Stella Nunez is a new kind of staffer for a new kind of school.
Her official title at Verdugo Hills High School is community liaison.
But Nunez's real job is ministering to the unpredictable needs of the 1,000 students, in large part minority, who are bused to the Tujunga school each day from Bell, South Gate, Huntington Park and parts of Los Angeles.
Those students are something more than clients to Nunez. "It's like they are my children," she said.
Verdugo Hills Principal Gary D. Turner created the liaison position last semester as part of the school's effort to incorporate the commuters into the life of the high school, which lies so far from their home neighborhoods.
As Turner said: "We don't run a dance here from 8 p.m. to 12. We run it from 5 to 9 or 6 to 10 p.m. at the latest so that our bused-in kids at least have a chance to participate. It makes a big difference in how the kids appreciate the school."
More Than Half Bused
More than half of Verdugo Hills' 1,870 students are bused in, most of them as part of the Los Angeles Unified School District's voluntary Permits With Transportation integration program, others because their local schools are crowded. The majority of the school's local students are Anglo.
According to Turner, some students travel more than an hour each morning, taking one or two RTD buses before they catch the school bus at Bell or South Gate high schools or one of the other stops where commuter students are picked up and dropped off. In the afternoon, the tedious trip is reversed. Students who catch the last school bus of the day at 6 p.m., because of athletics, after-school tutoring or other activities, may get home after 8 p.m.
"Some of the best kids we have are off the bus," Turner said. In light of their daily ordeal by freeway, he said, "we ought to be helping them out as much as possible."
Nunez, who lives in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, begins her workday at 6:30 a.m., when she arrives at the bus stop at Betty Plasencia Elementary School in downtown Los Angeles. She usually sits near the back, where she can quietly monitor the students during the half-hour ride to Tujunga. She rides the bus home at 3:10 p.m.
Seventeen-year-old Sean Chhay of Los Angeles is one of the students on Nunez's bus run. Despite the commute, Chhay prefers Verdugo Hills to his local high school. "They've got better subjects here and better school activities," he said recently. School sports are important to Chhay, who played basketball for Verdugo Hills last year. And the commute certainly doesn't faze him.
"It doesn't matter," Chhay said of the daily hour on the bus. Chhay said that he never went to school until he came to the United States from Cambodia in 1980. In his native country, Chhay worked in the rice fields and chopped wood from the age of 5.
So far, Chhay has never needed help from Nunez. But throughout the day, other students drop into her office at the school, seeking assistance with everything from finding a part-time job to resolving a personality conflict with a teacher. Many of the students ask if she speaks Spanish and are relieved to discover that, yes, they can discuss their concerns in the language they know best.
Nunez is many things to the students and their parents--a source of information, a trouble-shooter, a go-between, an advocate, a translator, a confidante.
Like Surrogate Parent
The mother of four--and grandmother of six--also functions as something of a surrogate parent, sensitive to the signs that a child is in trouble and willing to intercede for a deserving student in a conflict with a bus driver or other adult.
Turner said he chose Nunez for the post because of her intelligence and the depth of her concern for students. She had previously worked in the school office.
"She's independent enough to fight for what she feels is right for those kids," Turner said. As a result, he added, "the kids have a feeling that someone's looking out for them."
Some of the most important work she does takes place right on the bus, said Nunez, who is available to any student or parent but has a special kinship with the commuters. "You feel something for them," she said. "They get up so early to catch a bus to go to school."
She has learned that a student who begins taking a seat close to her after weeks of sitting in the front of the bus is often troubled by something but hasn't yet worked up the nerve to approach her directly. Student concerns range from such simple problems as where to get tickets for subsidized lunches to full-blown adolescent tragedies such as sexual abuse.
"Many of our students work after school so they take advantage of the traveling time to do their homework," she said. Although she sometimes answers questions about homework assignments, that is the least of her tasks. Much more challenging is finding diplomatic ways to assist a student who doesn't want anyone to know he or she has a problem.
"Sometimes I hear things on the bus that happened at home over the weekend and I have to figure out how to approach that student without his thinking, 'Oh, you're nosy.' "
Although she sometimes loses sleep over students' problems, she knows when to tell them to seek advice or aid from someone with more expertise.
All in a Day's Work
Nunez never knows what the day will bring. During one recent week that she described as typical, she dealt with everything from a no-show bus to a student who was pregnant and didn't want her parents to find out.
She arranged a phone conference between a school counselor and a mother who felt her child should be taking a composition course instead of English as a Second Language.
And she helped two boys resolve their problems with one of their teachers. "This had been building up for quite some time," she said. Nunez gave the angry students an opportunity to calm down, then made their case to the assistant principal, who arranged for them to be transferred to another class.
Nunez is savvy enough to know that teachers aren't always right--they can sometimes be rigid, even prejudiced--but she is also savvy enough to advise students that they are the ones most likely to suffer in a conflict with their teachers.
Among the most disturbing situations she encounters: students' feeling pressured to drop out of school because of economic problems at home and the occasional report of a student's being beaten up at the bus stop in his or her neighborhood. When such an attack happens, Nunez notifies administrators at both Verdugo Hills and the neighborhood school involved. The neighborhood school typically dispatches school police to patrol the area.
Reputation as a Fixer
Parents also seek out Nunez, whose reputation as a fixer has spread by word of mouth. She is sensitive to the fact that most of the parents have never even seen their child's distant high school, which can intensify their concerns. "Many of them used to think this was called Tujunga High School," she noted. Most of the calls she receives are from parents who want to make sure their child is attending class.
Recently, Nunez had the infinitely more difficult task of contacting the parents of three commuter students after school officials learned that they had entered into a suicide pact. Although the students said they had not intended to go through with it, the school was obliged to alert the parents. Principal Turner said he was grateful to have someone on his staff who could explain the situation so sensitively to the Spanish-speaking parents.
However tough, such moments are the heart of the job for Nunez. "Their safety and their education," she says of her students, "that's always been my concern."