Nelly Cristales knew she would never leave her elementary school.
She enrolled in kindergarten at the 32nd Street School in 1975. Now, she teaches second grade while her own children attend the school that she grew up in.
Cristales is also a Trojan. After completing elementary and middle school at 32nd Street, she went to the Downtown Magnets High School before attending USC. She graduated in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in general studies and a minor in Spanish and received her preliminary teaching credential from the Rossier School of Education.
Cristales maintained her connection to the 32nd Street School throughout her time at USC, working as a teaching assistant. She was hired as a full-time teacher the August after her graduation and has been working there for the past 15 years. In addition to teaching, she coordinates the various programs that bring USC students to the 32nd Street campus, something she remembers from her time at the school.
“I know we’ve always had some kind of relationship with SC,” Cristales said. “I still remember back as an elementary student, having SC students come over.”
USC has a wide range of programs it offers at 32nd Street, including the Joint Educational Project, which sends USC students to teach “mini courses” and also tutor students in reading. Students in the Thornton School of Music host a “Jazz in the Classroom” program and teach guitar and choir. This year, the Viterbi School of Engineering created a Robotics and Coding Academy for 5th grade students to learn about programming, robotics and engineering. Cristales praised the University for its community outreach efforts and the programs it coordinates for the 32nd Street School.
“It’s really positive, you see any child here, they’re Trojans like crazy,” Cristales said. “Just having them here and then having that interaction with the students, it really focuses them on, ‘I want go to college,’ and ‘I want to go to ‘SC and be a Trojan,” she said.
These kind of programs are unheard of at other schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District and is one of the reasons the 32nd Street School is so popular. The school has an enrollment of approximately 1,060 students, 40 percent of which are from the surrounding area, according to the Principal Ezequiel Gonzalez. Like all L.A. magnet schools, parents apply in the fall and are selected by a lottery, which often leads to long waiting lists.
A good neighbor
Those waiting lists are due in part to the school’s proximity to USC, which sends dozens of students to volunteer at the 32nd Street School and the 14 other schools that together comprise the USC Family of Schools. Tammy Anderson, the executive director of JEP, has seen the impact of these programs firsthand.
“Anytime we have USC students going over there, the kids are liking it, they’re enjoying seeing young people that are closer to their age than their teachers,” Tammy Anderson, the executive director of JEP said. “And they’re so close to us, they literally live across the street and see higher education, so it’s always kind of there in the back of their minds, and I think that’s very positive.”
Tina Koneazny, associate director for JEP, coordinates the USC ReadersPLUS program which sends USC student tutors to work one-on-one with students who are struggling in either reading or math. A former teacher herself, Koneazny said it can be difficult for teachers to provide individualized attention, particularly in large classes where students have varying degrees of skill.
“We have so many kids who are struggling with both reading and math, and sometimes all they need is just that one person to give them the individualized attention to meet their specific needs,” she said.
Koneazny said each semester, the program administers pre- and post- tests to the students being tutored and about 70 percent “graduate” from the program, having been brought up to grade level. Still, Koneazny said many of the benefits of the program are intangible.
“They make large strides, and they see themselves as learners and they seem themselves as somebody who can go college, and they look at themselves in a different way and they start to be successful again,” Koneazny said.
From one student to another
Sandra Rivera is the coordinator for middle school tutoring programs at 32nd Street. She said the students are selected based on 10-week grades. If they have any fails they are required to come in for tutoring. Rivera said USC students have a unique impact on the school.
“It makes a big difference when we have the University students come out as opposed to other groups,” Rivera said. “I don’t know if it’s the energy that they bring in with them, the more one-on-one because they’re several, and the age, they’re able to connect with the students still.”
She said that the University serves to inspire students at the 32nd Street School.
“They see it as one of the colleges that they can go, one of their goals that they can apply to,” Rivera said. “And they see what the University campus looks like because they have field trips, they see the students, so it’s something that keeps them motivated to go to college.”
Alexa Huerta, a sophomore majoring in industrial and systems engineering and the tutoring chair for the USC Helenes, organizes the tutoring program for middle school students on Monday afternoons at the 32nd Street School. The middle school tutoring is a new program this semester, but the Helenes also tutor a third grade class on Wednesday mornings in collaboration with the Trojan Knights. Huerta said the Helenes expanded the program to reach more students at the school. The Monday afternoon sessions aim to help middle school students who are failing or at risk of failing their math classes.
“My personal goal with this, specifically why we’re focusing on math, is because I feel like it’s such a foundational subject — each concept really builds off each other,” Huerta said. “And so in order to succeed later on, it’s pretty hard if you fall behind, and so if we can kind of bridge that gap with the kids who seem to be behind, I think it’ll help them a lot, not only this year in their math class, but in the years to come as well.
Huerta said that math is one of the main focuses of the tutoring, but the USC students also assist with English and reading comprehension with the third grade class. She spoke about the importance of USC students volunteering at the school because of its proximity to the University Park campus.
“They’re literally our neighbors, so it’s good to have that connection,” she said.
Graphic by Maggie Lee