Building Opportunity- How our middle and high schools on LA’s Eastside Collaborate

Three miles. Two schools. One goal. For the last seven years, Ánimo Ellen Ochoa Charter Middle School (AEO) and Oscar De La Hoya Ánimo Charter High School (ODLHA) have worked in tandem to help close opportunity gaps for students in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. 

Located roughly three miles apart, these two schools have helped thousands of students excel academically and reach their college dreams by providing small community-centered learning environments, rigorous coursework, ample support, enriching extracurricular activities, and college and career prep resources.

AEO: Building a Foundation

Cynthia Ybarra, the principal of AEO and the former principal at ODLHA, has prioritized maintaining a strong relationship with the nearby Green Dot high school. “I always refer to ODLHA as a big brother, or big sister school to AEO,” Ybarra said. “ODLHA has established a great reputation as a quality school in East LA, and many of our middle school alumni at AEO have graduated from there.” 

Currently, parents and students must make a deliberate choice to enroll their child into both AEO and ODLHA. AEO assistant principal Naima Otero said positive interactions with staff at AEO has often encouraged parents to choose the Green Dot high school. “That speaks to the culture and routines of our schools network-wide,” Otero said. Every year, the middle school holds a high school information fair, where parents can learn about the local high school options available to their children. 

But trust, Otero said, is ODLHA’s differentiating factor when parents compare high school options.. “There’s a trust factor. We work really hard at building relationships and establishing communication with our families, and that’s very important,” Otero said.

Ybarra believes one of the largest advantages that students who attend both AEO and ODLHA enjoy is a strong understanding of the schools’ college-going culture. “Both of our schools are small schools, but with staff that cares about our students. When our students leave our school, they find the same environment at ODLHA,” Ybarra said. At AEO, middle school students are exposed to college campuses, A-G requirements, the college application process, and free college level courses—starting on the first day of school.

AEO and ODLHA also share a strong relationship with East Los Angeles College, where students at both schools have the opportunity to earn free college credits while in school. First instituted at ODLHA, Ybarra established a similar partnership with ELAC at AEO when she became principal. “When we say college, leadership, and life, we mean it. We’re showing it by giving students an opportunity to tackle college early on,” Otero said. “And our students who attend ODLHA continue down that path, and they apply to colleges,” Ybarra added.

ODLHA: Creating a Launchpad

Xochitl Avellan, the former principal of ODLHA and current area superintendent, said that AEO students get a head start by understanding the mission behind the school culture. “When a student comes from AEO and enters ODLHA, they come prepared with a mindset and they really feel a part of our community,” Avellan said. “They just dive into their high school experience without needing to overcome another hurdle. They come equipped.” 

ODLHA, which ranks in the top 25 percent of high schools in the United States, offers students access to 10 Advanced Placement courses and a strong college-readiness program that prepares students for college and career. As a result, the California Gold Ribbon school has helped students achieve incredible academic growth in comparison to neighboring schools in Los Angeles. 

But community reigns as the most important factor at ODLHA. “We are very much about including the community, and our roots. And I believe that Cynthia Ybarra has also really been working hard on making her school a part of that narrative,” Avellan said. “Our parents are also dedicated, and it was beautiful to see during the pandemic when we hosted coffee with the principal every month.”

A Testament to Success

Victor Barajas, a proud alumni of both AEO and ODLHA, recalls a pleasant and enlightening in-school experience. ”There are so many things apart from the academics at these two schools that will prepare you and give you the momentum to do well,” Barajas said. 

With his sights set on becoming a film director, Barajas now works as a freelance photographer and a filmmaker, a passion and career ignited by ODLHA. “It was my freshman year of high school where I joined an after school program under arc. The advisors promoted a film club, and that’s when I found something that I want to do,” Bajaras said. In the arc film club, Barajas  learned how to edit video and received guidance from local mentors. “We got gigs at the convention center, and we made films for our schools. We had a lot of opportunities that I’m super grateful for.” 

Reflecting on his middle school experiences,Barajas believes AEO set the bar high and fueled his ability to achieve. “I learned how to get in the momentum of doing work. I think one of the many things that AEO excelled in is preparing us for what high school will hold, and our future in education,” Barajas said. “They prepare you for the rhythm of assignments, prepare you for tests, and help you to build relationships with the people at the school. ”  

A year after graduation from high school, Barajas said the most memorable thing about his experience at AEO and ODLHA was the strong sense of community he felt in the classroom. “I got a deeper connection with my classmates and my teachers. They really emphasize preparing you for the future.” Barajas said one of the classes that encouraged him to think about his future was his 11th grade college readiness course. “I started doing a lot of research on colleges and careers. And that’s where I learned that college is important, and you need it to get where you want to go in life.”

At Green Dot Public Schools, we prepare both middle and high school students for success in college, leadership, and life. Our schools build strong, tight-knit communities that prioritize a college-going culture, high-quality teachers, and rigorous academic programs so our students have a competitive academic edge when they enter college.