By Juan Calvillo
In March of 2021, ELAC’s South Gate satellite campus was given the title of “center.”
“The state recognizes it as a separate center and gives it its own line item, its own budget and is held accountable to…many of the same outcomes that other state colleges are held accountable to, which is a big deal,” Armida Ornelas, former vice president of Continuing Education & Workforce Development and now the interim president of Los Angeles Mission College, said.
East Los Angeles College’s South Gate Educational Center has served the southeast communities of Los Angeles since 1997, bringing access to higher education to those areas.
Bringing these opportunities to the areas of South Gate, Huntington Park, Walnut Park and others has been a labor of passion for many involved with the center since its inception.
Former interim president Raul Rodriguez approved the application for “center” status that would make this a reality.
Ornelas said the proposal for this application was brought up to each new president and most declined.
She said the Board of Governors approved it and granted the request.
Ornelas said the center is the first in the Los Angeles Community College District to achieve this milestone and all that it brings with it.
Al Rios, South Gate Educational Center dean and current Mayor of South Gate, said Huntington Park Mayor Rick Loya was concerned with the areas lowering education levels and dropout rates in the early ‘90s.
Loya gathered with surrounding city mayors to see what could be done about the situation.
Rios said the group found a vacant building in Huntington Park and used federal funds to move things forward.
Rios said the next step was connecting with ELAC and seeing what could be done.
Ornelas said the original building was an old Pacific Bell facility.
Pacific Bell was a telephone company that provided wires and telephone service in Southern California.
It became a part of AT&T and its holding became vacant in the Huntington Park area.
The building was located on Seville and Saturn Avenues.
Daniel Castro, first dean of the educational center, advocated for opening the center there.
The project got the support of former ELAC President Ernest Moreno and it became the original center’s site for the southeast communities.
Ornelas said Castro was a big part of getting things going for the satellite center.
“He (Castro) was very committed to serving underserved communities, first generation immigrant Latino communities,” Ornelas said.
Rios said some of the first classes offered were English as a second language courses.
Soon, general courses were added to the small center.
These courses quickly ballooned and soon a more robust building needed to be found for the growing student numbers.
Rios said in 1997, a new building was found.
Castro helped figure out much of the logistics for the new building.
This 50,000 square foot building is located at 2340 Firestone Boulevard.
Ornelas said over the years, the center has been a symbol for the community.
She said despite the location lacking certain resources, the staff and faculty made up for it with love, passion and commitment for the area.
The center provides access to schooling and higher education for the communities in the area.
“The magic that happened there is just amazing because people wanted to be there. Students wanted to be there. At one point in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, it was packed,” Ornelas said.
She said the center became depleted and there was a push to figure out how to help the South Gate Educational Center.
Former ELAC President Marvin Martinez set up a task force to address the situation.
Ornelas chaired the task force that prioritized the center.
She said they were able to add adult education courses, full time faculty and custodians among other things.
Rios said an investment was made in the South Gate Educational Center that was directly tied to the needs of the community.
He said the expansion of the current site is in the works.
Ornelas said the decision was fueled by the funds from Measure J that were bonds set up for the creation of a more comprehensive college site.
She said the original idea was to purchase the site at Firestone and Atlantic Boulevards.
Instead, the site that was chosen is directly across the street from the current center.
Rios said there has already been some development at the site.
The site was previously a Firestone Tire Company manufacturing building.
The tire brand used to make its tires there. Ornelas said extensive cleanup has been done at the site to ensure that there are no lingering chemicals from the manufacturing of Firestone’s tires.
Rios said the community has waited for some time for the expansion.
The site is 105,000 square feet and will house 32 smart and normal classrooms.
Computer labs, science labs and offices will all be a part of the new South Gate Educational Center building.
Rios said it will likely open its doors in the Fall or Winter sessions of 2024.
He said the southeast area of Los Angeles has a dense population of youth who understand change and needs for school.
The South Gate Educational Center is a place for the future of the south east communities.
“As a workforce, the landscape changes. We don’t have those labor jobs we used to have, so folks need a little more schooling and training. So I think that’s part of it too, that there is a need for post secondary education,” Rios said.