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Why This Senior Almost Didn’t Apply to His Dream Schools

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This piece is part of Faces of Growth, a series of profiles that underscore the importance of looking at student performance and school effectiveness through the lens of growth, and not just absolute achievement. This series provides an opportunity to celebrate our students’ hard work and our educators’ tireless dedication.

Justin Villeraldo once had a strained relationship with school. “Before coming here I would mess around in class and do just enough work so I could culminate,” recalled Villeraldo. “I hated English class the most; I wasn’t able to focus, and I wouldn’t try.” When he entered Oscar De La Hoya Ánimo Charter High School (ODLH) as a freshman, his state testing results demonstrated a fourth grade proficiency in English. Villeraldo, like many of his peers, had been let down by a school system that allowed him to slip through the cracks and fall several grades behind instead of addressing the barriers to his success.

Villeraldo recalls immediately noticing a difference when he began as a freshman at ODLH: “Teachers focused on you more.” At ODLH, teachers saw Villeraldo’s potential and were able to provide him with personalized attention to address the barriers holding him back and concurrently hold him accountable for his choices. The personalized attention and academic rigor sparked something within Villeraldo and helped change the way he viewed school and his future.

Green Dot’s school leaders work closely with teachers providing coaching and supports to ensure that all teachers have the skills and capacity to provide high-quality instruction while meeting student’s individualized needs. He attributes part of his growth to the relationships he was able to cultivate with teachers. “If I didn’t come to ODLH I know I wouldn’t be the same person,” said Villeraldo. “The relationships with the teachers really helped, if I had gone to [a neighboring school] I know the classes are bigger so I wouldn’t get that one on one relationship and support from teachers.”

A Bright Future

By his junior year, Villeraldo displayed tremendous growth: no longer was he unmotivated and disengaged, but rather he was driven and excelling in his courses and headed on a path to college. That year on his state exam, he exceeded standard proficiency in English, growing seven grade levels in just three years!

ODLH has been helping students in the East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights community prepare for college, leadership, and life since 2003. At Green Dot, we know the biggest driver of upward mobility is education. This is why our schools deliver a rigorous college preparatory curriculum and a structured program of supports. It is also why nearly all ODLH graduates are accepted to and attending college.

For Villeraldo, college was once something his parents wanted him to pursue, but now it’s something he genuinely desires: “I learned that if you go to college, there are a lot more opportunities. It expands your options so you won’t just have to do manual labor work.” Despite displaying tremendous growth, taking advanced classes, and being actively involved in school, Villeraldo almost didn’t apply to his dream schools. “I thought they were out of my reach,” he admitted.

He recalls a conversation with his college readiness teacher, Kim Kawaratani: “She pushes you to not be scared to apply for schools. She’ll tell you, ‘It’s worth it. You never know, so just take the chance.’” Because of Kawaratani, he applied to a handful of schools, including the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of California, Santa Barbra, University of California, Merced. Though he wasn’t accepted into UCLA, he was accepted to UC Santa Barbra and UC Merced. In the fall, Villeraldo hopes to study biochemistry, an area of study he became engrossed with while at ODLH.

Villeraldo is one of the many students whose personal journeys remind us why it’s so important to understand student and teacher success as it relates to growth over time, and not just a one-time snapshot of proficiency. At Green Dot, we’re committed to meeting students wherever they are and helping put them on track to graduate high school prepared for college, leadership, and life.

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