision of how she wanted the school to run. In 2008 she applied for and won a charter to open a new school.
Learning Works Charter School
Learning Works Charter School works with students from grades 6-12. The main campus is in Pasadena. A satellite campus is in at Boyle Heights in conjunction with Home Boys Industries. With a combined number of students at about 350, both campuses work as a team, using the same curriculum.
“Father Greg asked me to open up a school there, and I couldn’t turn him down,” Mikala said. That was 12 years ago.
A tour of the Pasadena campus, led by Director of Communications, Kurt Rahn, started at the “warehouse,” where most of the learning happens. It is not a typical classroom. Stations throughout the room have a teacher’s desk and a table where the student and chaser sit. Everyone is on a first-name basis.
Nobody gets away with anything
“A chaser is pretty much what it sounds like,” Rahn said. “They chase the students to their mentors, their parent surrogates or whoever. They know who to get a hold of if the student is not showing up or not responding. The chasers know how to find them and bring them back to school. Hence the ‘chasers.’
The students work their way through five to ten modules that are written to California standards. The teachers hold the students to these standards.
“Nobody gets away with anything because the teachers and chasers are right there beside them. There’s nowhere to hide,” Rahn said. “Kids need to earn a diploma, or need the opportunity to, and we are removing the obstacles to that.”
Two ways they are moving obstacles are other significant learning areas. One is the PPT area; Pregnant & Parenting Teens. They have their own classroom with teachers, chasers, and childcare provided in a beautiful nursery. The nursery is adjacent to the classroom, so there is no insecurity about the baby.
One young parent drives everyday from downtown Los Angeles. The young man lives with his mother who works, and with the baby’s mother out of the picture, Learning Works PPT program provides him childcare. This allows him to continue his education and receive his high school diploma.
Another important part of Learning Works is HOPE Works. This room is for homeless students. There are snacks, a washer and dryer and a shower available. It gives them a safe place to relax for a bit.
“We are always looking for the next need.” Mikala said. “We are now working on housing, by having a house case manager, who would help the students, and at times families, find housing. It may be with other family members, or neighbors or friends with a couch to offer. We will offer to pay so the student is not on the streets or in shelters, which are not safe for young people. We also help youths who have aged out of foster care get housing. It just takes a lot of paperwork.”
During the pandemic, they needed a food bank. They had to turn the science center into a pantry because teachers couldn’t get supplies for the science lab. With the help of All Saints and First United Methodist churches, they filled tables with food and diapers and other supplies.
“On Fridays, we stop everything and everybody dances for 15 minutes. It’s stress release. We have yoga in the garden. We have a garden down the street. We brought in really neat speakers this year for the staff regarding mental health.”
Kids get high school diplomas
Kurt & Mikala are on call 24/7. These kids need out of the box rules. Their chasers are not stymied by union rules as a public school would be. They might need to call on a chaser to go to an arrest of one of the students. The families are distraught and don’t know what to do. The Rahns show them the “ins & outs” of how to get a public defender and deal with the legal system.
Learning Works provides a wraparound approach for working with their students, who have dropped out for whatever reason. Pregnancy, brushes with the law, homelessness. “First thing in our philosophy is to try to mitigate that stuff as much as possible first, so they can focus on what they need to,” Kurt said.
Learning Works focuses on kids getting high school diplomas. That’s what they do. They help students and families work through whatever is holding them back from achieving that goal. They have been so successful that they are hoping to expand their campus and take in more students. Which of course will lead to an even more joyous, and exuberant, celebration at graduation!
The Learning Works campus is at 90 North Daisy Avenue in Pasadena, CA 91107. They will be resuming classes in the Fall. If you know of someone who is in crisis and needs to earn a high school diploma, have them call 626.564.2871.
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