Stella Nunez is a new kind of staff member 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 largely minority students who are bused to the Tujunga school each day from Bell, South Gate, Huntington Park and other communities in southeast Los Angeles County.
The students are something more than clients to Nunez. "It's like they are my children," she said of the students who ride the buses.
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 that lies so far from their home neighborhoods.
Activities Held Early
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 of Verdugo Hills' 1,870 students are bused in, most 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.
Good Students on Buses
"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.
Worked in Rice Fields
"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 since he was 5 years old.
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, 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, who previously worked in the school office, for the post because of her intelligence and the depth of her concern for students.
"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."
Students Move Closer
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.