The Scrappy, Collective Effort in Las Vegas
Away from the glittery Vegas Strip, a scrappy network of students, families and education advocates is growing.
The sky isn’t quite light at 5 a.m., but it’s already 90 degrees in East Las Vegas when Erica Mosca (Las Vegas ’08) pulls up to the house of 15-year-old Bryan Fuentes in a beat-up red Pontiac van with no air conditioning. Fuentes and another student hop into the van, the official field-tripping, student-hauling, all purpose vehicle of the college prep nonprofit Leaders in Training (LIT).
In a few hours, the Pen family will be hosting a garage sale fundraiser for LIT at their home. Two of the Pens’ children, both first-generation Americans, participated in LIT in high school. Now they’re in college.
Mosca and the students have packed the van with exercise equipment, DVDs, and items families have been collecting for months. They’ve advertised the sale to neighbors and newly arriving corps members who need to furnish their apartments.
As the sun rises, more students arrive and get busy setting up. They live in a section of Las Vegas where they can see, rising in the distance, the Strip, where many of their parents work service jobs in the casino hotels. Most of these students will tell you they did not think college was in the cards for them before they got involved with LIT.
But today, they are intent on raising money to build better futures for themselves by touring colleges and taking ACT prep courses through LIT. Mosca, herself a first-generation college graduate and daughter of an immigrant, is two steps ahead. She’s focused on developing leaders who will build a better Vegas for everyone.
Most Las Vegas schools are part of the Clark County School District. In this massive district of 325,000 students, where corps members began to arrive in 2004, there are only about 335 Teach For America alumni. But the group’s intimacy has given rise to a scrappy, seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurialism through which a core set of friends and allies have become each other’s support systems for establishing new schools, running for office, launching nonprofits, teaching, and building partnerships with local organizations.
After Colin Seale (D.C. Region ‘04), the thinkLaw founder and former Las Vegas teacher, made the introduction, LIT partnered with Chicanos Por La Causa Nevada to earn its largest donation ever, a $55,000 grant from United Way of Southern Nevada Women’s Leadership Council. With it, LIT will expand this year to serve students from 12 East Las Vegas high schools and grow its one-woman staff to include an LIT college student and a program manager who was interviewed and selected by LIT students.
LIT is an avatar of the region’s alumni network in the way it resembles that old Pontiac van. There’s nothing slick about that van or the network, but they get the job done. When Mosca recently traced LIT’s evolution since its 2012 founding, she quickly counted 23 alumni who made or are making major contributions. Alums lead and serve on the board. They spend their weekends chaperoning student college visits. They hit up friends to house those visiting students. One alum, Ben Koch (Las Vegas ‘10) gave $700 a month to keep LIT afloat its first year. Another, Justin Brecht (Las Vegas ‘04) gave his $5,000 Teacher of the Year prize.
“We don’t need to fit this shiny box of what a nonprofit should look like,” Mosca said. “Everybody is getting what they need, and they’re getting an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise. It can be done a different way.”
That different way includes a lot of bartering. One example: The portable building outside Mosca’s placement school is no longer adequate for the meeting needs of the 140 students in LIT. And service is an essential part of LIT students’ leadership development. So Ignacio Prado (Las Vegas ‘10), the founder and principal of Futuro Academy East Las Vegas, swapped Mosca space in his school in return for LIT’s high school students tutoring Futuro’s elementary students after school. “I’ve met those high schoolers,” Prado says. “I want our kids to think the way LIT kids think.”
Prado and others believe conditions are right for this close-knit group to make headway in a state, Nevada, that passed 25 education bills in 2015, with aspirations to be one of the fastest-improving state education systems in the country. To date, alums in this particular cluster have supported each other in opening two alumni-led schools, with three more on track to open next year. Other alums are pursuing National Board Certification through a partnership with the local teachers’ union. Three, including Mosca, have created active nonprofits, with numerous others serving on nonprofit boards. And more than two-thirds of alums in Clark County are teaching.
But no one would be making headway if the families of East Las Vegas weren’t driving the change.
