The percentage of seniors who completed their FAFSA forms at Escondido High School (required to apply for federal financial aid) jumped from 60% in 2017 to 76% in 2020. In this interview, Dr. Lepe-Ramirez tells Rodrigo Arancibia and Cesar Fernandez from the Educated Guess Podcast about her own experience of education, her path to school leadership, and what drives her commitment to helping kids navigate the path to college.
This article is a collaboration between High Tech High Unboxed and the Educated Guess Podcast. We’re releasing an extended version of this interview as an exclusive crossover episode on the High Tech High Unboxed Podcast.
Thank you, La Reina del Norte, Adriana Lepe-Ramirez, for joining us. We also have Cesar Fernandez, host of the Educated Guess podcast, and Katie Yording handling the boards on the phone joining us. And this is a crossover between the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, and the Educated Guess podcast, which Cesar and I – but mostly Caesar – have been running for the past three years. And on The Educated Guess podcasts we’re trying to get the origin stories of amazing educators and then just have honest conversations, ‘cause a lot of what we hear in education is a sanitization of the truth. So, I’m gonna probably cuss. But tell me a little bit about where you grew up, where you’re from and what your educational experience was like growing up. What was that like for you?
Alright. Well, I grew up in East LA in a little town called El Sereno. High poverty, large Latino population. Most of us were Mexican or what we thought was Mexican. So, like a Mexican, Salvadorian ‘cause, you know, there, everybody’s “Mexican.”
I can’t say that I had a great experience. I feel like educators usually have another educator that they can say “This teacher really inspired me or really believed in me.” I didn’t have that. I saw that in my sister’s and my brother’s journey, but not in mine. I’m the youngest of three, and my older brother and sister were über smart and like, captain of the football team, and I just wasn’t ready to try that hard, just to be real. So, going into middle school and high school, all the teachers would get really excited to hear that another Lepe was coming into their classroom. And yeah, I had to make it real clear that they’re not going to get that same “Lepe experience.”
So most of my friends, we kind of jumped from one year to the next without any real guidance, without any real direction. And my senior year was probably the first time we spoke to a college and career tech or counselor. And the conversation was kind of like, “Well, what community college do you want to go?” And I said, “Well, what do you mean, what community college do I want to go to?” I wanted to go to Cal State LA cause that’s—that was the local CSU in my community. And you know, she laughed at me, you know, she was like, “No, I’m serious. What community college do you want to go to? And you know, I said Rio Hondo. I didn’t realize that there were courses that I had to take and there were pathways that I needed to be on in order for me to get to Cal State LA. I had decent grades, but my friends and I, we just didn’t know. And so, the majority of us ended up either at East LA College or Rio Hondo Community College.
This is a typical story that we hear with educators, you know, they didn’t really have that rich experience, um, in their formative years, but there had to have been a moment where you turned that corner and it sounds like it was in community college. Maybe there was a professor that inspired you or maybe it was just the experience of being with others in community college where you said, “Hey, I gotta make this move and I gotta get to that four year and do such and such.” When was that moment for you?
Honestly, I think that moment came from me when, when I got pregnant with my son and realized I needed to figure out my life because I was having a baby.
How old were you?
I was 18 when I got pregnant. Again, I wasn’t the best student, so it wasn’t like I left my high school prepared for much. I remember walking into high school classes, and there were notes written on every chalkboard that lined every wall, and we spent fifty minutes just copying the notes and that was class. So, when I got to Rio Hondo I struggled and I didn’t know some of the basic stuff that I probably should have known, I did have professors say, you know, “College isn’t for everybody, and you just might want to rethink this.” Yeah, no, it was amazing. My self-esteem was great, really high at that point…
I did fall in love with history. Like I fell in love with the subject and I fell in love with the way some of my teachers talked about it, which made it so relatable and understandable. And it was the way they taught me history that made me fall in love with it. That led me to decide to, to major in, or at least get a minor in history and major in social science. But to say like, somebody really inspired me. I knew I wanted to work with at-risk kids, that was my jam. I wanted to work with kids who represented my group of friends that didn’t have the same opportunities that I had and ended up in jail or ended up dropping out or ended up just not making it. And they didn’t make it because they didn’t have the supports that they needed and the spaces where they should have felt most safe. So that’s what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know what that looked like. I didn’t know it was going to look like becoming a teacher and eventually moving into being an administrator. I just knew I wanted to work with that population.
Was there a particular moment where you’re like, “Yo, I’ve got to do this”?
