By Maria Moser, Director of Education, Midwest Region, NCLR
“Community colleges across the U.S. are struggling with the issue of teaching remedial classes to students who just aren’t where they need to be. We’re not going to send kids over there for a job we should be doing. So then the end is: how do we get more kids ready?”
– Ed Mendez, Principal, Alta Vista High School
Alta Vista High School didn’t start out focusing on college credit or even college admissions. The Guadalupe Centers—a social service organization active in the Latino community since 1919—opened the school in 1990 in response to a soaring Latino dropout rate in Kansas City public schools, and its goal was to help students graduate from high school. Current students can repeat a story they’ve heard many times about how Alta Vista opened in a church basement, an alternative school for at-risk students. But as the school’s population grew, its community began to dream of accomplishing more.
Principal Ed Mendez began working at Alta Vista as a teacher. As principal, he has led an ambitious series of projects to improve and expand its educational opportunities. In 2004, Alta Vista joined NCLR’s Early College Project. The school partnered with Penn Valley Community College to align curriculum and begin enrolling high school students in college classes for credit. The program grew under Mr. Mendez’s leadership and more students each year began to graduate with credit.
Alta Vista’s program developed further as it participated in NCLR’s School Improvement Project, which provided leadership support for Mr. Mendez, professional development for teachers, and strategic planning for the school. During this project, Alta Vista grew to include a middle school and saw its achievement in all subjects skyrocket; between 2008 and 2013, proficiency in math leaped from less than 10% to 70%. The school participated in an NCLR initiative to prepare teachers for the Common Core State Standards and credits that support for significant gains in key subjects. This year, Alta Vista had the highest proficiency rate in the state on the Algebra I End of Course exam!Staff who have been with Alta Vista from the beginning agree: culture, expectations, and instruction have all improved. What remains the same is a commitment to serving students who face significant challenges in the public school system. Mr. Mendez is a collaborative leader and the first to say that Alta Vista’s teachers are making the difference. They truly believe in the school’s mission and will do whatever it takes to make the dream of college a reality for their students.
All of the hard work has more than paid off. Alta Vista was the recipient of the 2013 Charter School of the Year award for the state of Missouri and recently moved to a newly renovated building with an expanded capacity. The school has expanded to include an elementary school, growing one grade at a time starting with kindergarten and first grade, and it looks forward to the day when it will serve students in the Kansas City area from kindergarten through high school graduation!
Yet, for Mr. Mendez, the sweetest change in the last year has been the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Missouri has strict laws regarding the enrollment of undocumented students in its public colleges, and many Alta Vista students have been kept from pursuing their college dreams due to their immigration status. Now that there are options for these students, Alta Vista has expanded its partnerships to include several private institutions, which have more flexible enrollment policies, and has seen its college application and acceptance rates grow dramatically. It is truly the realization of a long-standing dream in Kansas City.