For the principal with the most homeless students in L.A., the reality of poverty is personal

I didn’t know anything about Jose Razo’s back story when I first reached out to him. I was simply checking in with the principal who leads the L.A. Unified campus that has more students classified as homeless than any other.

“For me, it’s personal,” the 43-year-old Razo told me one morning in a tight office with no room for one more box, folder, motivational poster or paper clip. “I do see myself in the faces of the students who walk through these hallways.”

That’s because years ago, he lived as so many of them do today.

Razo, who attended nearby Haddon Avenue Elementary and other local schools as a kid, said his father was not around much. His mother, as he described it, managed the trick of carrying herself as if she was persevering rather than struggling. For a time, Razo had no idea they were poor.

Not until they moved into a garage.

“My mother did anything she could,” Razo said. “She did massage. She would make and sell donuts, tamales, corn. My coming to Jesus moment was when we lived in that garage and I had to go to the bathroom. We didn’t have one in the garage, so we had to go to the owner’s house and knock on the door.”

The garage had no running water. Mrs. Maria Maximina Razo and her five children had access to an outdoor sink. Maria Razo, Jose’s older sister, recalls a standing house rule: Do not knock on the owner’s door after 8 p.m. If you had to go to the bathroom, you had to hold it until the morning.

As he told me his story, Razo was able to hold himself together until he got to the part about his greatest regret. After several months in the garage, the family moved into the nearby San Fernando Gardens projects, a big move up in the world despite the crime and drug activity there. But the financial struggles continued.

“We’d go to the laundromat and I’d see friends washing clothes while I was selling corn or tamales with my mother,” Razo said, “and I remember how it bothered me. I remember being ashamed.”

Razo stopped, swallowed hard and wiped the tears that pooled behind his glasses. He took a deep breath and said a friend once spotted him with his mother on the way to sell corn. He told the friend they were raising money for the benefit of other families, rather than their own. He said it in English, thinking his mother wouldn’t understand.

But she did understand, he later discovered.

“These are the things I think about,” Razo said. “This is why I work so hard to make sure to provide the best possible place for our students. The best place for them to feel safe.”

Left: Ariel Olivare makes a joyful entrance to the honors assembly, where she received an award at Telfair Elementary School in Pacoima. Center: Josue Cruz, above left, Diego Sanchez, Samantha Lopez, Tanya Pena-Zamudio and Matthew Garcia celebrate their accomplishments. Right: Kevin Castro joins the celebration. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

There is no reliable formula for going from living in a garage to running the elementary school down the street. In Razo’s case, it probably didn’t hurt that he was a devout Catholic and served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Faith and discipline still go to work with him every day, along with his boot camp buzz cut.

Razo recalls his mother telling him no one was going to help, so he better get to work. At San Fernando High School, Razo played trumpet in the marching band, where Army veteran Richard Gigger was a beloved music director.

“He was the father I didn’t have,” Razo said. “He made sure I stayed up on my grades, along with my mother. They tag-teamed me. Being in the band with Gig was like being in the military. He made sure you got to morning practice before school, and if your grades slipped, he benched you.”

Maria Razo remembers her little brother getting home from band practice and sprinting through the open spaces of the projects to avoid getting harassed by gangbangers.

“He was always studying,” she said.

Razo planned to find work in criminal justice after his Marine duty, but took a job as a teacher’s aide at Pacoima Elementary, just to try it out. And there it was. He liked the service aspect, so he got his credentials, along with a master’s degree, did some teaching, worked at district headquarters for a stretch, then took a test to become a principal.

When his mother asked how it went, he didn’t tell her the whole story.

“It’s in God’s hands,” he said, holding back the part about how he thought he’d blown his interview by spending most of the time talking about how much he admired her rather than how he’d run a school.

But Mom — now deceased — turned out to be the charm.

Her son, just 35, was hired to be principal at Lankershim Elementary, which he led for two years. Five years ago he transferred to Telfair, where, in his office, photos of his mother and his high school bandleader sit on a cabinet near his desk.

“For me, it’s personal ... I do see myself in the faces of the students who walk through these hallways.”

– Jose Razo, principal of Telfair Elementary School

Telfair Elementary was built when Harry Truman was president, baby boomers were booming and L.A. Unified built schools to put kids in rows, not to win architecture awards. No imagination was borrowed in assembling the box of faded chocolates that accounts for the main part of campus. The bungalow barracks, added later as classrooms, extend onto a playground that hears the roar of traffic rumbling along the 118 Freeway.

In 2012, a onetime third-grade teacher at Telfair got 25 years for molesting 13 former students. A gang shooting left a 16-year-old dead near the school in 2009. In May, police shot and killed a man with a pickax near campus.

But there are brighter notes in the school’s history. Three current public officeholders — Congressman Tony Cardenas, Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Assemblywoman Luz Rivas — got their start at Telfair. And five teachers on staff were once Telfair students.

After school one day, teachers attended a professional development class on math instruction when Assistant Principal Norma Alvarez asked if any of them wanted to run after-school clubs. Nine teachers raised their hands, even after Razo told them he didn’t know if he’d be able to get them a nickel for their extra work.