I think it’s just always been there. I lost my first friend to gang violence in middle school, you know, I could look back at my first-grade class pictures and see little Robert Dalian who was super sweet and didn’t even make it to the ninth grade. The boys that I graduated sixth grade with, I can’t remember graduating high school with them. They either moved away or they went to jail or they went to continuation schools.
How does after-school come into your world?
Again, I got pregnant when I was 18 and I needed to work. My son’s dad left shortly after I got pregnant, so I started working as an instructional aide in an elementary school. And that was when I fell in love with teaching, watching the teachers spark that excitement for learning, and the creativity that they were able to use in everything that they did, whether it was teaching, reading or math, everything was creative and engaging and the kids were just so excited to learn. And that’s what made me fall in love with the teaching aspect.
Sounds like you’ve had a really good experience being an instructional aide. So, I mean, the teachers you worked with obviously were amazing. I mean, I know that it was my experience as an instructional aide that really turned me on to be an educator. So that honestly was the catalyst for you wanting to be in the classroom also?
I think that was the biggest indicator that this is where I wanted to be, was watching how they literally changed kids. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. 100% on this podcast, it makes sense. There are some places that it doesn’t make sense. That’s what we want every adult on campus to be able to do. Absolutely. And so, wait, so you’re an instructional aide and then how again, like, I’m sorry, I’m harping on the after-school stuff.
I had a pretty amazing principal at the elementary school. I was working at Sierra Park Elementary in El Sereno and the principal at the time was part of the after-school program movement that at that time was starting LA’s BEST. And at this point I already had my son and I needed a job. My principal was in charge of the after-school programs and managed several schools, kind of like a regional manager, if you will, and there was a position that was open at Griffith elementary school I applied, I interviewed, I got it. I became their drill team coach!
The real question is, did your team use the flags or the shields for props?
It was all arms!
Oh, alright, all arms! I love it. And how, how long were you in the after-school space?
Maybe like six or seven years. I went from drill team to homework club. I worked anywhere from kinder to sixth grade. Eventually I became after-school coordinator back at the school that had first hired me as an instructional aide.
Give us your catalog of work as a teacher and an administrator. Obviously, we know you’re principal, but give us the whole catalog.
Okay, I started teaching at a charter school – not a charter school like what you’re probably imagining, like a “choice school” – it’s called Soledad Enrichment Action, and we serviced all of the “at-risk kids.” So the students that came to us were just getting out of Juvenile Court and Community Schools, so they had already been expelled from LA Unified and there was really nowhere else for them to go.
Just to explain it, it’s one school but there’s 18 different classrooms all over LA County. It stretched from North Hills to Pomona and everything in between. I started working in the Crenshaw area. That was my first classroom, and back then you were allowed to teach under an emergency credential, but they were quickly coming through with No Child Left Behind and they were only allowing teachers who had full credentials to teach. So, within a couple of years, I lost my classroom because I hadn’t cleared my credential – I was in the credential program, but I hadn’t finished. So, they moved me into special ed because special ed had a one-year grace period – that is, you could still work under an emergency credential for sped. So, I worked in special education for the resource kids within the same school system.
When I got my full credential, I went to Soledad Enrichment Action’s South Gate site for a few years, but after a few of my kids were shot and died, it was really rough. I decided to make the leap into admin and I was hired as an assistant principal through the Alliance for College-ready Public Schools. So, a very different charter. And the exciting part though was that I was able to open a school site in Watts, so there were eight of us and we were able to build it pretty much from the ground up. Then the opportunity to become an assistant principal at a comprehensive high school out in Riverside opened up. So, I went from Watts to Menifee and I worked as an assistant principal for Paloma Valley High School, so that was a little different.
I was at Paloma for about three years and then I transferred within the same school district. I transferred to Perris high school. So, I was at Perris High School for about six years.
And were there differences between Pomona and Perris?
There were some significant differences: Perris High School’s full student body were students of color, and a lot of poverty in that area. In Menifee it was about 60% white, 40% Latino, a more affluent neighborhood, so a population that I wasn’t necessarily accustomed to coming from the background where I taught and you know, moving into an assistant principal position, it was definitely a transition.
How does the opportunity open up for you to come down south to Escondido?
I had been an assistant principal for almost a decade and there were some changes in the district, and I figured, you know, “This is my time.” For a long time, you doubt yourself and you think you need to learn more or get more experience in certain areas. And I looked around, and Escondido really had the demographics that I was looking for. It had the history that I was used to. And just looking at the school and reading about it, it just really felt like home and I knew that was where I wanted to be. So, I applied and I was lucky enough to get it. Now I’m officially the first person of color in 120-odd years to call myself the principal.
