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Pomona students have everyone's ears now

Thanks to a speech by President Obama, a class video on the effects of the recession, 'Is Anyone Listening,' has the nation talking.

March 13, 2009|Seema Mehta

Chris Schultz breaks down as he worries that his younger brothers will become homeless because his family is four months behind in rent.

Evelyn Aguilar's home was foreclosed, so her family is among a dozen people sharing a one-bedroom apartment.

Victoria Gonzalez may delay college for a year to support her family.

These students, all 17, and 14 of their classmates tell their tales in "Is Anybody Listening?", a nine-minute video made by students at Village Academy High School in Pomona. The production quality is minimal; students speak directly to the camera in front of a blue background, laced with footage of foreclosed homes, abandoned storefronts and others advertising going-out-of-business sales.

But the tales of families dealing with the economic crisis are deeply personal.

This week, in his first major speech on education since taking office, President Obama described the video and spoke directly to the Pomona students.

"I am listening. We are listening. America is listening," the president said. "And we are not going to rest until your parents can keep their jobs, your families can keep their homes, and you can focus on what you should be focusing on: your own education."

Although the subject is dispiriting, the story of how the documentary came to be made at a low-income yet high-achieving public school -- and ended up in a speech by the president -- is extraordinary.

In October, teacher Michael Steinman's Advanced Placement English class finished studying F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," a novel about wealth and the American dream. He asked his students if the recession was affecting them.

"Thirty-one hands shot up in the air simultaneously," he said.

Students told him about families losing homes, cupboards becoming bare and parents going without medication because their benefits were cut. He asked them to write essays about their experiences and then suggested they create a documentary.

The video begins with students reeling off their dream jobs: environmental scientist, psychologist, guidance counselor, actress. Then they explain why their dreams may not come true.

"My father has just lost one of his [two] jobs, and now it's even more difficult for us to pay for our house," said Jose Lopez, 17.

"He used to come home smiling every day and, well, now it's not the same anymore. He comes home and he's worried all the time, and I see it in his eyes," Jorge Bravo said.

"My father walked out on us, and it's really hard because . . . I see [my mother] struggling," said Maritssa Barba, 17, lowering her face into her hands. "I can't do anything about it. And I want to help her, but she just wants me to focus on school, but I can't focus on school when I know that she's struggling."

"We're all businessmen and doctors and lawyers and all this great stuff, and we have all this potential, but the way things are going, we're not going to be able to do that," said Yvonne Bojorquez, 16.

The video reflects life in a community where unemployment is at 12% and half the adults did not finish high school.

Village Academy is housed in a former department store, in an abandoned mall that now contains an indoor swap meet and a beauty school. More than 89% of the school's 521 students receive free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty. One-third are learning English as a second language. Yet the school consistently beats state and federal goals, and last year was named one of the nation's 500 best high schools.

The film was posted on YouTube in January. Since then, some situations have been resolved. Chris' family's landlord agreed to allow them to remain in their apartment and pay the overdue rent over time. Chris has joined the Army and will start basic training after graduation.

Four tenants moved out of Evelyn's apartment, but the young woman still sleeps in the living room with her parents and two sisters.

Carlos Martinez's family decided to return to Mexico as soon as he graduates. "I wanted to go to Cal Poly Pomona," he said Thursday. "That's out of the picture."

Victoria has received acceptance letters from UC Riverside and San Diego State and is awaiting decisions from five more schools. But she still doesn't know if she will be able to enroll in any college this fall.

Her father works as a carpet installer, but with the downturn in the housing market, there is no work. Her mother has pawned all her jewelry, and the family -- which includes Victoria, her parents, a 13-year-old brother and a 23-year-old sister who is paralyzed below the waist -- is living on money borrowed from relatives. They plan to sell their mobile home and move into a one-bedroom apartment.

The film also has cast a media spotlight on Village Academy. Local newspapers and TV stations have run stories on the class project, and next week, ABC's "20/20" will feature it in a segment.

Early this month, the film was discovered by a White House staffer, and it became the closing of Obama's speech, including a mention of Yvonne by name.

Principal Maria Bolado said that despite concerns about the future, students were thrilled that their stories have become part of a national discussion of the effects of the faltering economy.

"It was a dream that they had to have it seen by the president. Sometimes you dream and it doesn't necessarily become a reality," Bolado said. "It was incredible. You can see it in their eyes, that anything is possible."

--

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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