By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Cristina Chiappe, Diana Rivera, Sally Montenegro
She lost her job. She lost her home. But she kept her commitment to her students and continued to teach them and help them succeed, without a school or salary.
It may sound like a movie, but it’s is the true story of Cristina Chiappe, a teacher at the Centinela Valley Adult School in Lawndale who refused to take no for an answer. She was recently profiled by CNN for her determination to see her students graduate from her program.
Chiappe created a nine-month medical-assisting class for the adult school 12 years ago. Since then, more than 1,000 graduates found careers in the medical field - most of them low-income women seeking a better life. The same course is available at private colleges that advertise on TV, but Chiappe’s course was available for a fraction of the price.
Last March, the district abruptly canceled her class and eliminated her job, along with most positions at the site. Chiappe and her students were devastated by the cost-cutting move.
“I never dreamed they would sacrifice my program, because it had helped so many people in the community. Honestly, I was in a state of shock,” says the Centinela Valley Secondary Teachers Association member. “Modesty aside, I ran a good program, and the medical community in my area recognized that my students were well-prepared.”
Chiappe, a member of the board of neighboring Hawthorne School District, tried to fight the termination of her class. She showed up at Centinela Valley School Board meetings dressed as a skeleton, driving home the fact that education was being cut to the bone. Her class was canceled anyway. Without a job she could not afford to continue making payments on her home, even with her husband’s teaching salary, so the house was put on the market and they moved elsewhere.
Chiappe’s commitment to her students made her decide to keep teaching anyway - without pay. It was a risky move: Even though Chiappe received a business license from Los Angeles County to run a nonprofit school, her application for a permit from the city of Lawndale was turned down due to inadequate parking. So she rented a space, and the class met in secret.
Of her 20 original students, 16 stayed on. They used their tuition refund of $1,600 apiece to purchase $15,000 worth of mostly secondhand medical equipment online so they would have something to practice with. They bought sterilizers, machines to measure lung capacity, surgical instruments, a blood spinner, CPR dolls, a fake arm with a needle to practice drawing blood, books, an examining table, an electrocardiogram machine, instruments to test hearing and vision, and more.
Sally Montenegro says she jumped at the chance to help purchase equipment so she could continue her education.
“From day one, when our teacher started bringing in medical equipment, I knew it would work out. Every time we got something new, we were excited. It was like Christmas. We are fortunate that she worked with us to make it happen.”
Students met with Chiappe four days a week and finished the course last October. They held a graduation ceremony complete with caps and gowns. All 16 graduates were placed in 160-hour “externships” in medical offices. (An externship is similar to an internship, generally offered by career college educational institutions to give students short practical experiences in their field of study.) They hope to be hired soon as medical assistants.
They plan to keep meeting. “We formed such a bond,” explains graduate Diana Rivera, who is presently in an externship in the office of Dr. Austin Ilvore in Hawthorne with Montenegro. “We need to keep tabs on each other.”
Chiappe says she will not schedule another class until she finds a new site and secures the proper permits. Offers of help have been pouring in from those moved by her struggle. She hopes her superintendent will call her back one day, since the fee-based class came close to paying for itself.
“You do what you have to do,” says Chiappe. “And sometimes you have to show the world what is happening with the state of education in California. I have no regrets whatsoever.”
Donations are being accepted for the $3,600 to pay for the special permit to reopen the school. For more information, contact Chiappe at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (310) 901-3704.