In Partnership with The 74

LA charter is closing the ‘savvy gap’ for poor and immigrant students through high school internships

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | October 23, 2017



Ricardo Mireles, executive director of Academia Avance, with his son Sol Mireles Sánchez, who is a student at the Highland Park charter school.

High school seniors at Academia Avance, an independent public charter school in northeast Los Angeles, show up to school looking like they’re headed to work.

That’s because they are.

Three days a week, all students in the senior class head off to internships where they are mentored by medical, legal, and business professionals.

“Privileged kids grow up being exposed to college and professional life or have parents that have the connections that their children can take advantage of, but not these kids,” said Ricardo Mireles, executive director of Academia Avance.

Mireles has been working to close what he calls “the savvy gap” since Avance’s first graduating class in 2011 by offering the “Avance Life Prep Program,” based on the Escalera model, a national program created by UnidosUS that promotes economic mobility for Latino youth.

“Income, travels, and parents’ education level, all of that have a huge determination on the achievement of the children,” he said. “The savvy gap is determined by those factors and by who has those professional connections — the parent that calls his buddy from college who is a doctor, a lawyer for his son to spend a summer working with them.”

The majority, 98 percent of his students are Latino, and more than 90 percent are low-income. Most come from immigrant families, and Mireles estimates that more than 40 percent have at least one parent who is undocumented, such as Fatima Avelica, the eighth-grader whose father was arrested in February by federal immigration agents while driving her to the school. Every year when Avance’s seniors apply for financial aid, 10 percent to 15 percent find out they are not citizens.

“We are trying to create those connections for our families, for our students while they are still in high school.”

Ricardo Mireles talks with high school students during a break.

Internships can play a key role in creating a skilled workforce, and states nationwide are grappling with how to find enough skilled workers. By 2025, California could be short 1.5 million workers who have at least some college, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. This fall, Colorado launched a statewide apprenticeship program with 40 participating companies. And President Donald Trump has called for a major expansion of apprenticeship programs to help build a pipeline of skilled workers.

Seniors at Academia Avance come to school in business attire, attend one class, and then head to their internships three days a week. The internships, which start in October and run through April, are provided by two dozen organizations and businesses, including MALDEF, the Pasadena Humane Society, and Huntington Hospital, and White Memorial Medical Center.

“Academia Avance’s Life Prep Program clearly embodies the power that intentional school partnerships can have to prepare students for success in college and career,” said LA Unified board member Ref Rodríguez, who represents the district where Avance is located in Highland Park. “Avance’s partnerships allow students to connect with the world and truly explore their career options at an early age.”

Students are back in school by 2 p.m. to take another class that is part of their senior writing program, where they write about their experiences at work.

Some of those experiences have been life-changing, such as for Avance graduate Genesis Guevara.

Guevara, a daughter of immigrants from Nicaragua and Guatemala, decided to attend Avance because the school “was offering opportunities that in other schools I’d have to fight for,” she said. “I took that advantage because I knew very early on in life that I wanted to go to college. That never was in question.”

She said her determination to pursue a college education was a way to appreciate the sacrifice their parents made in coming to this country.

“No one in my family knew how to apply, where to go for financial aid. I didn’t even know I had to take a SAT (test) to go to college,” said the 21-year-old who is now a San Diego State University graduate. She earned two bachelor’s degrees, one in political science and another in public law. She is working this year before heading to law school.

“I wanted to show that is possible for a family like us to go to college no matter where we come from,” she said. “Avance gave me that knowledge and guided me through the process.”

Guevara’s younger brother is currently in his senior year at Avance. She is making sure that he also takes advantage of the internship program, just like she did at White Memorial.

“I went there not knowing what to expect,” said Guevara, who interned in the compliance department, whose director became her mentor.

“It was a completely different environment. I did not know how to work in an office setting environment with important people,” she said. “I learned a lot about what it is to be in the professional world, what it is to have an education, a degree. They taught me how to deal with professional people, networking, how to compose yourself, etiquette, many things that I’m eternally grateful for.”

Once she finished the internship through Avance, she returned every summer to volunteer during her college years.

Guevara’s dream is to become an attorney and, one day, a federal or state supreme court judge. “I’m proof that no matter where you come from, you can accomplish anything you want, finding the right opportunities and working hard.”

Genesis Guevara graduated from Academia Avance and San Diego State University. Next: law school. (From her Facebook page)

Mireles said, “She is closing the savvy gap for her siblings. This opportunity not only benefits one member of the family but it only amplifies and accelerates the benefit for the rest.”

Mireles said that while the students work in their internships, they also go through the process of applying to college and for financial aid. Some also take remedial courses and make up required courses, such as A-G classes, so they are eligible for all colleges.

“Students are making critical decisions in their senior year that are going to impact their career paths for the next 10 years in terms of which majors they will choose, which schools they want to go, what profession. So these internships offer them real opportunities to get real work experiences so they can make better decisions.”

But Mireles said the goal doesn’t end there. “More than getting into college, we want them to persist through the first year, when more college dropouts happen,” he said. “We’re tracking about 70 percent of our alumni so they complete college or have a certificate that will help them in their career path.”

Avance’s graduation rate for the class of 2017 was 100 percent, and 84 percent were accepted to four-year institutions. The school opened in the fall of 2005 with 100 students in the sixth- and seventh-grades. Now the school serves 400 students in grades six through 12.

“I proudly encourage Avance to share the ‘work educational experience’ approach, so that all Los Angeles students can benefit from authentic professional learning experiences like these,” Rodríguez said.

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