Graduation day was just around the corner for about 70 seniors at Learning Works Charter School, but there were still projects and chapters to complete, papers to turn in, and the tense, palpable energy in the school’s “factory” room reflected as much.
Heads bent, papers spread out, pens and highlighters at the ready; it could have been a snapshot into any high school study hall before finals. But at this alternative Pasadena school for students in grades 9-12, the stakes are much higher.
For some, if they don’t graduate this time, it’s not ever going to happen.
“It’s just the way it goes in poverty; life gets too hard and it takes over,” said Learning Works founder/CEO Mikala Rahn, describing the end-of-year push as “frantic,” to help kids get their diplomas.
Most students at Learning Works are dropouts or were expelled from mainstream school. Many work full time or have babies of their own. The kids have faced really tough obstacles, “ridiculously hard” backgrounds for such short lives, to get even as far as they have at school, said Rahn, who, with a bustling energy that people say is typical, took time out to give a tour of the school.
“This is what we call our ‘organized chaos,’” she said, showing off an enormous white board of subjects on a recent tour of the school’s main facility in East Pasadena. There is also a satellite location in Boyle Heights at Homeboy Industries.
Over the past 10 years, Rahn has developed an educational model that combines academic intervention and tutoring, with wrap-around social support services. Those supports may include case management, counseling, supplemental food and clothing services, and when possible, housing.
Her methods are working. Since she launched the school in 2008, the Pasadena high school dropout rate has been whittled down to 9.4% in 2017 from 24.6%, due in great part to Learning Works and Rahn’s inventive “radical” strategies, as she calls them. In total, they have graduated 860 local students who otherwise never would have had a chance.
“I realize now that these are not students the normal system can handle. I also think they were pushed out for sure, but also, it was impossible for them to stay in; their lives are just a mess,” she said.
Rahn, whose silenced phone was buzzing nonstop, shared a few stories. One of her students was the victim of a domestic abuse case, and the accused was also a fellow student. Many of the kids are couch surfing, and others, just simply homeless.
At that moment, Rahn was fielding texts, trying to get a girl to come back in to finish and graduate, noting, “She’s so close.” But the girl’s mother just died, after the student had lost her dad a few years back. The young woman, amid everything else, was trying to raise money for funeral costs. Maybe, with the help of her tutor, they could sell some food items at a memorial service.
“Tell her I’ll give her $500 if she graduates,” Rahn texted.
She put the phone down. “We run on funeral costs around here,” she said, trying to explain. “There’s someone dying around here every few weeks; a friend, a relative … someone’s baby.”
One young man, just after graduating last year, lost his 4-year-old son to a drive-by shooting in Pasadena.
“Try going to an open-casket funeral for a 4-year-old,” Rahn recalled, tearing up. “But that’s the kind of stuff we’re exposed to here. It can be just terrible.”
Launching Learning Works
Before launching Learning Works, Rahn ran an educational research consulting firm out of the same location in 2005. Called Public Works, it is still successfully run out of the building. Rahn was hired by public school districts to study social issues, high school dropout factors and some of the mitigation efforts to retain kids. With a doctorate from UC Berkeley and two master’s degrees, she had already acquired extensive research methods and experience in large-scale statewide evaluations of educational programs. (When asked about her degrees, Rahn waved dismissively, laughing, her signature big-throated laugh. “Sure, I’ve got all those degrees … they don’t matter now.”)
As part of the study, Rahn was holding tutoring sessions and began to meet some higher-risk kids. She also mentored a young man at Pasadena High School, who had been stabbed and “had all kinds of issues.” Then the ripple effect began. She met his friends, and then their cousins. They all needed help in school, and they all needed transportation or food. They needed a lot to continue in school.
“They all kind of saw me as this weird white lady, but who was feeding people and helping out,” she said, laughing.
Soon, kids were eating at her dining room table and sleeping on her couches, living right along with her own children. She calls the period of time “a total wilderness chapter.” But Rahn learned; she saw that with consistent support, she could get them to graduate.
“I saw that if I worked at it, I could graduate these kids who were entering my life — if I stopped my life, really dedicated the time to it and do what they needed, I could get them to finish school,” she said. “That is what really prompted me to look for new solutions within the district to do this.
“I know I cannot fix all their problems right now, even if I want to. And in my case, I’m an educator; the only real skill set I have is to get them a diploma, so that’s what I’m going do,” Rahn said. “Because at least it’s still a chance. It is still statistically significant in employment and life outcomes to have that diploma.”
Among the things that make Learning Works unique and are key to its success, are “the chasers,” literally what Rahn learned to do at the beginning — offer rides to and from school and keep track of the students.
“I would look at our list of kids and say, ‘What happened to Johnny?’ and no one would know, and I’d say, ‘Well, we can’t just lose Johnny!’ And that’s how the chasers came to be.”
