The Hero Series: Mrs. Rocio Mendez

Rocio Mendez outside the FACES Community Center at Gilbert High School.

Gilbert High School
Anaheim Unified School District
Anaheim, CA

Their TLC Connection:

Rocio Mendez is Gilbert High School’s Family and Community Engagement Specialist (F.A.C.E.S). Her role is to provide programming and support to students and their families. In the Spring of 2023, an administrator gave Rocio a flyer promoting Tilly’s Life Center’s Mental Health Awareness Grant. She had never applied for a grant before but thought she would give it a shot and is happy that she did.

Population Served:

Gilbert High School serves 9th-12th Graders that are credit deficient for their grade level.

School Description:

A Continuation Community School that shares a campus with Polaris School (an alternative online learning school.) Students come to Gilbert who are credit deficient for many reasons – either challenges at home, pandemic-related trauma, and/or mental health issues. They also provide programming for students that are teen parents in the district.

How They Are Using Their Grant:

Rocio used her TLC Grant to purchase supplies for various programs and departments on campus. As the Family and Community Engagement Specialist, her goal is to create community across the entire campus. The TLC grant funded the purchase of stickers, affirmation bracelets, fidget toys, chalk, and hula hoops for their Mental Health Celebration in May. The school’s F.A.C.E Action Team has also used the funds to purchase essential oil rollers and other supplies to support art therapy initiatives. Additionally, they bought mood journals for raffles, self-growth books to start a wellness library in their Family Center, and incentives for students when they have one-on-one meetings with their social worker.

Below are excerpts from an interview with Mrs. Rocio Mendez. At TLC we know that without leaders like Rocio, students will not receive the social-emotional support they need.

Q: What brought you to Gilbert High School and your work in education?

A: I started as a translator doing IEPs and Special Ed translation for the district. I was a translator for ten years. I would spend 5-6 hours a day in a room with families interpreting, feeling like I couldn’t help them. I wanted to do something more. I could hear the deep needs of families. They didn’t understand the system and weren’t provided with space to ask questions. I wanted to be able to listen, advocate, and provide them with support. I wanted something different. I saw that there was a position for a Family and Community Engagement Specialist opening up but wasn’t sure about it at first because it was a new position. After a year of seeing what the FACES position was about, I heard there was an opening at Gilbert High School, and I went for it. I was told that Gilbert High School was a rough school with zero family engagement. I was discouraged by many to make the move. However, I was excited by the challenge. I have discovered that the students at Gilbert are kind and respectful. It is one of the kindest schools I have worked at.

Rocio used funding from the TLC grant to organize projects like the Girls with Goals Valentines Day Activity, where girls practiced art therapy and self love by creating flower bouquets.

Q: What do you love about Gilbert High School? What makes it special?

A: We have the benefit of smaller classes, so students feel well-connected to staff. We have a reputation for being a bad school. It’s not that at all. Everyone has their story. I love that our staff feels passionate about connecting with each student’s story. Before Gilbert, I worked at a high school where our staff was just so overwhelmed. Being at a big high school brings with it a larger workload and just a lot of stress – staff didn’t seem to have time to pursue passion projects. At our school, we have the opportunity and time to connect with students. For example, we have started a “Girls with Goals” group that was prompted by a conversation I had with our school secretary. The girls meet weekly with our two secretaries, our attendance liaison, our campus safety staff, and our social worker. The fact that so many staff members show up, have taken the lead, and have a space to connect with our student’s stories says a lot about our Gilbert High School community. Recently I had my FACE Action team interview students to collect some street data, and it has been eye-opening for us. Many students have mentioned that they have a special connection with one teacher or staff. It shows us that it just takes one person and one connection to make a difference.

Wellness stickers that were funded by the TLC Grant.

Q: How would you describe social-emotional learning (SEL) to people that don’t work in education?

A: I would describe social-emotional learning as non-academic learning. Learning that focuses on mental health, what you are feeling emotionally, psychologically, and socially – the idea of holism – developing who you are before academics.

Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of in your educational career?

A: I didn’t finish college, but I have always followed my passion. I am proud of that. Some staff have their diplomas on their walls, but I have my Kindness Matters Award and Classified Teacher of the Year Award displayed. I am also in the running for Employee of the Year for OC Parenting Magazine. It feels good to do the work that I do, which doesn’t even feel like work, be respected. People see what I am doing and are inspired by it and want to be part of it. I am proud of that. It also feels good to have a story to share with students that doesn’t include college. To show them that there are other ways to be successful, contribute to your community, AND follow your passion.

Q: If you could reimagine what schools look like and your role in them, what would it look like?

A: I would imagine a building with lots of nature and open spaces that look clean. It would have a wellness center in the middle of the school. There would be a directory where students could go to find any resource that they need for school and life in general.

The Gilbert HS Team that leads the Girls with Goals after-school club.