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USC alumna helps Hybrid High students reach their potential

by Andrea Bennett
Alejandra Mendoza helps a student at USC Hybrid High. (Photo/Kathy Hernandez)
Alejandra Mendoza helps a student at USC Hybrid High. (Photo/Kathy Hernandez)

USC alumna Alejandra Mendoza was so impressed by USC Hybrid High School that she convinced her father in Mexico to let her 14-year-old sister, Jackie, move in with her to attend the Los Angeles charter school.

“This is an amazing opportunity for her to expand her academic knowledge and have access to experiences I didn’t have,” said Mendoza ’06, MAT ‘07, who will earn her EdD at the USC Rossier School of Education in 2014. “I want to start instilling the idea of success in her. So I just inherited a teenager, and it’s been interesting.”

All students at Hybrid High, which operates seven days a week, are expected to acquire real-world internships based on their own career interests. The school hopes this will allow the students to build personal portfolios.

Mendoza is encouraging her sister, who has a blossoming interest in fashion design, to take up a project with the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising just a few blocks away.

Mendoza has always been ambitious — that drive propelled her success as a student in two countries as a youth. Her father didn’t want his children to speak Spanish with an American accent, so while in elementary school, Mendoza would spend several months each year attending school in a small town in Mexico. Somehow, she managed to keep up with her U.S. homework.

In fact, she was so adept at transitioning between the two cultures and languages that her eighth-grade teacher in Mexico asked her to teach the English course to her peers.

“That was quite an experience, as I had to learn about planning and delivering content,” she said. “It seems that teaching has always been part of who I am.”

However, Mendoza felt isolated and left to her own devices in the public school system. While she earned good grades in high school and took the initiative to meet with her counselor each week, she said she received little direction to go to college. The experience sparked a desire to advocate for other students someday.

“My counselor had so many students, many with academic and behavioral issues, so I learned how to navigate on my own,” Mendoza said. “I want to give back because there’s so much I didn’t learn in high school, including life skills, and how to get into college, and I realized there was so much out there that I wasn’t taught. So I wanted to make a difference, provide equity and access, and help others reach their fullest potential.”

While attending Rio Hondo Community College, Mendoza rediscovered a love of history and soon set her sights on big dreams.

“I knew USC was a difficult school to get into and I told myself if I can get in, I can do anything I set my mind to,” she said. “So when I was accepted, I felt I had to hit the floor running at ‘SC. I knew my degree would lead me to teaching and to the MAT program.”

Mendoza earned her BA in social science and communication at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and promptly entered the Master of Arts in Teaching program at USC Rossier, with support from the Rudolf and Hazel Hatton Endowed Scholarship. She later went on to work at several secondary schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Mendoza, who currently is earning her doctorate in education, said she has continued to apply the knowledge and skills she acquired at USC Rossier to her teaching at Hybrid High.

“Dr. [Sandra] Kaplan has been instrumental to my success in the MAT and EdD programs — I always tell her I want to be just like her when I grow up. And I use the models of teaching and the big ideas I learned from her a lot,” she said. “And Dr. [Robert] Rueda’s class on learning was amazing. It helped me with my own studies, and I applied those principles with students in the classroom. I still go back to my notes from those two classes often.”

In 2012, she joined the first teaching staff of USC Hybrid High, which was founded by Professor David Dwyer. The school’s blended learning model is designed to offer students personalized learning plans, extended hours and access to a wealth of technological resources.

“I wanted to be part of a new innovative school that took students as a whole into consideration, not a one-size-fits-all approach,” she said.

As the first social studies teacher at a new school, she also conceded that she has a penchant for being a pioneer.

“I love being a part of firsts — I was the first in my extended family to get a BA and then the first to get a master’s and soon an EdD. I’m so proud of that,” she said.

Mendoza said she has seen her students respond to the individual attention and personal accountability that is integral to Hybrid High’s learning model. For instance, she has a ninth grader named Eboni who finished her English semester three weeks earl, and who regularly stays at the school until 5 p.m. to get extra tutoring from Mendoza.

“She’s very persistent, and I see a lot of myself in her. If she doesn’t understand something, she’ll hunt me down,” Mendoza said. “She stays after school just to get ahead and have that individual one-on-one time with me.”

Hybrid High students take personal responsibility for their academic success and are not constrained by typical classroom hours and days. If they need additional help, instructors are there to provide it. If they breeze through a particular subject, they can move on to the next level of difficulty.

“I have students who have finished a course in three months and some that take longer, but they are all going to achieve mastery before they finish the course,” Mendoza said.

She also has been inspired by the transformations she’s seen among her students, who come from typical middle schools with little personal attention or accountability. And she hopes to continue to inspire her Hybrid High students toward success.

She said it helps to have colleagues who share her mission and truly care about their students.

A number of on-site teachers at Hybrid High have doctoral degrees, and more than half of the school’s staff members are alumni of USC Rossier.

“All of the most qualified people happened to be from USC,” Mendoza said. “Yes, there’s a lot of Trojan pride here.”

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