Brewing up a new source of funds

Brewing up a new source of funds

Local alumni, educators launch cultural café to support school programs

Put down the car wash signs. Leave the bake sales and
raffle drawings behind. And let the pros handle the gift-wrap.

At least that is the idea at two El Sereno charter schools,
where a cohort of CSULA alumni, educators and parents have brewed up a new
business model for fundraising and supporting public education in the midst of
budget cuts and unpredictable state funding. They see a more sustainable
future, they say, in returning to their roots—and the cacao and coffee bean.

Administrators and parents from Semillas Community
—led by the school’s Executive Director Marcos Aguilar ’06 MA—opened

Xokolatl Café in December in the hope of pouring profits into Semillas’ schools
and its nearly 600 students. The goal, he explained, is for sales of indigenous
drinks, sandwiches and snacks to help shield the charter schools from future
layoffs or cuts when there is a gap in funding.

“Our biggest strategy has been to do what we can with what
we have,” said Aguilar, who founded the Semillas Community Schools with his
wife, CSULA alumna Minnie Ferguson MA ’06, in 2001.

“I think the financial crisis—more than anything—has forced
creativity,” he added.

At public schools and districts statewide, parents and
teachers have sought alternative means for fundraising in the face of massive
cuts. Still, Semillas’ venture into the food and beverage industry is by far one
of the more unusual approaches. The café, which sits across Huntington Drive
from the Semillas K-5 school, was incorporated as a separate business from the
schools, but it is 100 percent overseen by charter school administrators (many
of whom have ties to Cal State L.A.).

Since the proposal for opening the café first sprouted in a
parent committee last summer, officials at Semillas say they have been running
at a full sprint—first in making the café operable, and now developing ways to
increase profits and improve students’ education through the process.

The educational mission of the Semillas schools is to not
only provide students with an education in the traditional state curriculum, but
also to broaden their knowledge about and appreciation for indigenous cultures
and practices around the world. All students participate in a number of
cultural activities, and learn in four languages: English, Spanish, Nahuatl (the
native language of the Aztecs) and Mandarin.

Administrators say that Xokolatl reinforces that mission by
providing another forum for educating students and the surrounding community
about their cultural roots. For instance, Xokolatl is the word for chocolate in
Nahuatl, and the principal ingredient used in specialty drinks at the café is
cacao, an indigenous chocolate seed that was used by the Aztecs as both a form
of currency and a health food.

In addition, the café has hosted a number of cultural
events, community film screenings and holiday brunches since its opening.

“It’s a great place,” said Cal State L.A.
student Lidia Sosa, who plans to finish her bachelor’s degree this fall. “There
is something for everybody.”

Sosa discovered Xokolatl while volunteering as a tutor at
the Semillas Charter Schools through
Cal State L.A.’s EPIC (Educational
Participation in Communities) program. She has since been hired as an assistant in the counseling department, and is a regular patron, she says.

Aguilar said in its first year of operation, Xokolatl is
already 100 percent self-sustained, and by the end of the second and third year,
the goal is to turn a profit of as much as $50,000, which would be invested into
the Semillas schools.