El Mercadito provides dignified access to fresh produce and other groceries for Gilbert High School families.
Site Spotlight
Alternative school launches food pantry
May 29, 2023
Something special is happening at Gilbert Continuation High School. In one year alone, the school has been designated as a Model Continuation School and a CA Democracy School by the California Department of Education in addition to being awarded a five-year Community Schools Grant from the CDE.
Although Gilbert HS was already working toward a community schools model, the funding has allowed the school to accelerate its work. One such effort is El Mercadito, a permanent food pantry on campus that opened in April. Operated in partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank, El Mercadito provides students and families with dignified, equitable access to nutritious food.
We asked Principal Jose Lara, who was also selected as this year’s ACSA Region 17 Alternative Education Administrator of the Year, to share what’s leading to success at Gilbert Continuation High School.
Tell me about what community schools programs and what you’ve been able to do in the first year of this grant? Some of the community schools-type programs we held before this grant include hosting parent learning events where parents walk through our classrooms and provide us feedback on our program. Extended enrichment and learning opportunities through evening occupational classes in partnership with North Orange County ROP, and a partnership with Catalyst Kids, a nonprofit organization that provides childcare to our community members on our campus for infants up to age of 4 years old. With district support we have also been able to hire and maintain a Family And Community Engagement Specialist (FACES) to ensure parents are engaged and empowered at our school.
Once we received our community schools grant we have been able to hire a community schools coordinator and provide release time for a community schools lead teacher. Together, with our FACES, we began developing an equity-driven vision with our school community. We have also conducted surveys among staff, students, parents and community partners, and studied all existing demographic data available. We have been conducting empathy interviews with various groups in our community as well. These interviews are the most impactful and gave us the greatest results.
Although we are nearing the end of our planning stage, we have moved ahead with some portions of early implementation. We believe our children can’t wait; we work with a sense of urgency on our campus and district.
One of those programs you’ve implemented is El Mercadito. Why was establishing a permanent food pantry so important for your community? It was the students themselves that really led us to move forward with addressing this issue quickly. Led by our community school teacher lead, Nikki Reach, our students conducted civic engagement projects studying the surrounding food desert our school is situated with. They also shared their own stories about not always having nutritious food at home and how they often feel pressure to work instead of staying in school to help their families pay bills and provide food.
The students held a community forum on the issue, we established a partnership with our local food bank and our students volunteered during our monthly food distributions, setting aside some food for their own families. This drove home the need for a sustainable food pantry on our campus. Community Schools gave us the resources we needed to make this a reality and hence the Gilbert High School Mercadito was born. El Mercadito is a state-of-the-art store front with refrigeration where families and students can select from a variety of healthy food options, much like a farmer’s market.
What’s one practice that’s leading to great outcomes for students? Our theory of practice at Gilbert High School is focusing on students’ passion and purpose, this in turn will lead to students’ academic success. It is part of our district’s College and Career Readiness Framework. Through our civic engagement projects, students are given voice and choice to study an issue that is important to them and impacts their community. Students study issues like access to affordable physical and mental health care, food insecurity, systematic racism or pollution. They debate various sides of the issues and hone their communication, critical thinking and creativity skills. Most importantly, they learn about the importance of compassion and empathy and discover their purpose through these projects. Finally, students take some form of action on their project. This could be an online petition, a Soapbox Speech or a presentation at the LCAP meeting. Students tell us that these projects make them feel valued, heard and seen and when this happens, students have a purpose and reason to learn. This then creates a school climate where academics blossom and lives are transformed.

How does a school become designated as a CA Democracy School and why is that important for your students? Becoming a CA Democracy School requires integrating civic engagement and democratic values into your school's curriculum. This includes professional development, strategic planning, and engaging community partners and stakeholders to build support with the schools mission and goals. Schools must then submit an application to the California Department of Education and participate in a review process that includes a site visit that will assess your schools progress and determine whether it meets the criteria for becoming a CA Democracy School.
Civic engagement is important for our students because it is an assets-based community schools approach to teaching and learning. It sees students as changemakers and values students as co-constructors of knowledge. Students value their education more when they study and apply what they are learning in their core subjects to real world projects that are important to them. There is nowhere more important for this than in alternative education, where students need to feel connected in order to build critical hope for their future.
How does it feel to see so many positive things happening at Gilbert Continuation High School? I am full of joy, optimism and gratitude for the labor of love that my teachers and staff put into their work every day. We have transformed our thinking from making Gilbert High School a place where students receive a second chance, to a place where students give us a second chance. That change in mindset has made all the difference in our school culture. Our students, their culture, families and communities are assets who we learn and build community with, not to or for. I have the humblest, hardest working and best staff in the world and we are just getting started transforming Gilbert into the best community school in the state!
Gilbert Continuation High School
Principal: Jose Lara Assistant Principals: Cristina Pittman and Nabil Slim District: Anaheim Union High School District Profile: 650-student continuation school with 87 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and 92 percent unduplicated count students.
A student is interviewed during the grand opening of El Mercadito.
The ribbon cutting for El Mercadito was held in April.
Principal Jose Lara with Assistant Principals Cristina Pittman and Nabil Slim.
El Mercadito provides dignified access to fresh produce and other groceries for Gilbert High School families.
Contact Us
© 2023 Association of California School Administrators