Victor de los Santos is more than just a teacher to his students.
As a music educator at Santa Ana High School for a decade, Santos knows that many of his students occupy a lower portion of the socioeconomic strata. Many are tasked with overcoming considerable obstacles, like broken families or balancing schoolwork while caring for siblings.
During his first year at the school, one of his students, a young girl, began to call him father.
“I was taken aback and said you can’t call me that,” said Santos, 33, of Santa Ana. “Then she called me it again. I said, ‘I am Mr. Santos.’
“She said to me that you’re the first male figure to actually care about me. So I said all right, call me ‘father.’”
Many of his students over the years have called him by the same moniker, exemplifying Santos’ pivotal role in their lives.
This caring nature extended to his students, coupled with his crucial role in the expansion of the music program at the school, led to Santos being recently named a semifinalist for the Grammy Music Educator Award.
He was chosen along with 24 other music teachers from around the country. The winner, to be named at the beginning of next year, will be flown to New York to attend the 60th annual Grammy Awards show and take part in various events associated with the show.
When Santos was hired to be the band director at the school in 2007, the music program was considerable but had areas that could be improved. Over the years, he’s worked to expand the program, including adding a mariachi instructor. It also was recently decided to make the school a conservatory.
Santos said the school has greatly improved, despite an undeserving poor reputation due to the heightened violence around the school in the past.
Santos’ program has grown from 80 to 170 students and he envisions his life’s work as ensuring the success of each student through encouraging music literacy and acting as a paternal mentor.
“There are some people who just do their job,” Santa Ana High Principal Jeff Bishop said. “Victor is more than that. He develops positive relationships with kids. He’s a father figure to them.”
Bishop said Santos maintains a deep dedication to his job and his students know the music classroom is a “safe harbor” in a city known for gang violence.
“Many times I will be leaving work around 8 and kids are still there practicing,” Bishop said.
Santos believes music is cathartic, providing a platform for kids to journal their emotions. It has particular utility for lower socioeconomic students who have to contend with more obstacles in life.
“Everyone needs an avenue to reflect their emotions,” he said.
Santos has also worked tirelessly to instill a sense of community in his classroom, letting each student know that they can come to him with their struggles.
“My students face a lot of problems,” Santos said. “And they a lot of times don’t believe that people care for them.
“I think it’s really hard for people in an area like this to open up. I have parents that are working four to five jobs to make ends meet. The kids go home and they have to cook dinner or babysit. They have to be more adult sometimes than their own parents. So what happens when they need someone to go to?” he said.
Santos made one of his students his foster son when he found the child devoid of a home.
A social worker told Santos about two years ago that Isaiah Benitez, now 18, would have to be placed in a group home similar to a halfway house. So Santos stepped in and they’ve been a family since.
Benitez had been flunking the majority of his classes in his early high school years but managed to achieve As and Bs since moving in with Santos. He graduated this year and is attending Santa Ana College with the goal of becoming an elementary school teacher, following in the footsteps of his foster father.
Santos said he doesn’t know if he will make it to the next round of the Grammy competition, but he’s content with whatever comes next.
“I told the kids what brings me more pride is not that my name is there but that it’s associated with Santa Ana High School,” Santos said. “The school gets a bad rap and it’s sad — there’s so many great things happening here.