Pearl Arredondo doesn’t hide that her father was a gang member. She also doesn’t mind talking about her childhood in the low-income East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights or about her single mother who battled cancer while Arredondo was in college.
At 32, if Arredondo is anything, she’s honest about her history. In fact, she shares her stories with her students at San Fernando Institute for Applied Media, a pilot school that she cofounded in 2010.
“Talking about these things make you more human,” says Arredondo, who recently gave a TED talk about her journey. “It’s not about forgetting about who you are but focusing on making your life better.”
There were moments I thought, ‘This cannot be done. There is no way I can survive this.’The fact that she'd one day start a school would have been impossible for Arredondo to believe back in fifth grade. Her home life was chaotic. Her father, who was in a gang, was often not around to help the family. The school that she attended was also “gang infested,” with an unfocused curriculum and not enough discipline for students. But there was one teacher, Susan Gartner Hirschkoff, who made an incredible impression on her.
Arredondo recalls how Hirschkoff would take her to lunch and fill her with encouragement. She listened to Arredondo’s family problems. “She was going to make sure it didn’t impact me in a negative way,” Arredondo says.
Hirschkoff placed Arredondo on a very different path from the one the little fifth grader envisioned. She told Arredondo to go to a wealthier, better school across town, even if it meant catching a bus and pushing her comfort zone.
While the kids at her new school were open to students of various cultures, the teachers were not. They didn’t always appreciate students like Arredondo, who were part of mandatory integration. “It wasn’t an easy journey,” she recalls. “There were moments I thought, ‘This cannot be done. There is no way I can survive this.’ But you find somehow that courage deep down, dig for it.”
Arredondo says that she learned a valuable lesson during those difficult years. “When you try to help yourself, there are always people willing to help you,” she says. “It’s when you give up on yourself that people will give up on you. Whether it is teachers, neighbors, people at church, people are there to give encouragement, motivation, and a hand, and you will make it through another day.”
After earning bachelor's and master's degrees at her dream school, Pepperdine University, Arredondo returned to teach at the very middle school that she first attended. She started a multimedia academy there but realized the institutional problems were accute, such as teacher turnover, academic failure, and little, if any, accountability. That’s when she and a group of other teachers decided to expand the academy and start the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media, the first pilot school established in the Los Angeles Unified School District at the middle school level.
“We had started a small learning academy of 350 students and we saw how we could personalize education,” Arredondo says. “We got to know the students’ families. We wanted to keep the academy, and the rest of the school wanted to go back to the other way. So we started this school.”
The San Fernando Institute for Applied Media now has more than 400 students and is becoming a model for other school districts.
At the beginning of the school year, Arredondo doesn’t immediately tell her students about her childhood. Instead, she places copies of her diplomas on a classroom bulletin board along with a picture of Pepperdine University, where she dreamed of attending as a child. She also shows the students that she graduated high school with honors and explains that can be their goal, too.
“It’s important for them to know I went to school just like them,” Arredondo says. “I was able to dream big and I want them to think beyond the ghetto.”
Contrary to its name, the focus of the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media (SFIAM) is not the technology itself. The technology is used for the greater purpose of teaching subjects like communications, critical thinking, and problem solving. The theory is that students learn a whole curriculum while closing the digital divide between children of privilege and those of low-income households. The learning is project-based, so students might develop their understanding of communications by telling stories through filmmaking or animation on iPads.
“These are 21st-century skills,” Arredondo says. “It’s not about how many facts you learn now, but can you think outside the box? Can you work in a group? Can you share your idea? Can you articulate your idea?”
Arredondo wants her students to articulate what they are thinking, spread positive ideas, and change the world around them. “I want them to be solutions oriented,” she says.
Students also work on community projects, seeking outside resources and partnerships to improve the community.
“In order to really change the cycle of low income, you need to get the entire community and its resources involved,” she says. “No one wants anyone to fail.”
This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.