By Kelly Hartog
The Farmworkers Institute of Education and Leadership Development (FIELD) prides itself on its free WASC accredited charter high school program — the EPIC de Cesar Chavez High School, which allows adults to earn their high school diplomas. Over the past five years, over 1,000 students have graduated from EPIC. This June, almost 150 students will graduate from the 20 EPIC schools throughout the state.
Helping shepherd these students all the way through enrollment to cap and gown is Vanessa Gutierrez, head of student services. Gutierrez oversees all the departments that support the students and the process of recruiting the students including everything from outreach and enrollment, admissions and records, counseling and the nutrition department.
Gutierrez spoke about her work, her vision, and her admiration for these very special students who overcome extraordinary obstacles to walk away with their diplomas.
What are your goals and how do you set about achieving them?
Our goals every year are to increase enrollment, but also to support our academics departments by providing enough support that will help retain the students. Our student services coordinators bring in the students, help them complete the application, introduce them to their teachers and counselors. Our counselors do one-on-one meetings with the students, if they request them. Then each counselor has a set of office hours. Because we are spread across the state, we also have online links outside of those hours for students to meet with counselors. The counselors come up with individualized academic plans for each student, because they all come in at very different levels. Some students might need 50 or 5 or 180 credits to graduate.
How do they create those plans?
A lot of our students come with transcripts from their native country or even from other local high schools. They determine how many of their [previous] credits count toward their diploma here, and then how many they need to graduate. They also establish non-academic goals. A lot of our students want to get better jobs, be able to help their children with homework, they want to go on to college. Our counselors are also able to provide referrals to mental health services or how to get medical care if the students don’t have any medical insurance. They also offer resources for daycare for students’ children, and help with finding shelters for students who might be homeless. We also have our nutrition department and as part of our K through 12 program we offer free breakfast and lunch to all our EPIC students.
What is your outreach plan when it comes to enrolling new students?
Everything from the bigger picture like television and radio, but we also have a more grassroots approach where we actually flyer homes. We do a lot of word of mouth, and attend a lot of community events like health fairs and festivals around holidays. We are currently partnered with a radio station and we’re actually going out to the fields once a week and speaking with farm workers during their lunch break. Because we have been in a lot of our communities for many years, we do a lot of word of mouth. A lot of our students come here because they know somebody else who has taken classes or graduated with us.
How exciting are the upcoming graduations and how important are they?
Graduation is always a really exciting time because it really is one of the main goals for our students. Some of our students started with us as ESL (English as a Second Language) students, knowing no English and then worked to earning their high school diploma. So, it’s a really special day for them and for all of our staff to come together and really celebrate these students who have put in a lot of work.
We serve a vulnerable population, an underserved population. Many of our students are recent immigrants so that high school diploma is very important for them to be able to continue making progress in this country. We also serve a lot of students who dropped out once for various reasons.
Can you share any student success stories?
We’re actually hiring one of our previous students. I was conducting some interviews for our admissions and records department up in Tehachapi, and one of the applicants was a California City student who graduated a year or two ago. She said she knew very little English when she started with us and it took her three years to get her high school diploma. It’s an incredible success story because her English is excellent now. We held the entire interview in English and she’s still in college pursuing a degree in early childhood education. She was so thankful for all the help she’s received at FIELD.
What would you say is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part — and something that we continue to deal with year after year especially after Covid — is really supporting our students and helping retain them. Our students are adults. They have full households, full time jobs, families, etc. so it’s a lot to ask them to come in every day
anywhere from two to six hours to work on their high school diploma. So, being able to really support them to the point where they’re able to attend every day is our hardest job. We continue to struggle with retention.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Anytime I get the opportunity to hear students tell their story about how FIELD and EPIC were able to change their lives, that’s a reminder of why we do what we do and why we continue to do this hard work, despite the obstacles.
What makes EPIC graduations unique?
Unlike most other graduations where the parents are going to their children’s graduation, it’s the other way around for a lot of our students. That’s really awesome to see, because in the Latino community and in other underserved populations, we still have a high, high school dropout rate.
I think it’s important for children to see that, ‘Hey, my mom, my dad, despite all the obstacles, despite them having a job and us, they’re not giving up and they’re still learning and trying to better their lives.’