It Starts with Families
Eighteen-year-old Edwin Peña heard the same message from teachers over the years: he’d be better off thinking about community college, or maybe a trade school, after high school. Instead, Peña scored a milestone achievement by becoming LIT’s first graduate to earn and accept a full ride to a private, four-year college. Despite the heat, Peña showed up to work the garage sale in his red St. John’s University sweater.
Peña is in the second cohort of students to stick with LIT all the way through high school. That means he’s been working on leadership development for four years, because the program starts when students are high school freshmen and ends, well, never.
LIT freshmen commit to investing at least 100 hours a year to service, 400 hours before graduating from high school. The hope is they’ll return to their community from college, ready to move into positions of power.
The idea takes root when students, as freshmen, volunteer as elementary school tutors.
Sophomore year is for career-exploring internships. As juniors, they are matched with mentors and work on social justice projects in which they have to find roles to make change in their communities. Senior year is all about those college applications. When they finally get to college, they join monthly video chats and occasional meet-ups with Mosca and others in their cohort.
Peña knows Mosca will understand his St. John’s references on those video chats. Before he accepted the Minnesota school’s offer, Mosca visited to get to know the staff. Students don’t leave LIT for college. It follows them there.
As the first college hopeful in his family, Peña says he didn’t know what a college major was before LIT. It’s hard to invest in an idea without knowing it exists.
Immigrant families like the Peñas (Edwin’s parents are from Mexico) are common in East Las Vegas. Hispanic families account for a third of the city’s population, alongside growing numbers of Asian American Pacific Islanders. For parents who work unionized jobs or in construction, like Edwin’s father Octavio, owning a house is affordable. Octavio Peña likes the area’s stability, but he said he was unsure if schools were really putting Edwin and his sister Kimberly (another LIT student) on the path to college, “That’s a big thing that weighs on my mind,” he said.
Because of work, he can’t make it to school board meetings. But he can drive his kids and their friends, volunteer at LIT events, and lend his truck when LIT needs it. He’s involved for the first time in a hands-on way with his kids’ academic pursuits. From this close angle, he sees them returning to values he thought were left behind in Mexico.
“I would like for them to achieve what they want, that’s what's important for me, but it’s something that’s not guaranteed in this life,” he said. “Mexicans, we are all about community, putting something good back into where you came from.” Peña says he’s missed that feeling where he lives now, where people seem more focused on individual success. “If, after everything, they keep this commitment to give back to their community, that would be everything to me.”
That’s an attitude Mosca has come to expect from parents who often lead without being asked, like the family who decided to collect school supplies for East Las Vegas kids at their end-of-school-year party. Students have also bought in.
Bryan Fuentes, who was part of the 5 a.m. garage sale shift, said, “I almost have almost 200 hours of community service right now, which is amazing.” As a middle school student, he said, he was resigned to the expectation that he would grow up to work pick-up jobs to help support his immigrant parents and four siblings. Then Mosca recruited him to LIT as a freshman. Bryan spent a year tutoring elementary students after school, doing nearly double his expected service commitment. This past summer, he attended LIT’s STEM camp, a partnership with the Outside Las Vegas Foundation, where he learned about the fields of engineering and architecture.
He’s leaning towards studying electrical engineering and sees LIT’s free ACT prep courses as a pathway to a university with a strong program. Like a lot of the LIT kids, Bryan jokes that he joined because there was a rumor that this was a club with free food and cool trips. Now, when he describes how his LIT friends have become like a second family who root for his success and call him out when he falls short, his eyes begin to water.
“Now I have a chance to do something with my life,” he says. “I could actually help my family out in the future.”
Mosca says 100 percent of LIT’s first 16 members were accepted to four-year colleges, bucking state trends. Currently, only 8 percent of Nevada students graduate from college in four years. The statewide ACT scores indicate that only 10 percent of Nevada students are college-ready, with the average ACT score of 17.4 out of 36 being the lowest in the country.
