MAKING A DIFFERENCE
By Darlene Donloe
Crete Academy is a nonprofit Los Angeles Unified School District charter school for children experiencing homelessness and poverty. But in reality, it’s so much more.
Launched in 2016 by Hattie Mitchell and her husband, Brett Mitchell, Crete Academy goes above and beyond what is expected from most schools. The result is a dedicated staff and appreciative students who try their best because they know someone cares.
The academy, located on Crenshaw Boulevard in South Los Angeles, provides a number of services including transportation to and from school, picking up and dropping off students who otherwise would not be able to get to school.
“We are able to transport about 35% of the kids, which comes out to about 60 kids,” said Brett Mitchell, the school’s principal. “We bought two 15-passenger vans and we do two routes.”
Crete Academy offers classes for transitional kindergarten through sixth grade focusing on basic needs as much as academics. The school also provides medical, dental and mental health resources.
There are plans to include a full wellness center and housing on the campus so the most vulnerable students can secure a place to live. The school also holds clothing drives and food drives and also has a food pantry.
Brett Mitchell, 37, Crete Academy’s co-founder, calls it “wrap-around services,” which is also the school’s motto.
“We don’t want the kids to lack anything,” he said. “We want a positive learning environment. We want to give them a solid foundation in wellness. We’d like to help break the cycle of poverty in this community.”
In order to keep a close bond with their students, when they had to pivot to online learning, the Mitchells provided school supplies, technology, hotspots and food to 100% of its students. They also secured private funding to provide grocery gift cards to more than 100 families.
Mitchell has nothing but praise for his wife, who co-founded the school.
“The school is her vision of what education should look like in our community,” said Brett Mitchell, a current UCLA Law student who also graduated from the school with a degree in sociology. “I joined her because what she was doing was important.”
Mitchell said his wife got the idea for Crete Academy when she was 19 years old. He vividly remembers the conversation they had about opening a school.
“It was powerful,” he said. “She has always wanted to open a school in the community. She went to Cal State L.A. and joined a choir. They would go to shelters and sing during the holidays.
“While singing, she witnessed a mother, who was the last person in line, unable to get into a shelter. The mom had a little child. It was appalling to Hattie that a mother and child would have to sleep on the street. She couldn’t believe in a city like L.A. there were so many Black and brown homeless people not having somewhere to sleep or eat.”
Mitchell said his wife “dedicated herself” to opening a school that would address students’ needs and give them a chance to break cycles and be competitive.
“Anything a child and family need to have a foundation, she wanted the school to be able to support that,” said Mitchell, who has four children with his wife. “From housing, counseling, medical, dental, vision, and hearing. She spent the last 15 years figuring out all the ways to support these families. For her, the ultimate goal or vision is to have a campus where we have a school, housing, and wellness center. All of these services will have their own building and be able to serve families.”
Mitchell said 30% of the families at Crete Academy experience some form of homelessness. Some are on the street. Others are in a shelter or living with a family member.
The academy partners with other organizations in the area like Disclosurefest (a multicultural initiative-based nonprofit platform), to help families with resources.
Like most schools in Los Angeles, Crete, which has about 200 students, but continues to grow, had to do a virtual pivot last March that includes virtual field trips.
“We use the field trips to give our teachers a break,” Brett Mitchell said. “Every two months we do a virtual field trip. I take the class for an hour. The teacher can prep or take an extended lunch. They deserve it. When we launched Crete Academy, it was the first time in my life that I had sincere gratitude for teachers. I’ve always advocated for teachers making higher salaries. This is a tough job.”
Mitchell, who grew up in South L.A., is proud of the work he and his wife have done.
“We’re proud of the power it gives the people in the community,” he said. “It’s rewarding to see the turnaround in attitude and achievement.
“We have had students who came from some of the most difficult situations you can think of — homelessness, domestic violence and other schools giving up on them. To see the model work and watch them grow and become better versions of who they are going to become is rewarding.”
To run Crete Academy, Mitchell said the annual budget is “around” $2 million. “We have about 205 students,” he said. “We fundraise a lot. We spend twice as much per student as the average school in our area.”
According to Mitchell, Crete Academy has taken on the identity of his wife.
“The metric is love,” he said. “When she sees the kids, she tells them she loves them. When it was OK, she would hug them. We have to build a lot of trusts for them to open up about their situations.
“In my role, I do professional development. I tell the staff to be ready to work here. It’s not a teaching job. This is mission-based work.”
Mitchell, who calls his wife ‘Mrs. Mitchell’ when they’re at school, has nothing but the utmost respect for her vision.
“I asked her if she could have a superpower what would it be,” he said. “She said she would have the superpower not to sleep. I was blown away. She said that way she could keep working and helping more families. It’s infectious and sincere. I’ve never met anyone who cares so much about kids and the community.”
Admittedly, Mitchell initially didn’t have the same heart for the homeless population as his wife.
“I was kind of apathetic,” he said. “She challenged me to open my eyes to a population I never saw. It’s always been on her heart to help people. She challenges me to be a better person, be empathetic, and to always do something.”
Hattie Mitchell came up with the school’s name, her husband said. She wanted the name to have meaning.
“Crete is a Greek Island,” said Mitchell. “It means to create. She wanted the school to be a place where kids can create their future. Anything you want to do is possible. Once we had the name, she made an acronym of the core values. C – Character, R – Responsibility, E – Equality, T is for Teachability, and E is for Excellence.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.