Brewing up a new source of funds

Brewing up a new source of funds

Local alumni, educators launch cultural café to support school programs

Put down the car wash signs. Leave the bake sales and raffle drawings behind. And let the pros handle the gift-wrap.

At least that is the idea at two El Sereno charter schools, where a cohort of CSULA alumni, educators and parents have brewed up a new business model for fundraising and supporting public education in the midst of budget cuts and unpredictable state funding. They see a more sustainable future, they say, in returning to their roots—and the cacao and coffee bean.

Administrators and parents from Semillas Community Schools—led by the school’s Executive Director Marcos Aguilar ’06 MA—opened Xokolatl Café in December in the hope of pouring profits into Semillas’ schools and its nearly 600 students. The goal, he explained, is for sales of indigenous drinks, sandwiches and snacks to help shield the charter schools from future layoffs or cuts when there is a gap in funding.

“Our biggest strategy has been to do what we can with what we have,” said Aguilar, who founded the Semillas Community Schools with his wife, CSULA alumna Minnie Ferguson MA ’06, in 2001.

“I think the financial crisis—more than anything—has forced creativity,” he added.

At public schools and districts statewide, parents and teachers have sought alternative means for fundraising in the face of massive cuts. Still, Semillas’ venture into the food and beverage industry is by far one of the more unusual approaches. The café, which sits across Huntington Drive from the Semillas K-5 school, was incorporated as a separate business from the schools, but it is 100 percent overseen by charter school administrators (many of whom have ties to Cal State L.A.).

Since the proposal for opening the café first sprouted in a parent committee last summer, officials at Semillas say they have been running at a full sprint—first in making the café operable, and now developing ways to increase profits and improve students’ education through the process.

The educational mission of the Semillas schools is to not only provide students with an education in the traditional state curriculum, but also to broaden their knowledge about and appreciation for indigenous cultures and practices around the world. All students participate in a number of cultural activities, and learn in four languages: English, Spanish, Nahuatl (the native language of the Aztecs) and Mandarin.

Administrators say that Xokolatl reinforces that mission by providing another forum for educating students and the surrounding community about their cultural roots. For instance, Xokolatl is the word for chocolate in Nahuatl, and the principal ingredient used in specialty drinks at the café is cacao, an indigenous chocolate seed that was used by the Aztecs as both a form of currency and a health food.

In addition, the café has hosted a number of cultural events, community film screenings and holiday brunches since its opening.

“It’s a great place,” said Cal State L.A. psychology student Lidia Sosa, who plans to finish her bachelor’s degree this fall. “There is something for everybody.”

Sosa discovered Xokolatl while volunteering as a tutor at the Semillas Charter Schools through Cal State L.A.’s EPIC (Educational Participation in Communities) program. She has since been hired as an assistant in the counseling department, and is a regular patron, she says.

Aguilar said in its first year of operation, Xokolatl is already 100 percent self-sustained, and by the end of the second and third year, the goal is to turn a profit of as much as $50,000, which would be invested into the Semillas schools.