Sacramento’s Encina Preparatory High School, in the Arden-Arcade community, has one of the region’s highest dropout rates. Barely 1 in 2 graduate on time. But the school’s teachers, staff and a group of people known as “angels” are working to change that and finding success.
Eighteen year-old Mya Worko is Encina’s senior class president. On this day, Mya’s unfurling a long-yellow banner and painting Toy Story 3 characters for a rally to boost student confidence.
“We have Mr. Potato Head and the Huggy bear – I forgot his name,” she giggles. “And these toys got moved to a daycare center and they just faced so many challenges.”
Mya knows a lot about challenges. She lives with a single-mom and two younger sisters. And Mya has learning disabilities.
"Because I was born early, born a preemie, I had develop problems with my speech,” Mya explains. “It’s just been hard, not having (a) father. My mom going through what she went through to make sure that we had a roof. And I really appreciate my mom.” Mya’s voice wavers and she breathes a deep sigh. “We’ve just been through so much.”
Mya’s story is not unusual at Encina, a 6th through 12th grade school with about 1,000 students in the San Juan Unified School District. Vice-Principal Heidi Garner says Encina has a larger than average number of special ed students – about 20 percent when it should be around eight percent. And 92 percent are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
“That means they get free and reduced lunch, they live in poverty,” says Garner. “As time has gone by and suburbia has moved to the east, this area has really been struck with poverty. The school really went from an affluent, high-performing school, which was mostly white, to now a school of poverty, a school of color, a community that’s in trauma daily."
“In trauma” Garner explains because of hunger, homelessness, drugs and gangs. Another challenge is the number of languages spoken at the school – 21. About 13.5 percent of Encina’s students are refugees – from places like Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan – and they’re English-language learners. That affects the school’s test scores.
Despite the challenges, staff – and students like Mya – say Encina’s cultural diversity is a plus.“We’re in the lowest five percent in the state,” says Garner. “If you don’t speak any English, there’s no way for you to take the test in your native language. So you are basically assessed in English and you don’t speak a word of it.”
“I adore this school because it has opened my eyes (to) different cultures, different people’s backgrounds,” says Mya.
Mya is also learning more about her world beyond Encina. She’s among 15 senior students taking part in a mentor program called the Believes Family. It’s made up of people in the community – the school calls them “angels” – who help guide students to college. Cherie Chenoweth created the Believes Family program. She says mentors do things like help students fill out college applications and take them clothes shopping.
“We’ve had students that have never even been in a shopping mall before, but yet there’s a mall right down the street,” says Chenoweth. “We take them to college fairs. We get two blocks away from their school and they say ‘Where are we at? Look at these homes, they’re really pretty.’ They have no idea.”
Chenoweth says the goal is to get kids out of this neighborhood once they get their high school diploma and move them into a four-year college out-of-town. For Mya, that path will take longer than hoped. She’s a little behind on her English classes and doesn’t qualify to enter a four-year school. So she’s applied to local community colleges. Mya wants to major in the arts.
“And my minor is a school counselor,” says Mya. “I really want to reach out to those kids and really tell them ‘I know it’s rough being born and raised in a home that’s broken up, mom that way, dad that way. But if you can get through those challenges it will be all worth it at the end.’”
That’s something Mya knows first-hand.