The Change Reaction Helps Crete Academy Thrive

When Wade Trimmer, president of The Change Reaction, first learned about Crete Academy in 2021, he was intrigued. The innovative, LAUSD-approved charter elementary school has a mission to educate unhoused students and those living in poverty. “I didn’t know a place like that existed that was really targeting homeless families. So that piqued my interest,” Trimmer says. 

He took a tour of the school, housed in a building in Crenshaw owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and was immediately impressed with the high-level of the education being provided by the teachers. “I also was impressed by the wrap-around services like housing navigation, connecting families to medical care, dental care, and having a laundry on site,” he says. 

Trimmer also liked the philosophy of Crete, which dovetails with the strengths-based approach of The Change Reaction. Educators at Crete don’t treat the kids like they’re a project, “but instead recognize that they have assets, they have gifts to give to the world. They ask the question, ‘Where are these kids smart?’ What kind of smart do they have?’ They just are thinking about things on a higher level,” he says. 

Crete opened its first campus in 2017 and has since opened a second location. Jasmine Davis, a mother of three whose son Dai’Shawn was in the first graduating class of Crete Academy, says  being part of the school has really expanded the opportunities for her children. For starters, her kids got tested for and identified as gifted, something that had never happened at their former public school in Englewood. “Dai’Shawn went to Washington D.C. for a leadership conference. They taught the kids how to garden. Happy Period came out to talk to the 5th and 6th grade girls. There is a lot of stuff beyond the curriculum,” she says.

When Trimmer learned that the school was looking for a laundry room sponsor for the year, he stepped in to help. Since that first act, The Change Reaction has grown increasingly invested in Crete’s efforts to help its students and families, supporting the cause in a variety of ways. 

Supporting the Whole Student

Crete Academy currently has 350 students across its two campuses, and a staff of 53, including 16 teachers. Currently, 33-percent of its students are unhoused, some living in motels, some in cars. Others are living in emergency housing or shelters. Anyone in the county can attend, but most of the kids live nearby.Its model of quality education, a focus on strengths, and a slate of wrap-around support services for the whole family has proven incredibly successful. The school’s unhoused students have a chronic absentee rate of just 4.5%. For LAUSD as a whole, this number is around 70%.

Crete Academy principal and co-founder Brett Mitchell, a third generation Crenshaw native, joined the school at the behest of his wife, Hattie. Her life goal, he said, was to open a school for unhoused children. “Ever since she was a kid and seeing anyone on the side of the freeway or down on her luck, she wanted to contribute.” After completing her undergraduate degree at California State University LA, a master’s degree in public policy at Pepperdine and doctorate in Educational Leadership at University of Southern California—and interning for President Obama in education policy—she was ready to get started.

But starting a school from scratch is hard, especially one dedicated to being a community center for families living in poverty. It takes a village. Brett Mitchell brings to the task four years of experience working as a teacher at St. Francis High School, an undergraduate degree in sociology and pre-law from UCLA, a law degree from Howard University School of Law, and a few years working for a Pasadena-based law firm focused on the construction industry. Together, he and Hattie have reached out to nonprofits, for profits, and philanthropy to help with their task.

One big effort? Housing homeless families. The Change Reaction’s first major input was to help families of Crete students make the move from shelters into their own homes by providing furnishings and first and last month’s rent, in some cases, to about 20 families so far. 

“We have mothers fleeing domestic violence with their children without anywhere to stay. We have to find emergency hotels, provide medical, dental, vision, hearing, transportation, food,” says Mitchell. “Wade said to me, ‘We could help with all that. We have emergency assistance. We have programs that can help your students in foster care. All you have to do is reach out.’ We’ve had over 50 requests filled, families that are high-need and high-vulnerability, getting the support they need.”

The Change Reaction also connected the school to its program focused on supporting families involved in the foster care system in LA County. The Kinship Caregiver Support Initiative enables social workers to post items parents need online through a partnership with the tech platform CarePortal. The Change Reaction funds the request and then faith groups can browse the filled requests and step in to make the purchases and get the goods to the families.  Since registering Crete for the program, The Change Reaction has provided immediate financial assistance through Care Portal to 32 families.

Running a school also means understanding real estate law, as it turns out. Crete’s first campus was on the grounds of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. When the school nearly lost its lease, Glen Friedman, who works with The Change Reaction and has a deep, varied business background, and connections around the city, stepped in to help negotiate—and to help the school rent a second location. “It’s difficult to find property to operate a school on. Glen came on as an advisor, offering very sage business advice,” says Mitchell. “He was a superhero.”

Supporting the Teachers and Staff 

This Spring, Friedman connected Crete Academy to another program of The Change Reaction brought, called the School Heroes Emergency Fund (SHEF). Teachers and full time staff can apply confidentially for emergency grants of up to $2500 a year through a simple-to-use online server.  It is one of many efforts made by The Change Reaction to support the hardworking people who make Los Angeles run.  

This past Spring, The Change Reaction’s Senior Manager of Partner Relations, Ielaf Altoma Stead, presented SHEF to the teachers and staff at Crete Academy. “During the presentation, I was receiving texts from one of my staff members thanking Ielaf and us saying, ‘I’ve been really in need. Can you please sign me up today?’ Teachers are not adequately compensated for the work they do,” says Mitchell, noting that Crete must abide by the pay scale set by LAUSD. “The most important work is when you have someone’s life in your hands. As educators, you literally are molding the lives of young people day in and day out and being trusted with their safety and wellbeing, yet you’re not being paid the same as the other professions, like a doctor or lawyer. What I’m seeing is that most of our staff are in immediate need of it. They just don’t have access to a program like this. Usually, it’s a loan.”

Within the first two weeks of launching SHEF at Crete, in March 2024, The Change Reaction had approved three requests, distributing $4,493 to staff facing financial emergencies. “The confidential nature of the program is part of its appeal, says Mitchell. “People have pride, and they don’t always want to share when they’re going through something that is difficult and sensitive. The way the program operates and the discretion it uses is great. It’s free and inviting. There’s not a stigma related to it. It’s for everyone. This fund comes in and really bridges a gap that is alive for most educators. In steps in and says, ‘We see you. We appreciate you. We are here to help.’ That in turn makes the whole system work better.”

While people obviously don’t go into education for the money, living in LA means paying exorbitant rent, high food prices, parking, car insurance, and more. For those working at schools in underserved neighborhoods, the job itself can also bring expenses. “Often times, people stay late and provide resources to kids out of their own pocket,” says Mitchell. “This fund supports the people doing the hard work, the most needed work in the community.”

The Change Reaction plans to continue supporting the school into the future. As Trimmer says about the foundation’s commitment to the school, “ I really believe in the Crete model, and I think we have the potential to help dozens of families a year, supporting the entire ecosystem. We can help people out of homelessness, help the students thrive, and help the school staff thrive as well.”