Yeah, I was going to say it. I’m super curious. Like day one, boss lady walks in, Latina, what are you thinking when you’re walking in the first day?
Yeah. You ain’t lying, huh? Everything is your responsibility. Every kid, every parent, everything is your responsibility, huh?
Yeah. To the Roundup they use to kill the weeds too, you know.
And did you have anybody that was already working here, some kind of support system in Escondido? Somebody who kind of waved you in?
I came in really not knowing anybody. I can’t say I didn’t have support. I did. I think my name came up as a candidate because the UCSD/Cal State San Marcos Joint Doctoral Program has a strong presence in this area. So, when my dissertation chair knew that I was applying, she reached out to some folks. And so, I was given an interview. So, I did have support and I had people that I knew I could talk to, I just didn’t know anybody! It wasn’t like I already had a friend within the district. It was a leap of faith. ‘Cause no one knows me out here. They don’t know what I’ve done. They don’t know my history, and I have to build that from scratch because it’s not like, “Oh, I knew her when she was in the classroom and she was bad-ass” or “We did drill team together,” like, no-one knows, there’s no history.
But my friend [San Pasqual High School principal] Dr. Martín Casas has been just absolutely a rock star with me and helping me network and meet some fine folks like my friend Rodrigo here.
I am pretty familiar with the young mother going into education – that was my mom having me at 18 and having to take me to college with her. At this point, when you become principal, how far along is your son into his education and how did your experience shape your vision for his experience at school?
I think I put a lot of pressure on him. And when we moved out to Riverside, we, um, we kind of settled in and you have to remember my son comes from East LA where, you know, they’re putting their money together to buy a can of soda from the ice cream truck. So, to go from that to a space where kids have three or four Gatorades in their backpack, you know, I don’t think he felt like he fit in. I think he dealt with a lot of racism and he ate a lot of it for my sake because he knew that I was living out my dream. Like, this was my path. So, I think he stayed quiet through a lot really ugly stuff—teachers telling him “This is America, you need to speak English,” people calling him a beaner, a cherry picker, he had a really rough time, so he rebelled a little bit. He refused to get his A through G requirements, meaning he couldn’t go to college, and his counselor at his particular school didn’t help either, was just kind of like, “Well, he doesn’t want to.” I think his counselor was also the counselor for the athletes, so if you weren’t going to a D1 school on a full scholarship, they didn’t care about you. I think they saw a little brown bean walk into their office with gauges in his ears and they knew he was going to be a piece of shit and they let him give up on himself. You know, they didn’t believe in him and what he could do. And my son needed more than just me to be his cheerleader and nobody else was cheering for him. You know, like your mom can say you’re amazing and you’re super smart until she’s blue in the face. But if you hear it from somebody else, it means something. And I don’t think there was anybody there to tell him how amazing he was.
So, the boy struggled a little bit. He moved to LA with my parents, went to East LA college and ended up on the Dean’s list. I think he was just defeated in high school, but he’s killing it at community college. He’s just passing all of his classes. He loves school. He wanted to be a high school counselor, then he took sociology and absolutely fell in love with it. So now he wants to be a sociology professor. He’s getting ready to graduate at the end of this semester, and then he’s transferring hopefully to UC Riverside to finish up his degree.
Hey, well, I’m proud of you sis, ‘cause that’s, that’s hard, fam. So, your experience raising your son, that obviously influences how you lead your school, you know what I mean? How are you communicating that when you’re talking to your team?
Honestly, I think from the moment I walked on to this campus, my message was about ALL kids. Not just the kids that show up every day, not just the kids that want to do the work, but ALL kids: the kid that’s getting high in the bathroom, the kid that’s just making poor choices. We’re about all kids, and all kids being successful.
And I think it was a little overwhelming for some folks, right? It seemed unrealistic. But I think at the core, the teachers get it, they know we have to be about all kids and making sure that the practices that we implement and the rules that we roll out are really equitable, and we’re not creating those systematic barriers that keep kids from being successful. And I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we’re always open to conversation and poking holes and really using different lenses to see how we’re impacting our kids.
What’s been the biggest learning between first stepping foot on Escondido’s campus and first joining the CARPE College Access Network, and then from CARPE to now? Are there two different learnings or is there one learning?
The biggest learning from being a part of the network was understanding that sometimes my team needs to hear it from a different space. So, it doesn’t have to come from me.
There were a lot of things that I was asking to happen, but being a part of the network gave them a space to make it their own journey, versus “We’re doing something that the principal wants us to do.” And that was huge. That was a big lesson, like “You need to get out of your damn head. You need to step back and let your people do what they want to do the way they need to get it done so that they could own it and they can love it and they can live it every day.”
