One Pasadena Charter School “Chases” High School Dropouts Off the Path of Failure and Into Graduation

Published : Wednesday, April 5, 2017 | 5:40 AM

Graduating high school doesn’t always come easy to every student and especially to those who live in poverty, but one Pasadena based charter school is behind a progressive method aimed to get students back on track with a diploma in hand by chasing them out off the path of failure and across the finish line of graduation.

Based in Pasadena with a satellite school located next to Homeboy Industries in nearby Boyle Heights, Learning Works Charter School provides a personalized, rigorous academic program and relevant life skills to traditionally underserved, high-risk students in grades 9-12 who have withdrawn or are in danger of withdrawing from mainstream education without attaining a high school diploma.

Learning Works employs individuals known as chasers who are typically previous high-risk students who have successfully graduated from Learning Works then hired to “chase” current high-risk students to complete their schoolwork to earn a diploma.

“A chaser’s job is to bridge kids who have basically been disengaged from education back into education. These kids didn’t end on a good experience and so they don’t necessarily trust the system. The chasers come from the same conditions as them and bridge them back,” said Learning Works President Dr. Mikala Rahn.

Learning Works was founded in the fall of 2007 and is now partnered with the Pasadena Unified School District.

The Learning Works model combines the need for academic intervention and support, and acknowledges that this population requires wrap-around social support services, such as its “Chaser” program. In addition to Learning Works’ academic program, the school also offers a Pregnant and Parenting Teens Program, which provides on-site infant and toddler care so that teen parents/students can still bond with their child and fellow teen moms, while working towards obtaining a high school diploma.

“I created the chaser model because when we were working with the [Pasadena Unified] School District trying to help recover dropouts, basically I was chasing kids. That’s what I was calling it, which is kind of a form of tutoring, parenting, rides, mentoring — you name it,” said Rahn.

Chasers are on call 24 hours of the day, transporting students to services such as Planned Parenthood, probation appointments, health services and whatever else they need to achieve the goal of a high school diploma.

Chasers find dropouts and continue to engage and re-engage them in school.

“At the end of the day, these kids are simply lacking some type of support system. They lack that support and that push that they need to get things done and to succeed,” said Bernie Perez, 26, and a resident of Pasadena, who has been working as a Learning Works Chaser for about a year.

Perez came to Learning Works after getting mixed up in gangs, abusing drugs and becoming pregnant at age 16.

She attended Blair High School until she was eventually kicked out due to poor attendance and went approximately 4 months without going to school until she was pursued by a chaser.

“If you told me 10 years ago that I would one day have a high school diploma, a job that supports me and my daughter, and that I was working on my bachelor’s degree I would’ve laughed,” Perez explained.

After landing at Learning Works, at the time, Dominick (aka Dom) was assigned as her Chaser. Through Dom’s support, constant calling, texting, nagging and showing up at her work or doorstep, Perez finished her high school diploma at age 20 while working at Target to help make ends meet.

“If it weren’t for the persistence of the chaser I don’t think I would have graduated or that I would have gone back to school–period,” said Perez.

Perez kept in touch with Learning Works and her Chaser Dom. Perez knew in her heart that she too wanted to become a Chaser and pay it forward, according to a representative at Learning Works.

“What makes this Chaser model work is the fact that the chasers have the same background, experiences and history as the students they’re trying to get to graduation,” said Rahn.

“Chasers are on call around the clock — weekends and nights — and not just during school hours. They’re not only there for school support, but emotional support, as well. They do whatever it takes to build that trust and a real relationship with each student,” Rahn added.

Perez describes her Chasing job as rewarding and her motivation to finish her bachelor’s degree so she can continue her work in social services.

“I want to continue to work with these kids and show them that there is hope and there is a way to turn things around. All the odds were against me and even I managed to come out of it somewhat okay,” said Perez.

