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.
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!