COMPTON — “This is where I live so I try to make it look good,” said Willowbrook Middle School eighth-grader Relando Collier Jr.
He and 22 of his schoolmates presented their award-winning community service projects in Washington, D.C. at the Jefferson Awards Foundation’s (JAF) Students In Action (SIA) national competition earlier this month.
Collier also was selected to participate in a panel discussion with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
“I was surprised to be chosen,” he said. “It’s exciting for me. I’m just going to do what I’m supposed to do, and that’s representing Compton.”
Relando’s father said he’s in awe of his son and his school’s accomplishments.
“I knew he played a big part in Willowbrook going to D.C. and when I got word he’s on the panel, it really blew my mind. … I’m so proud,” Relando Collier Sr. said.
In April, Willowbrook won top honors at the Jefferson Awards Foundation’s Students In Action greater Los Angeles competition, earning the right to represent the region in the national competition
They competed against winning schools from cities including Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New York in D.C.
The Jefferson Awards Foundation’s Students In Action challenges students at middle and high schools around the country to organize community service teams, inspire activism in their schools, and highlight their efforts through presentations.
“To achieve real academic success we’ve learned schools must support the whole child,” said Satra Zurita, president of the Compton school board. The Willowbrook Middle School students who traveled to Washington, D.C. are being recognized for their hard work to support their own community.
“Programs like the Jefferson Awards are another example of how Compton Unified supports our students in the classroom and in the community.”
City Councilwoman Janna Zurita, who was at Willowbrook to help send off their D.C.-bound students, said their accomplishments put a spotlight on the good coming out of Compton.
“This is very exciting for the students,” Zurita said. “For many of them, this trip is also their first plane ride. I wish them luck and congratulations to Compton Unified, the school, the principal, and to the board members.”
Principal Dennis Perry said that win or lose, Willowbrook students have already made their school proud through their community service projects and by winning at the regionals.
“Not only did they win, but also exceeded expectations with top honors. Now they’re representing Los Angeles County in D.C.,” he said.
Perry added that aside from earning recognition, what’s most important is having students realize their own power to make the world a better place.
“We want our students to understand this community is theirs,” he said. “This world is theirs. We want them to be prepared to take their proper place in shaping and changing in how their world looks. That starts with community service projects.”
Like many of his classmates, eighth-grader Craig Martin said he’s never been to Washington, D.C. and looks forward to the experience of touring its many historic sites.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the White House and the memorials they have out there,” he said. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience for me.”
Craig’s father said he couldn’t be more proud of his son.
“This is something I never got a chance to do,” he said. “Maybe this will change his outlook on life and the things he’s going through. This trip reminds him that hard work pays off.”
Eighth-grader Alexandra Cervantes sees the trip to D.C. as an opportunity to change people’s perceptions of Compton.
“Going to nationals is a great way to show Willowbrook is actually a great school from a good place full of good people,” she said.
Her father, Alejandro Cervantes, said he hopes the trip to D.C. is an eye-opener.
“I’m very excited and proud of my daughter,” he said. “She has accomplished a lot. She’s going to meet kids from other parts of the country. It’s her first time traveling. She’s going to have new experiences that are really good for her.”
Seventh-grader Dmont’e Scott, said that aside from seeing all the sites in the nation’s capital, he hopes to share his school’s message that making a difference in the world begins at home.
“I feel awesome when I help the community out by doing things for people in need. My friends and I want to help the world, and it starts with Compton.”