Puentistas Rally to Keep Popular Counselor at High School in Anaheim

Mr. G with two scholarship recipients. Courtesy Steve Gonzales

Steve Gonzales, a longtime Magnolia High School counselor in Anaheim, looks forward to taking Puente Project high school sophomores on a statewide bus tour of college campuses every year. The route travels all the way north to UC Berkeley before returning home through a final stop at UC Santa Barbara. It’s a trek that gives many Puente students the opportunity to step foot onto a college campus for the very first time–and hopefully not the last. Only this year, Mr. G, as students have affectionately referred to Gonzales over the years, felt he had to postpone the annual three-day trip.

“I was heartbroken that I couldn’t do it,” he says. “I didn’t feel supported. That’s how troubled this year was.”

Soon after, Gonzales asked for a leave of absence from Magnolia for the next school year only to be told a week before graduation that, upon returning, he’d be assigned to a junior high school and out of the Puente Project. The Anaheim Union High School District’s move isn’t sitting too well with parents, alumni and students who’ve come to know Gonzales as “Papa Puente.” They started an online petition that’s gathered hundreds of signatures. Together, they turned out at last week’s AUHSD board meeting in a show of support for their beloved counselor.

“If Mr. Gonzales is not granted the opportunity to return, I feel the impact it will have on the Puente program and the Magnolia community as a whole will be devastating,” said Michelle Viramontes, a parent of a recent Puente graduate from Magnolia. “When I think of the Puente Program at Magnolia, I immediately see Mr. Gonzales. He’s been a pillar of the program helping to build the college dream for countless numbers of students from our community.”

Viramontes is not alone in her appraisal. Gonzales earned his reputation since first interviewing for a counselor position at both Savanna and Magnolia high schools with the Puente Project in 1994 before being transferred exclusively to the latter school a few years later. The award-winning program encourages Latinos to graduate from high school and enroll in four-year universities. For the first two years, students take a Puente English class with culturally responsive literature in the curriculum. Gonzales, as counselor, guided generations of future scholars through A-G requirements, including this reporter, on their way to acceptance letters from universities.

Success stories at Magnolia are many. In 2017, graduates from the Puente program at the high school had a 92 percent college-going rate as opposed to 52 percent for the rest of the student population.

The district knows it has something that works as Puente is currently in place at Savanna, Katella, Loara and Western high schools. By next school year, it’ll be further expanded into junior high schools with South joining Orangeview. “We’re one of the best programs in the state,” says Gonzales. “I tried to go above-and-beyond.” Only now, the longtime counselor feels like he’s being unfairly pushed out.

Puentistas, past and present, support Mr. G at AUHSD board meeting. Courtesy Steve Gonzales

The Puente Project faced an existential threat before that almost took Gonzales away from it. In 2005, then-assistant superintendent of education Tracy Brennan led the charge to eliminate the program despite its successes when concerned parents and students spoke out in an effort to save it. “After that, the district gave me a lot of freedom to run the program the way that it should be run,” says Gonzales. “I had a lot of freedom to go visit the classrooms and then, I became lead counselor at Magnolia High School.”

All seemed steady enough at Magnolia for Gonzales, who’s 59, to start thinking about retirement in a few years. The counselor won’t say why he requested a leave of absence. “It was a very, very challenging year for me and I wanted to take a break from it,” says Gonzales. “Hopefully things would be able to improve and I would be able to come back. This is an unpaid leave that I’m taking.”

Gonzales points to a leave of absence recently taken by a counselor at another high school in the district who got to return to her campus. “Why am I different?” he asks. “It’s contractual.” The counselor says he was told a superintendent’s transfer had been made that overrides any contractual obligations.

“It would be inappropriate for the superintendent [Michael Matsuda] to engage in discussions with stakeholders over a personnel matter, as there are confidentiality and privacy rights at play,” Patricia Karlak, AUHSD spokeswoman, writes the Weekly. “However, the superintendent regularly meets with stakeholders to discuss the many programs and services we offer across the District, including Puente.”

Ever since learning of the situation, Puentistas quickly organized to keep the counselor at the school site. Annalia Magallon, a former Puentista at Magnolia, wanted to write an essay on the Puente Project at Magnolia for a class she’s taking at UC Riverside and decided to pay her old counselor a visit for an interview in late May. “Mr. G is someone that I looked up to throughout high school and even today,” she says. “There were times when I was ready to give up and go right into the workforce after high school but he was there for me. I wouldn’t be at UC Riverside if it wasn’t for him.”