Rahn hired young people, often from the same background and neighborhoods as the students themselves, to chase students to the school to complete their work. The chasers often go into houses, bedrooms and personal spaces, even tracking down the kids through relatives or friends. While all Learning Works students are at the school because they want to get their diploma, it doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t rather sleep in, hang out with their friends or revert to other bad habits they developed as dropouts. The chasers help keep them accountable, offering a nudge, some encouragement or a listening ear. The job entails coaching, mentoring and tutoring.
“All my chasers have gotten addicted to doing good,” Rahn noted, introducing a typical tutor and student.
Matthew Solis, 20, was studying with the help of his chaser/tutor Jose Velasquez just three days before graduation.
Solis previously attended John Muir and then Rose City High School, before he got kicked out. Working full time now at the Altadena Country Club as a line chef, Solis said he finally decided it was time to get his diploma.
“Well, I’m a three-time senior,” Solis noted, with Velasquez chiming in, “Yeah, but he’s a really good senior!”
Solis, chuckling, said that although school has been hard, he knows he’ll have a better chance at jobs with a high school diploma. He’d like to continue as a chef, and maybe even open his own restaurant one day.
“At first I kept flunking out, but then I decided I’m just gonna get it done,” he said, noting that Velasquez has been there for him along the way, adding, “Plus, he’s making me do it.”
Velasquez smiled, nodding in agreement: “Hey, I’ve invested a lot of time and effort into you.”
Cycle of Poverty
One of the biggest challenges facing students who drop out is housing, Rahn noted. Many are couch surfers and move from one home to another; some are homeless or get kicked out of their family home. But the trickle-down effect of high housing costs and the ensuing crises for young people is real.
“There is no difference between an 18-year-old who goes homeless and a 52-year-old man,” she said, noting alternative, low-cost housing for adult students is nonexistent. “If you don’t have stable housing, you can’t function. You can’t get a job, you can’t study, how do you even stay safe?”
One of her current employees, who is a single mom, qualified for Section 8 housing, but couldn’t find any available in Pasadena and had to move to Lynwood. She now commutes by bus to bring her child to school and work.
“Poverty is so much work; it’s just exhausting to be poor and to keep it going from the one meal to the next, it’s just so tiring,” Rahn noted.
Destinee Harding, 18, who was also “cramming” to graduate, said she dropped out at Muir after she was evicted with her mom from their apartment. She started working full time at McDonald’s, and then moved in with her boyfriend. Soon realizing she couldn’t work full time and go to school, her teachers recommended Harding come to Learning Works.
Harding, who loves to write, said someday she’d like to study journalism.
“I do my best to improve my writing, I hope to go to Pasadena City College someday, but first I need to save and get a car,” said Harding, who had to find a new place to live later that night. On top of finishing school work to graduate, she had to retrieve her things from her boyfriend’s place and see if she could stay with her grandma.
Rahn highlighted kids such as Harding, who want to work hard, but don’t have the job skill training to tide her over to college. This is quickly becoming her new area of focus.
“The high school diploma on its own isn’t enough,” she said. “We need more pathways into post-secondary education. We need simpler pathways for them to get higher-wage jobs.”
Homeboy Industries Collaboration
In a major move to bring professional job training to students of Learning Works Charter School locally, Rahn, Homeboy Industries and First United Methodist Church have joined forces to bring Homeboy Youth Cafe and Homegirl Catering to Pasadena.
The cafe may open by fall, with food being provided by Homegirl Catering, which will move operations to the onsite kitchen later in 2019. The cafe will be located next door to the Methodist Church at 500 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena Community Foundation, at its recent annual Local Heroes celebration, granted $25,000 to help the collaboration start up the cafe.
“I’ve been a long-time admirer of Mikala,” said foundation President/CEO Jennifer DeVoll, noting that PCF was impressed with the collaborative nature of the cafe. “She cares so deeply about these kids and has interacted with them in such a personal and loving way. She’s created this culture of third and fourth chances for kids who’ve never had that in their lives.”
The cafe will serve to provide food-service job training to students enrolled at Learning Works. The job training will be designed to help students maintain gainful employment while they study to graduate from high school, and provide transitional employment to students already graduated. All profits will go back to the students and programs at Learning Works.
Arlin Crane, vice president of social enterprise at Homeboy Industries, has worked closely with Rahn to develop the idea for the cafe, noting how excited the partners are to begin the enterprise.
Learning Works and Homeboy have had a close collaboration for years, and Rahn earlier this year became chief of education for Homeboy Industries.
“This is much more than giving youth jobs; it’s giving them a home, it’s giving youth a place to go and giving them work-ready skills, a place to show them they are loved, so they don’t go down the wrong path,” Crane said, noting that Rahn’s tough-love strategies have been important in reaching the students at Learning Works.
“Not only does she have incredible passion, but she does not give up, not ever, on these kids. She will chase down students, take them home with her. She’s this amazing kind of butt-kicker,” Crane said. “And she gets them when they’re young and still have a chance at school. When you see that, you say, wow, Mikala Rahn just broke that cycle. And that’s our goal. It’s to break that poverty cycle.”