One of the students Bernie is currently “chasing” is Destiny Lozano, 19, of Lincoln Heights. As a former gang member herself, Perez understands the challenges Destiny faces just to earn a high school diploma since her early life was riddled with a gang centric lifestyle.

Location and transportation are a huge factor in simply picking up and dropping off homework assignments, because a step on the wrong street or neighborhood could mean a confrontation for Destiny, which could land her back in jail, according to Learning Works.

Recently, Lozano’s sister gave birth and the first person she called was Chaser Bernie Perez to let her know she needed a ride to the hospital. Without hesitation, Perez dropped everything and let a colleague know that she was taking the company car to give Destiny a ride.

“My co-worker looked at me funny and couldn’t understand why Destiny couldn’t just walk a block away to the hospital. I knew that Destiny couldn’t walk that block without getting into a confrontation with a rival gang. It was instinct to know that information and that’s the reason why Destiny called me for a ride,” Perez explained.

Lozano was first introduced to Learning Works at Homeboy Industries in March 2016, when she was dismissed from Juvenile Camp to Homeboy Industries. As part of a strategic alliance with Homeboy, Learning Works’ satellite campus in Boyle Heights serves as the school for the youth re-entering society from juvenile centers/camp.

According to Lozano, “When I got out of camp, I met with my probation officer who basically told me that I had to meet with a case worker from Homeboy, and that I would attend school. I thought I was going back to Roosevelt High School, but my case worker told me I would be working at Homeboy and going to school next door at Learning Works,” Lozano said.

Sticking to a schedule of work and school proved to be challenging for Lozano.

“I started messing up. I realized quickly that I wanted to take care of me first, so I got caught up with my old friends and ended up getting arrested,” Lozano explained.

In October 2016, Lozano, now an adult, was arrested for grand theft auto and found herself in Los Angeles’ County Jail.

“When I ended up in big peoples’ jail that’s when I started to realize that I threw away an opportunity to work and go back to school and be a better person. I started praying and asking for one more chance,” Lozano explained.

The team at Homeboy were able to release Lozano from County Jail and charges were dropped, on the condition that she would work and go to school. This time she’s sticking to her word, and with Perez as her Chaser, she has the support and a real chance at success, according to Learning Works.

“Bernie is a sweetheart and she gets me…. I don’t even have to say much or explain anything, she just understands me,” said Lozano. “The truth is if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t want to go back to school. Everyone is always telling me what to do, but Bernie always asks ‘What do I want to do?’ She listens and she helps. I can tell she really cares,” Lozano added.

Lozano only has 40 credits left to graduate and has plants to receive her high school diploma and continue on to a trade school, and eventually work in construction.

“I can’t say that I’m done with gangs because they are my family, but I can turn down tasks, stay out of trouble, work real hard and make some good money. All I know is I don’t want to go back to jail,” Lozano explained.

This hands on relationship between Chaser and student like Perez and Lozano is the foundation of what Learning Works is all about.

There is a full time teaching staff of 11 who are equipped with and assigned Chaser like Perez.

Learning Works can serve kids up to 21 years of age.

“Some kids needs longer time given their life conditions,” said Rahn.

The classes are textbook based with projects and experiences that feature nearly 40 field trips throughout the County.

“The whole goal is to get kids who are in poverty to see outside their neighborhood,” said Rahn.

Currently there are 350 students enrolled in Learning Works across both sites at the Pasadena and Boyle Heights locations.

“The model is pretty alternative in that it takes kids where they are which is credit deficient. Then we slowly build their skills and credits back up and by the time it comes to this time of year they can see graduation,” said Rahn who explained that most students spend two full years at Learning Works.

Learning Works is approaching its tenth year in operation and truly is a labor of love that is dedicated to give second chances to Pasadena’s youth.

“Education is a way out of poverty and it’s a huge belief of mine. I would also say that they more I’ve worked with this population, the more I get to see how much poverty we really still have and I think it’s an obligation for someone like me who is an educator to make sure everyone receives the same education,” said Rahn.

For more information visit

blog comments powered by Disqus