Magallon found it curious that Gonzales occupied a smaller office than the one she visited him at numerous times throughout her high school years. Cramped quarters aside, a flustered Gonzales didn’t have time to do the interview until later in the day with graduation rehearsals going on. In the meantime, Magallon spoke to a Puente teacher and learned of his situation; She later crossed paths with Gonzales in a hallway.

“I’m mad!” Magallon told him. “This is ridiculous!”

The Puentista took to social media by herself and word spread quickly. After graduation passed, concerned parents, alumni and students held a community meeting at Maxwell Park in Anaheim. That’s where the group decided to start a petition and organize a speak out at the June 20 board meeting. Dr. Brenda Medina, a pediatrician and a Puente graduate from Magnolia, spoke in favor of keeping Gonzales at her old high school and delivered the petition to the board. Viramontes invited district officials to meet and discuss their concerns.

Since the matter wasn’t on the agenda, the board couldn’t directly address it. Trustee Brian O’Neal did ask assistant superintendent Dr. Jaron Fried to speak generally about the program.  “I can’t respond to the personnel matter that they’re talking about but I can speak to Puente,” he said. “We, as a district, absolutely believe in the Puente program.” Fried even made it known that a replacement Puente counselor had been found for Magnolia next school year.

But Puentistas and parents still want to meet with district officials. They’ve given them two weeks to respond to the invitation. “Hopefully, they do realize how much the community cares about Mr. G and they’re able to show us that they’re listening,” says Magallon. “And if they don’t, we’re going to keep pushing.”

Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!

11 Replies to “Puentistas Rally to Keep Popular Counselor at High School in Anaheim”

  1. Mr. G is not the loving figure he is painted to be. I am a former student at Magnolia HS and I represent the other side–the non-puente student population who he does not give nearly as much attention to. After I graduated college, I visited the high school and asked him to write me a letter of recommendation so that I could apply for grad school. I provided him a portfolio of what I had been working on to aid his letter. He agreed and I left his office extremely thankful for his help because I truly had no other adult in my life I could turn to. This was 6 months prior to the application deadline of my grad schools. Throughout this time I continued to be in contact and ask him if he needed additional information or help. He said no and that he was diligently working on it. Literally the day before it was due, I visited him and he gave me a sealed envelope which was supposed to contain my letter of rec and an application document. I thanked him and went home. While I was home, I held it in my hand and something felt off. It was much too light to contain both documents. I opened the envelope and my stomach sank. Not only was there no letter of rec, the application document he was required to fill out was literally full of things like, “I hardly knew this student.” Needless to say, it was a disgusting feeling I felt. I had gone to him for help in one of the biggest decisions of my life and it looked like he was sabotaging my career goals. When confronted about it, he held his ground, saying that I shouldn’t have asked him to write me a letter and that it was my fault. You don’t get to say that when 1) you accepted the request and 2) you had 6 months to write it with a portfolio provided and 3) it is unethical to try to sabotage the career of someone else. The moral is that he will help whomever he chooses and that will be the Puente students. He is a prejudiced counselor and will not support the success of those who he does not consider to be his students. Favoritism such as this should not exist and what he did was unethical to say the least in his profession.

    1. Dear Former Grad,

      I validate and understand how deeply hurt that situation made you feel. Its awful what happened to you.
      However, I find it problematic that you’re willing to make an overall character judgement on someone all because he personally failed you once.

      Some things to consider:

      1) Given my many years of experience with Mr. G, and the experiences that hundreds of students have had with him, its more likely that this unfortunate situation with you was the result Mr G being a flawed human being. Just like the rest of us.
      He certainly didn’t give it the attention it deserved. And he certainly made the mistake of promising to write a letter for someone he didn’t know well. He failed you.
      However, this one mistake should not define him as a person. I don’t think any of us would want our whole characters demolished all because we failed once.

      2) I don’t see you taking any kind personal responsibility for the part that you played in your unfortunate situation. While Mr G might have made several huge mistakes, it also seems that you should have asked someone else to write you a letter of rec. You had four years to seek out mentors, professors, TA’s, club leaders, etc, at your university. That is what we all had to do. Part of the process of getting letters of recommendation is putting in the time to foster these professional relationships….then knowing which of those relationships is appropriate for a letter of rec.

      ——

      Mr G might have overextended himself, procrastinated, over-promised, and just overall failed you miserably in this specific situation…..but I’d suggest taking a look at the part that you *also* played.

      I’d also ask you to extend some grace to an individual who has proven to care deeply for students and marginalized communities. I, and hundreds of other students, would not have made it past high school if it wasn’t for all his effort and heart.