Last year, LIT students received acceptance letters from the University of Nevada (Las Vegas and Reno campuses), Nevada State University, the University of California (Riverside, Irvine, and San Diego campuses), Arizona State University, the University of Montana, the University of New Mexico, and Boston University. A third of the students were the first in their families to graduate from high school. Nestor Sanchez was in that first cohort. Now a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he’s been hired by LIT to work with incoming freshmen, tracking their academic progress and helping them complete their volunteer hours. He’ll lead communications with the students’ families. He is taking on, with these students, everything Mosca did alone for the five previous cohorts. This is the first step in Mosca’s plan to pass all responsibilities to LIT alumni. “They should be the ones that are doing this work,” she says. “We don’t believe that we’re coming in to do any of this work to the community. We’re doing this work with the community. My job someday should be one of our students’, or one of the family members’.”
Choosing Las Vegas
Mosca says Las Vegas is the first place she’s ever called home. “Las Vegas accepted me,” she says. “I feel like I have so much to give back to the city for that.”
But when she came as a corps member, she did not foresee staying. She taught fourth and fifth grade special education inclusion classes at Daniel Goldfarb Elementary School, then left to complete a master’s degree in education at Harvard University. “I recognize that I’m a brown female,” she says. “I very much understand that I need to have some letters behind my name to prove myself.”
At Harvard, she was shocked to learn how unaware her classmates were of issues in districts like Clark County in the southwest. Would systems ever improve for students who were invisible to future leaders? So Mosca returned.
She grew up on the California coast, the daughter of a Filipino immigrant who frequently moved the family for better opportunities. In high school, Mosca was in a college-access program that helped her attend Boston University, where she experienced culture shock and was lucky, she says, not to fail out. Few of LIT’s students have left Las Vegas or Nevada for college. “I understand the struggles, and I get it. I never question parents. I never question students,” she says.
When she addresses LIT students, it’s always with the prefix “leader,” even when she’s just calling out to say, “Hello, Leader Bryan.” It’s part of a state of mind she’s trying to inculcate. When they’re in a room with an adult they haven’t met (like this reporter), they walk up, lock eyes, shake hands, and introduce themselves. Then they start asking questions. How did you get the job you have now? Where did you go to college?
Mosca is not shy about pitching her own academic success story to her students, but it’s her commitment to her family that bonds her to their parents.
Mosca purchased a condo during her second corps year, and when she learned her parents were months away from homelessness after job losses, “She said, ‘Mom, why don’t you just move in with me?’" says Carol Mosca. Now Mosca’s parents, who still live with their daughter, are LIT volunteers (Carol Mosca manned the till at the garage sale). For some East Las Vegas parents who resist the American way of kids becoming “independent” at age 18, they take hope from the Moscas that they don’t have to surrender their culture to gain opportunities for their kids.
It’s not unusual for Mosca to be up until 2 a.m. drafting emails or managing LIT’s budget. She’s always tired, always showing up (as she did at the garage sale) wearing the same clothes she wore the day before at some other LIT event. In her free time, however, she’s planning a political career, and encourages her students to make similar plans to run for office or start a school. She was a 2016 Democratic candidate for District 18 of the Nevada State Assembly. She lost, but this year Emerge Nevada, a recruitment and training political organization for women, selected Mosca to be in its 2017 class.
Who's Who in the Network?
- Ignacio Prado (Las Vegas ’10) is principal of Futuro Academy. He gives LIT space in his building to use as an office and to host student activities including tutoring.
- Rasheed Thompson (Las Vegas ‘08) is an LIT founding board member and co-founder and assistant principal at Marzano Academy, a new school. The school swaps meeting space in exchange for LIT students tutoring Marzano students and for Mosca facilitating cultural competency development with teachers.
- David Blodgett (Las Vegas ’09) has applied to launch Nevada Prep, a charter middle school, where he plans to use LIT’s high school and college access curriculum, including advisory lessons. He chaperones the rugby tournament that LIT students support as volunteers.
- Ben Salkowe & Rachel Warbelow (both Las Vegas ’07) are founders of Equipo Academy, a grade 6-to-12 school in East Las Vegas. Both volunteer at LIT events, exchange expertise with Mosca on nonprofit governance and execution, and collaborate on supporting Equipo families with college applications and financial planning. Salkowe is a regular LIT financial contributor.
- Jonathan Synold (Las Vegas ’04) is principal of Advanced Technologies Academy (A-TECH) high school and a volunteer with many current and former students active in LIT.