Was there a singular point that you remember where you’re like, ah, that’s the one, or is it, has it just been an accumulation of little wins here and there?
I think I honestly saw it when we were in the interview process to be a part of CARPE because the things that we were being asked and some of the data that we had to collect made people a little more curious about what we’re doing. And then the interview process allowed people the space to share what their passion is and how they support kids.
Then, after the first time we met together, it just got exciting. They were able to own a lot of the movement moving forward. So, then my role just became a supporter. Like, “What do you need to get it done?” You know, it’s no longer pushing like “Do this and do this and we should do this and how about we do this?” Now it’s them saying, “Oh, can we do this? Can we do that? Can we have a space to make this happen?” And then I just get to be like, “Yes, yup, done. Let’s do it.”
Remove barriers and let them do their thing, right?
It’s just been amazing, the work that they’ve done, and this is a team of counselors that have worked together for a decade. And the work that they’ve really been able to do collectively is amazing.
And like I mentioned before, I’d already had conversations with my admin team about removing those barriers that keep our students from, from filing for financial aid, so when we came into the CARPE space and the team time, I may have like given suggestions like, “Hey, what if we did something like using our PSAT day, right? While all our 10th and 11th grade students are taking the PSAT, instead of letting the seniors stay home and sleep, like, why don’t we bring them in and really kick off our FAFSA application?” And they had some questions like, “What might that look like?” And I answered what I thought, but then I just kind of stepped back. And then they started getting excited, like, “Oh, and we could do this, and, what do we do with our freshmen?” And then it’s like, “Well, what conversations might we want to have with freshmen about what their four-year plan is?” And then you kinda just drop some ideas and then step back and let them get really excited, knowing that they’re going to have a certain number of hours with the students.
At least for me, I think my team already had a lot of great ideas that were living in silos. Like this counselor has a great idea of what they would want to do, but we never really created a space where they could make those things come to fruition where they’re all working toward one goal.
Right. And it feels like the work that we’ve been doing helps de-silo a lot of what’s happening on campuses. Like, college access is the initial conversation, FAFSA completions or whatever, or you know, SAT signups or whatever that conversation is, but we’ve noticed that it starts to surface some of these other institutional issues.
That’s one of the biggest learnings that we’ve had as a team: these practices aren’t solely for college access – you could use them in a multitude of ways.
How do you build that trust with teachers to have these discussions and make some of these changes that you want?
We started with AVID1, obviously, because college readiness is really their territory. And they went out and talked to other teachers that would be interested in supporting this work. Then we started building our team based on who wanted to learn more, who wanted to be a part of that process. And we sent teachers to trainings. You know, when we do our big kick off to college day, we have a team of teachers that do the financial aid packets with the kids. And that’s just regular classroom teachers who wanted to be a part of that work and wanted to learn more for the next year. So, we got them trained up so they can answer questions and feel more comfortable in that space.
That’s something that more principals need to understand, that teachers already have their own networks and principles think “Oh, it’s going to be so tough to push out this new initiative, ‘cause we’re going to get pushback.” No, there’s actually a cadre of teachers on campus that want to grow, and want to do this work. So, you have to trust that there’s already a network for this work on campus as opposed to stepping on and saying, “Hey, I know this person does good work. Let me bring them in my network.” I mean, again, it’s building that trust and knowing that those people that are already there.
Okay. And it’s about how do you build those leaders, right? You build those leaders within that space.
Help us understand what that looks like.
Oh, yikes. Holy smokes. I think it’s just creating a space where people feel comfortable stepping out of the norm and taking that leap of faith, or like, “Let’s just try something different because what we’ve been doing, is it giving us the results that we want?” So, let’s just step out: let’s try something different and create that space where it’s okay for it to not be amazing the first time around.
And we’re learning together, right? Like, this is new for all of us. But we’re all gonna get better together. I think just building that safe space and trusting that everybody’s going to do their part and we’re all going to give it everything that we have, and then we’re going to come back and we’re going to see what we’ve learned.
Adriana, we’re close to time here, but I’m super curious: do you have any questions for our listeners? Like, if there’s one thing you can ask every single listener to do, what would that be?
I would ask them just to give a little bit of grace, right? We’re all doing the best we can every day. And we make mistakes. We’re human and just give us a little bit of grace.
I just really appreciate your time and I hope to meet you in person. You are an amazing educator, but more importantly, I wish your son good luck on his journey through education because I was your son at one time. And so, you really hit me with that and I wish him the best. Thank you so much.
1AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) is a curriculum designed to help students develop skills and habits that will set them up for success in college.