Los Angeles educators are honored with the first Sal Castro Award for continuing the legacy of the ‘68 East LA Walkouts
Esmeralda Fabián Romero | February 28, 2018
As LA Unified commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Walkouts, the district honored eleven educators who are continuing the legacy of Sal Castro, the social studies teacher who guided 15,000 students who left their East Los Angeles classrooms on March 1, 1968, to fight for educational justice.
The winners were selected from the Walkouts’ five “legacy schools” — Wilson, Garfield, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Belmont high schools — and were honored with the first Sal Castro Award for “not only teaching but also advocating” for their students during a ceremony Saturday at East Los Angeles College.
“These teachers represent everything students were fighting for 50 years ago. They wanted teachers that could connect with them, they understand who they are, their culture, and can guide them to succeed,” José Huerta, the Local District East superintendent, said at the awards ceremony.
The teachers and counselors were selected for their leadership development of youth, civic engagement, education around social justice issues, and advocacy for equity and access to college and career pathways.
“These teachers embodied the spirit of Sal Castro who deeply cared, loved, and advocated for his students,” said LA Unified Board President Mónica García, who hosted the ceremony. Castro, who taught at Lincoln and Belmont, died in 2013.
“I am someone who benefited from Sal Castro’s legacy every day. Being the third Latina serving on the LAUSD board, it was just possible thanks to the access Castro made possible for all of us,” she said.
Huerta said it’s teachers and counselors like the ones honored Saturday who have been fundamental in helping the local East Side district reach the highest A-G graduation rate — 92 percent — of all LA Unified’s local districts and the lowest suspension rate of 0.2 percent for last school year. He also said that the preliminary graduation rate for the class of 2017 in the Local District East is 88 percent for all schools, including options/continuation schools.
Latino students make up 96 percent of students at East Side schools, and most live in low- income households. Huerta said the schools serve a significant student population with special needs as well as a large number of English learners.
“Just like these teachers, we need to connect with students, we need to keep them in the schools every day. They can’t be chronically absent, they need to be in school, sometimes they have obligations, are caregivers for a family member, somehow we have to offer support to them. The only way to make that happen is hiring the right people, people that can connect with them and have that passion to work with these students.”
Ben Gertner, principal of Roosevelt High School, credited his teachers and counselors, including the three winners from the school — counselor Vera Cline and ethnic studies teacher Jorge López and history teacherMariana Ramírez — for helping Roosevelt raise its graduation rate from 50 percent six years ago to nearly 80 percent in the 2016 school year. When the official grad rate for 2017 comes out this spring, he expects it will be 87 percent.
Its college acceptance rate has almost doubled in six years, going from 30 percent to 56 percent, and its four-year college enrollment rate has gone from 27 percent to 44 percent, Gertner said.
“I was in my second year of college when I learned about Sal Castro and the movement,” said Lopez, one of the winners at Roosevelt. “That was life-changing for me. I decided then that I wanted to become a teacher on the East Side.” At Roosevelt, he is also working to develop more ethnic studies courses and is the school’s community outreach director.
Ramírez said how Castro and leaders of the movement are her inspiration in the classroom. “When things get difficult, when we see our communities being attacked, we looked (to the leaders of the Walkouts) to give us the hope that we need to provide quality and excellence to our students.”
From Garfield High School the awardees were counselor Deana Duran and social studies teacher Juan García, who said he hopes one day to deserve such a symbolic award.
“I want elementary, middle school students to know about the movement, so they can get the inspiration, the identity, and the strength they need in order to succeed in their academics and in their lives,” he said.
Other teachers and counselors who received the honor were Daniel Alamo and Arthur Licon from Lincoln High School, and Stephen Calhoun and John Zunino from Belmont High School, the two schools where Castro spent over 40 years working as a teacher and counselor in LA Unified until his retirement in 2004. In 2010, the district honored his service by naming a school in his name, Salvador B. Castro Middle School, that shares campus with Belmont High.
“Sal is one of the main reasons why I became an educator,” said history teacher Rodolfo Dueñas, who along with counselor Elsa Gutiérrez-Aviles were the two educators honored from Wilson High School.
“I had the privilege to meet Sal. He and the ‘68 students of the movement live in my heart. They push me forward. My brother and sister died in a drive-by shooting. In 1986 we didn’t have the wrap-around services we have today for our students,” said Dueñas, who is also in charge of a restorative justice program at Wilson.
The positive outcomes from the Walkouts’ legacy have not been immediate. Huerta said when he was young, LA Unified didn’t have teachers like those being recognized Saturday. He said his parents sent him to a Catholic school so he could get a high-quality education. But now he is proud to be part of LA Unified its vision for the next 50 years, called Vision 2068.
“We have a vision that in 50 years from now every kid from this community will be graduating college and career ready,” said Mónica García.
“If my parents could see what we’re doing now in the East Side schools, I’m sure they would have said, ‘Son, you can go to Garfield or Roosevelt and they will educate you.’ They had no trust in our schools back in the days, but things are different now, and they can only get better,” Huerta said.