    2. In response to “Former Grad”:

      Your experience sounds awful and traumatic. You were young and in those early formative years impressions can make a big impact and the adult world can be a difficult place to navigate. I’m sorry that even after college (4+ years after high school?) the only adult you felt comfortable asking for a letter from was Mr. Gonzalez. I agree that it does say a lot about your early young adult years that you hadn’t fostered any other professional connections. It also says a lot about Mr. Gonzalez, as he obviously made you feel important and stood out as important figure in your life prior to this incident, despite “barely knowing you”. The fact that once you didn’t get your desired outcome your opinion of him was soured is telling as well. Simply stated, your comment sounds vindictive.

      While you claim to represent the non-Puente side, I want to remind you that hundreds of people (Puente and non-Puente students, alumni, parents and teachers) have signed a petition supporting Mr. Gonzalez and his long standing legacy at MHS. One person does not speak for all people. Your experience and perspective are singular.

      I also want to remind you that it is actually unethical and a matter of academic dishonesty at most institutions to open sealed confidential envelopes with student evaluations or recommendations. It’s hippocritical to accuse him of exercising poor judgement that you have clearly demonstrated you have exercised.

      This experience was clearly traumatic for you. I hope you have since learned to recognize your responsibility in the matter and have not continued to self-sabotage your own success. I sincerely wish you well.

      https://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/662/080/921/

  2. I work in the school system. If a district moves your placement and it’s at a school where your program isn’t at, that probably means you did something you shouldn’t have and the superintendent gave you an out without forcing you to resign. In addition, the data collected for the Puente program is biased and skewed at best. For one, the top performing students are screened and selected. They are already students headed to college. I know this because I was apart of the program. If it was a random sample of students from all levels of academic success, that would be a realistic representation of the effectiveness of the program rather than cherry picking students. All in all, there is much more to this story and knowing how school districts work, they aren’t things we want to hear about our beloved educator.

  3. As an AUHSD alum I am not surprised this happened at all, as the district has a habit/record of pushing counselors, admin, teachers, etc out, especially if they don’t feel they are 100% committed to the district’s goals or ideas, even if those ideas are not in the student’s best interest. As a Puentista, this is a difficult situation to judge. Though Mr. G was incredibly helpful and encouraging with me, I also know that this is not the case for every student he’s encountered, unfortunately, Puente or not. This being said the district’s actions sre unwarranted. I would like to know more about the district’s rationale for not allowing him to return. But also, the above comments are inaccurate in the sense that yes Puente Does handpick their stidents, but due to their grant, bylaws, and pedogogy, they are required to select students that cover all the spectrums/GPA. I will definitely be following this closely.

  4. In response to “Anon”: I want to acknowledge that what you are implying (that Mr. Gonzales must have done some egregious action) could be true, and that perhaps the AUHSD is protecting him by choosing to not fire him. You make some valid points. If this is the case, that further speaks to the lack of transparency by the district. I wouldn’t want bad educators relocated, I would want them re-trained or dismissed. What is the district hiding exactly?

    1. He’s a United States citizen you moron. And yes, I am Mexican too, but I too am a citizen. Of all the well thought out responses on this comment section, yours is… well, it’s something alright. Go back to reading your kindergarten school news board or something, thanks.

  5. I work in auhsd. Superintendent transfers used to be rare. Since Matsuda became sup it’s become much more common. My experience with the staff who are subject to them is they haven’t done anything that is fire able but they are usually very “difficult” people to work with – not willing to change, dismissive of new ideas or ways of doing things, negative attitude, etc. the fact he’s been involved and running this program for so long makes me think he probably had his way of doing things and he was asked to do things differently and refused. Based on my experience staff are given many many warnings and opportunities to change. A superintendent’s transfer is usually a last resort. This guy did something that really really upset the higher ups. Also the fact he asked for a leave of absence (and won’t say why) makes me think he knew a reckoning was coming. There’s definitely more to the story but I can guarantee this…he won’t be back at magnolia.

  6. From my experience at Magnolia as a non Puente student, which makes up the majority of the school, I will have to firmly agree that Mr. G isn’t what many people truly believe him to be. I just feel that many students (mainly from Puente) continually speak gracious of him and out of courtesy, us non Puente students kept quiet because we found no reason to speak up or say anything. But since people keep praising him, I view it only healthy to mention the other end of the spectrum. If you’re not a Puente student, expect favoritism to be portrayed by Mr. G’s actions. This is not how a counselor should be. Though he is a human being and human beings have flaws, he clearly outputs who his favorites are and puts more effort into them than into his job.

  7. Best counselor he would hear me when I had family problem begged me not to give up and be strong. Most of all he has a big heart sorry he made a mistake or two but who is perfect. There is a reason why so many people love him and this program Thank you Mr González we will fight for you❤️❤️❤️❤️

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