Second-grade teacher Rosa Rubalcava leads a class at Telfair Elementary, where she attended as a youth. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Second-grade teacher Rosa Rubalcava leads a class at Telfair Elementary, where she attended as a youth. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Rosa Rubalcava, second-grade teacher and former Telfair student, said she wanted to do a robotics club. Rita Ontiveros, kindergarten teacher and former Telfair student, said she hadn’t chosen a subject yet, but she just wanted to make clear that she was in.

“This is my community, and I want to be here,” Ontiveros told me as she and third-grade teacher Ruben Ayon led me down a hall to show off an engineering lab that’s under construction and could serve as the headquarters of an after-school club.

“I do it because the students in this community need to be exposed to what the kids in more affluent communities have at home,” said Ayon.

But for all this dedication to a noble cause, declining enrollment has cost teachers, class sizes are larger than ideal and some students are still learning English. And many of them carry the toll of their stressful lives into the classroom each day.

Teachers told me about hungry kids, tired kids, kids without a change of clothes, kids with bedbugs.

“They’re very distracted because they’re thinking about their home life as opposed to what we’re doing in class,” said Maria Alvarez, who teaches fifth grade. “I think they’re focused on where they’re going to sleep tonight and what they’re going to eat tonight and whether their parents are going to argue about the situation. … I don’t get depressed. I try to motivate them.”

The staff buys school supplies and clothing for students who need help, and Razo estimated that staffers have bought 15 pairs of shoes in each of the last two years.

“I have a student who’s exploding out of his shoes,” said Maria Mancilla, a third-grade teacher.

“It’s almost like we’re raising some of these kids,” said Ontiveros.

Sandra Tejeda was exhausted one day after school, and I asked what was wrong. She said she has a student who defiantly disrupts class, tapping his pencil hard on his desk for attention, and “getting in my face” when she reprimands him.

I told her I knew that student. He lives in a crowded garage near the school.

If such a student doesn’t do well in class, Tejeda said, “Why should the burden be on us?”

Tejeda and first-grade teacher Gricelda Gutierrez, both former Telfair students, wondered if parents today aren’t doing as good a job as their parents did, or if the difference is widespread poverty.

“I think it’s both,” said Gutierrez. “It goes back to the economy. A lot of these people are in survival mode.”

Telfair Elementary School Principal Jose Razo, at left, his wife Cristina, right, and daughters Angelica, 9, foreground left, and Mia, 5, talk around the island in the kitchen of their home in Sylmar. Razo, at right, shares some time with Mia in their backyard. youth. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Razo and his wife, Cristina, a teacher at nearby O’Melveny Elementary School, lead a life far removed from the one he knew as a child. They and their two daughters — one goes to Telfair, the other to O’Melveny — have a comfortable Sylmar home with a backyard the size of a small park, where their dogs chase balls and the Razos host weekend gatherings for their dozens of godchildren and extended family.

In their backyard one night, they couldn’t agree on how many godchildren they now have. She thought it was 20-something. He thought it was more.

Razo knows the economy around Telfair has changed in ways beyond his control, but he said he thinks too many people have stopped fighting for opportunities, content to see what can be given to them rather than what they can earn. He is his mother’s child, and despite great challenges in his life, he endured, and he knows many others who did too.

“These students have to be given more services, but I don’t believe in the pobrecito mentality and people who say, ‘Oh, he can’t make it,’” Razo said, referring to those who write off poor students as incapable of rising above their challenges. The economy will evolve in ways difficult to predict. Opportunities will arise. And Razo wants his students to be well-educated enough to have a shot.

One day after school, the principal and I traveled to the street where Razo had lived in the garage where he had to ask permission to use the bathroom. He looked up and down the block, trying to figure out where it was, then realized the house was gone, replaced by a row of businesses.

Jose Razo, principal of Telfair Elementary, walks across San Fernando Gardens, a housing project in Pacoima. As a child, he sprinted to avoid gang members. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Jose Razo, principal of Telfair Elementary, walks across San Fernando Gardens, a housing project in Pacoima. As a child, he sprinted to avoid gang members. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

He stood there for a moment, back in that time, as if he couldn’t believe how far he’d traveled since. Razo doesn’t dwell on his students’ challenges but on their potential. Even though Telfair is just an elementary school, he wants his “kids,” as he sometimes calls the students, to hear what he heard from his mother.

“From the first day, it’s not a question of whether they’re going to college, but which one,” Razo said.

College banners hang in Telfair’s classrooms and on designated days, students can leave their uniforms home if they wear a college T-shirt or sweater to school. Every student filed into the auditorium one morning, one class after another, and leadership awards were presented to students in a celebration of progress and hope.

Razo knows intimately the travails of his students, some of whom have lost parents, some of whom are in foster care, some of whom have mental health issues before they’re out of kindergarten. Some of whom live in garages as he once did.

“If they don’t have the mind-set that they can be successful, and that we believe in them,” the principal said, “we don’t have a fighting chance.”

A note on this series: Facing child poverty in L.A. and our own conflicting emotions »

A four-part series:

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