- Courtney Friedman (Las Vegas ’05) is LIT’s board president and a regular event volunteer. She works as a beginning and lower school librarian and technology integrationist at The Meadows School.
- Brenner Green (Las Vegas ’12) is the board vice president and a regular event volunteer. He is a special education instructional facilitator at Clark County School District.
- Rachel “Lindsay” Eanes (Las Vegas ’10) is the board secretary and a regular volunteer since 2012. She works as a project facilitator for the Clark County School District.
- Ben Koch (Las Vegas ’10) is a teacher whose students were in the first LIT cohort and who donated $700 a month in 2013 to keep LIT solvent in its first year of operation. He is a dean and English instructor at The Adelson Educational Campus in Las Vegas.
- Justin Brecht (Las Vegas ’04) was named the 2014 educator of the year by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He donated his $5,000 award to LIT.
- Dominique Remy (Las Vegas ’09) designed the LIT logo.
- Yousuf Marvi (Las Vegas ’12) voluntarily ran a leadership training program for LIT and connected many of his former students to LIT.
- Kaitlin Dauner (St. Louis ’12) comes to Las Vegas every summer from Cincinnati to lead LIT’s camping retreat.
- Niko Centeno-Monroy (Las Vegas ’13) is a volunteer student advisor and a member of the LIT brain trust who works as a college advisor at another Las Vegas college access program, Fulfillment Fund.
- Ben Clark (Chi–NWI ’03) connected LIT to the Hunnicutt Future Educators Academy at Arizona State University, which LIT participants now attend each summer.
- Meagan Jackson (Las Vegas ’12) volunteers at all major events.
- Colin Seale (D.C. Region ’04) is the founder and CEO of thinkLaw and a former East Las Vegas resident. He introduced Mosca to LIT’s new nonprofit partner Chicanos Por La Causa.
- Brian Hemsworth (Las Vegas ’08) volunteers to lead LIT’s ACT prep.
- COACHES of students during year-long “Vision for Social Justice” projects.
- Lan Nguyen (Las Vegas ’12)
- Nicole Tokarski (Las Vegas ’15)
- Peter Ferrari (Las Vegas ’13)
- Danielle Batin (Las Vegas ’12)
Not long ago, four alumni friends who have been answering each others’ calls for help for years met at the makeshift office of Ben Salkowe (Las Vegas ‘07) at Equipo Academy, the East Las Vegas school he co-founded. While dozens of construction workers toiled around them to add classroom space for the growing middle and high school campus, they gathered to discuss how they’re collaborating to establish a college-going culture for students in East Las Vegas. Salkowe was joined by Mosca, Ignacio Prado of Futuro Academy, and Brenner Green (Las Vegas ‘12), a special education instructional facilitator for the Clark County School District.
“In 10 years,” Mosca said, “all of our students are going to be running stuff.”
One of the most signficant ways these friends have helped each other is in sharing their experiences of how to build an organization. Prado said there’s a downside to not being in an environment where education innovation is in the air, like in the Bay Area where “the formula is already laid out.” But Prado believes the return on each individual’s investment will be that much greater as they contribute institutions with staying power to a growing culture of innovation in Nevada.
Mosca has played the role of being everyone’s go-to source for college access information. “She’s the first person anyone would reach out to with a question about admissions, financial aid or the unique aspects of expanding college access when you’re in East Las Vegas,” Salkowe says. “Erica is the first alum I know who has students in college who will readily tell you, ‘I didn’t think it was possible.’ Having those students who can speak directly to our families and our students and our community about how they did it is more powerful than anything.”
Brenner Green, who is LIT’s board vice president, says the new nonprofits and new schools provide opportunities for alumni to stay involved in improving systems here. “People either teach or move, and most people move because they think they don’t want to start a family in Vegas. So when we started, it was really the first time alums could get involved in another alum’s initiative that wasn’t teaching. I really think people want that experience,” Green says.
And so the network keeps showing up for one another, including at the recent garage sale. Green arrived early to welcome Las Vegas Valley corps members who came to shop, introducing them to families, other alumni, and some of their future students. In the gritty desert heat, the setup was scrappy. But they were getting the job done.