Galt's Estrellita High School has had quite the year. Starting off in a brand-new campus, the school went on to score 187 points higher on state performance scores and then graduate its largest class ever.
The principal, Tony Lara, was also named the state's Continuation High School Principal of the Year by the California Continuing Education Association.
Lara recently conversed with News-Sentinel staff writer Amanda Dyer through e-mail about his background, Estrellita's success and defeating the stigmas associated with continuation high schools.
Q: What was your path to Estrellita High, your background?
A: I just completed my sixth year at Estrellita High School as the principal. Before that, I was a school counselor at Galt High School for two years, a counselor at Estrellita High School for four years and a school resource officer for the Galt Police Department for four years.
Q: Did you envision yourself as a continuation high school principal growing up? If not, what did you want to be growing up?
A: No, growing up I envisioned myself working as a school counselor. The one thing I was 100 percent certain of was that I knew that I wanted to work with kids. I have spent all of my career working in different capacities, but always with kids.
Q: What makes Estrellita High different than other continuation high schools?
A: The one thing that I can say about Estrellita High School is that our community really has been very supportive of our program. This year, we were able to move into a multi-million dollar state-of-the-art facility, because our community, and our school board has been very supportive of our program.
Q: Why do you think your program is so successful?
Education: University of California, Davis, bachelor of arts degree.
Graduate program: La Verne University, PPS Credential and Administration Credential.
Family: I am the eighth member of a family of 10 siblings. My wife and I are both graduates of UC Davis.
We are blessed with twins who participate in community athletic programs and love their school. They are 9 years old (Vanessa and Louie Lara).
Job title: Administrator of Student Services.
Plans: At this point in my life I am happy
where I'm at. In the future, the only thing I know is that I want
to complete my career just like I started, working with
A: I believe that Estrellita High has been successful because of our amazing staff. We take pride in our program and feel that our students deserve the best. In all aspects of their education, we strive to provide them with a quality high school experience. We don't refer to Estrellita High as a continuation high school, but instead as a private program that offers the flexibility they need to be successful.
Q: What's the biggest turnaround you've ever seen a student make?
A: In my years, I have witnessed many amazing successes at Estrellita, but one particular student really stands out.
She was a young lady from Thornton that had missed an incredible amount of school before attending Estrellita High. She was involved in gangs and was experimenting with drugs.
She came to Estrellita High and made the most amazing change. Not only did she graduate from Estrellita High on time, but she actually was accepted to California State University, Sacramento from Estrellita High.
She was so motivated that she co-enrolled at a city college to complete some requirements she was lacking. That young girl is now a teacher in the L.A. area.
Q: How do you motivate a student other educators haven't been able to motivate?
A: I don't know that I can motivate a student that others can't.
What I do know is that we believe that all students can achieve. That there isn't any barrier that can't be overcome with hard work and dedication.
Q: How do you combat the stigma associated with continuation high school?
A: By dealing with the misconceptions that our students are not able to achieve.
Instead, we focus on building their confidence and teaching them to make healthy choices. We truly believe that our program is special and that our students have a bright future ahead.
Q: How have continuation high schools changed over the years?
A: Like all educational institutions, continuation high schools are provided with Academic Performance Index and Adequate Yearly Progress scores.
The federal and state mandates are for all public schools and like any other public school our students are measured on a yearly basis. Therefore, continuation schools are faced with the challenge of helping students catch up on their credits and perform well in the state exams.
Q: What are your dreams for your graduates?
A: My dreams for our graduates are that they make lifelong positive choices. That they take with them the desire to be good, productive citizens in their communities. That they continue to improve their lives and that they further their education.
Q: How do you feel about the debate between college prep vs. vocational education? Do you think sometimes schools are too focused on getting students to go to college?
A: I am a strong believer in higher education! I believe that all students should experience college.
Some may prefer vocational programs, but they should at least give college an opportunity. Our community colleges are economical and provide our students with excellent opportunities to further their education.
Q: What's the biggest misconception people have about Estrellita High?
A: That our students are not intelligent enough to succeed at a comprehensive high school. That our students are the troublemakers of the community.
In the contrary, this is a huge misconception. Our students usually come to our school because of the barriers they have had to overcome in their young lives. They are actually resilient, creative, intelligent young men and women seeking an opportunity to improve their lives.
Our school provides them with that opportunity.
Q: Tell me about Chez Estrellita. Is it the best place to eat in Galt?
A: Of course! Where else can you get a five-course meal prepared by young, inspiring students seeking to impress their clients for the great price of $5!