May 24 2024

Lucia Mendez-Gutierrez helps Longfellow High School students develop confidence in the future

Adult and student sitting together at classroom table holding book

It’s hard to imagine the challenges of going to high school during pregnancy or as a young mother with a new baby. But thanks to Lucia Mendez-Gutierrez and her colleagues at Longfellow Alternative High School, many young women are now gaining confidence to do the things they never thought were possible: high school graduation, college entrance and meaningful careers.

As the coordinator for Achieve’s Career & College Center (CCC) at Longfellow, Lucia works with 69 students ages 14-21, helping them through the normal trials of high school and the added barriers they face as parents. Together, Lucia and the students she serves jump over the hurdles before them and make dreams possible. Lucia’s master’s degree in social work and her previous role as a program supervisor at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education both equipped her to offer the kind of in-depth knowledge, experience and resources her students need to more fully access postsecondary education and career opportunities.

Offering empathy and reassurance

The challenges of parenting are also familiar to Lucia. As the mother of two-year-old twins, she knows the wide range of parenting experiences and feelings, including being overwhelmed and the many nuances of motherhood. “I have an understanding of what students are going through,” she says. “When a student comes through the CCC door, I want to ensure I am meeting them where they are at.” Lucia’s support is given in many ways, including joining other Longfellow staff in bringing gently used children’s items to the school.

One of Lucia’s students, Longfellow senior Brenda, is building the confidence she needs to graduate and pursue her post-high school career aspirations. “Being at Longfellow and working with Lucia in the CCC has helped me in so many ways, including deciding what I want to do in my future and what I’m comfortable with. I’m feeling so much more confident now about my options.”

In Lucia’s experience, it’s common for Longfellow students to feel uncertain about their post-graduation plans because there are so many factors in their lives that go into these decisions. But reaching for dreams is a little easier at Longfellow because of its personalized education model, an Early Learning Center with childcare and preschool and other services that help students stay in school and create post-graduation plans they’re invest in and excited about.

Addressing barriers to career and college exploration

Lucia often brings speakers into the Longfellow CCC to talk one-on-one with students about the wide range of career and education options available to them, and she also accompanies them to career fairs, college campus tours and professional worksites out in the community. Students recently attended the annual Construct Tomorrow trades event, where they met a wide variety of company and trade reps and were introduced to construction, painting, bricklaying and many other trades through hands-on activities and virtual simulators.

“All of these opportunities help students get out of the classroom setting and feel more comfortable about making decisions about the future,” she says. “I’m so happy to see more and more students participating each year. It’s cool to see students get excited about field trips or watch their faces light up when they have figured out an interest. It’s so wonderful to see their confidence continue to grow.”

One of Lucia’s other students recently built the confidence she needed to cross the finish line to graduation. She was 21 at the time, so would soon “age out” of Longfellow and no longer have an opportunity to graduate. “She had one small credit to complete, and a lot of people on our staff came together with support and encouragement to make it happen,” Lucia recalls. “I had the honor of placing her graduation cap on her head and watch her walk with her class and get her diploma.” Lucia is now working with this student to apply to a two-year postsecondary program.  

Providing personalized support for Step Up applications and internships

Recruiting and supporting students for Step Up summer internships is also a big part of Lucia’s work. Step Up provides work readiness training, paid internships and professional mentors for over 1,300 Minneapolis youth each year. The Longfellow team collaborates with Step Up staff to lower barriers to lower barriers for Longfellow’s pregnant and parenting students and honor their specific life circumstances.

This customized support at Longfellow includes scheduling required steps like intern intake interviews, work readiness training and mock interviews during regular school hours, providing summer school morning classes to earn academic credit coupled with afternoon Step Up internships, and wrap-around support that includes on-site childcare, transportation, breakfast and lunch and other services. “This support allows more of our students to participate in Step Up and get great career experience,” says Lucia. “Last year one of our Longfellow Step Up interns was offered a job at the end of her internship and was so excited that she came back to Longfellow to encourage other students to apply for the program.”

Building student confidence in their post-high school plans

In our program data at Achieve Twin Cities, we see a strong relationship between the number of times a student like Brenda utilizes our school-based services and that student’s confidence in their postsecondary plans.

“Students come from so many different circumstances and may or may not get the support they need in their lives,” Lucia says. “Motherhood is challenging, and it’s hard to balance school, work and family. But our students know we are here for them as they create their own personal plans and find their next steps after Longfellow.”  

Brenda is spending a lot of time in the CCC during her senior year, where Lucia is helping her explore in greater depth what she wants for herself and her little boy and encouraging her to continue creating her path toward a meaningful career that offers financial independence. Brenda is currently deciding between a career in mechanics or nursing and looking at the best options for preparing for these fields. 

“Lucia has told me that if I really want something I will get there, even if there are rocky times along the way,” she says. “I know it’s going to take lots of time and hard work. But I really want to reach my goal, and now I feel like I’m going to make it because I have so much more confidence and support. And that makes me think, ‘Dang! I can do this!’”