Every weekday, 26-year-old Roberto Guerra clocks in at work at 8 a.m. and clocks out at 5 p.m. But as a chaser for Learning Works Charter School, this is mostly a formality.
“This job right here is day and night,” Guerra said of his position at Learning Works. “I get phone calls in the middle of the night. You have to be committed.”
Learning Works is a school for underserved, high-risk teenagers who are in danger of not receiving a high school diploma due to reasons that can range from pregnancies to problems with the law. Its Chaser Program connects current students with people who graduated from Learning Works to help them finish high school.
Chasers are meant to emulate the kind of parental involvement one may see from middle- to upper-class families who can provide their children with a quality education and push them to excel in school. The idea came from founder and CEO Mikala Rahn, who was literally chasing down teenagers to get them back into school and meet their appointments.
“We were trying to chase down dropouts in 2008, and what we were learning was these kids needed more than an ordinary school,” said Rahn, a former member of the Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education. “The kids I was working with, and who we now serve, they just didn’t have any parental support. [They had] homeless issues, drug issues, teen moms. They really needed to be chased, just like I chase my own son.”
Chasers transport students to services such as Planned Parenthood, probation appointments, health services and whatever else they need to achieve the goal of a high school diploma. Part of Guerra’s job is to be on-call 24/7 in case one of his students needs help.
“We work with them every single day — calling, texting, go do house visits. It’s just bridging the gap and getting rid of all excuses,” he said.
Each teacher and chaser can have anywhere between 25 to 30 students. Rahn said Learning Works uses the normal attendance funding from the state to fund the school to prove to others that this can be done with normal state school resources like any other charter.
“The chasers come from the same conditions as the kids,” Rahn said. “These are pretty rough stories; a normal school couldn’t deal with a lot of the crises we deal with.”
Based in the east side of Pasadena, Rahn finds the location of the school helpful because the area is outside of gang territories, and some of the kids they work with are from gangs. There is also a satellite campus in Boyle Heights.
“I had a student whose house burned down, and I was with them almost a whole month helping them move, trying to get them help, trying to help them get their stuff together,” Guerra said.
Guerra was a student at Learning Works for two years before graduating.
“I was still dealing with the street life, so I did go to jail a few more times. But I’ve been out for about four years, and I haven’t been back, so that’s pretty good. I’m off of probation; I did all of my time.”
Last summer, he cleared his criminal record — three felonies all reduced to misdemeanors.
“Now, I can move ahead and follow my career and see what I want to do,” he said.
No Judgment, Just Support
The main part of the school is the “warehouse,” a large room with tables grouped together in clusters. A street-art style mural is painted on one of the walls that says “Learning Works” in purple and yellow, and there are three tutors on hand so students can have one-on-one time while doing their work. In the back of the room is an area that is used as a classroom.
There are daily field trips students can sign up to attend and are led by different chasers. On Tuesdays, Guerra does social science-themed trips, and on Thursdays he does performing arts. He said the field trips are one of his favorite things about being a chaser because he gets to see the students’ reactions to seeing things, like museums, for the first time.
“A lot of these kids have never left the city, have never experienced all the cool things the city has to offer. It shows them there is more out there,” he said.
In addition to attending class, students work on homework packets called modules. In order to graduate on time, they have to complete five packets each month.
“Everybody works at their own pace,” said Michelle Bravo, 26, who has been a chaser for three years. “Some [students] are only able to do three a month.”
Three packets is the minimum, and students have until age 20 to finish their diploma requirements.
Learning Works also has a Pregnant and Parenting Teens Program (PPT), which provides on-site infant and toddler care and allows young mothers to focus on their schoolwork while also receiving advice on how to take care of their babies. Bravo is a chaser for teen moms, having been one when she attended the same school before going to Pasadena City College and then getting hired by Learning Works.
She was raised by her aunt, grandmother and father. Although she described her family as “loving” in an emailed statement, they were always busy. She started ditching school, hosting parties at her house and eventually became pregnant by her then boyfriend.
Bravo entered into a period of loneliness while living with the father of her unborn child, who was unsupportive and did not have many resources to maintain a healthy pregnancy. After a visit from a social worker, Bravo was referred to Learning Works to finish her high school diploma.
“I usually get to know my girls during car rides and many of them need emotional support,” Bravo said in the same email. “They know I’m not there to judge them but to support them — and sometimes scold them — but there is an understanding between us, especially since I’ve walked in their shoes.”
Kids Come First
PPT has its own space in a building separate from the warehouse. It is noticeably quieter but displays the same purple and yellow color scheme and is open Monday through Friday. There is a teacher and tutor, but the teacher also doubles as a math tutor. The daycare is located inside the building in a separate room made of windows. Although there are licensed caretakers watching the children, Bravo said the girls do have to change their own babies’ diapers. There are about 30 girls in the program at the moment.
“I have girls who have three little girls, and it’s hard to do it on your own,” Bravo said while looking at a wall covered with photographs of the moms with their babies.
To combat some of the obstacles homeless youth face, the school provides resources that include laundry machines, a shower, personal hygiene products and some food. Guerra said chasers sometimes make special arrangements to open those facilities after hours or before school.
“These kids come first. They’ve been let down so much, people have turned their backs on them, so we’re here with unconditional love,” Guerra said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes because I went through that. I went through the struggles of living with my mom and being poor. We all need some type of help, someone to believe in you.”