History of PUENTE Learning Center
During a sabbatical from years of teaching in Boyle Heights, Sister Jennie Lechtenberg began an in-school tutoring program for low-achieving first- and second-grade students at several neighborhood schools. She soon discovered that the children who were struggling the most came from homes in which parents had not had the opportunity for basic education and/or were lacking English proficiency. To enable parents to assist their children in academic activities, she initiated an English language acquisition class for adults, thus establishing the foundation for PUENTE as a family-oriented, multi-generational educational organization.
Within two years, the number of children attending sessions had dramatically increased, along with parents and other adults seeking to improve their English and basic skills. Through these initial efforts, PUENTE Learning Center was founded in 1985 to offer East Los Angeles children, youth, and adults the educational resources needed to succeed in school, acquire economic stability and broaden their options for the future.
PUENTE’s first two formal classrooms were established in the balcony of a former Masonic Temple on East First Street. As demand soared and staff was increased, Sister Jennie gradually acquired additional space in the building, converting badly neglected rooms into clean, safe, and dignified classrooms for learning.
The next four years brought a significant increase in enrollment and the initiation of new programs in response to community needs. An innovative, cutting-edge decision was made in 1987 to utilize computers as a supplement to traditional classroom instruction. Initially, students were transported daily to a computer lab at the Los Angeles Times. Recognizing the demand and need for our own computers, the Los Angeles Times donated PUENTE’s first 12-station computer lab. Shortly thereafter, The Riordan Foundation matched that donation with a lab designed specifically for children’s use.
A group of dedicated staff worked alongside Sister Jennie during those early years. Many of them remain at PUENTE today.
In 1989, the assortment of educational programs was incorporated as a non-profit, non-sectarian 501(c)(3) organization under the corporate name PUENTE Learning Center. PUENTE, the Spanish word for bridge, is an acronym for People United to Enrich the Neighborhood Through Education and also states PUENTE’s mission.
State-of-the-art technology quickly became an essential reinforcement of the traditional instruction at the Center. Computer Assisted Language Instruction Systems (CALIS) was purchased from Duke University to enable instructors to author customized, technology-based language acquisition lessons that directly relate to the materials being studied in traditional, oral skills classrooms. By 1990, daily attendance had increased to 900 people.
The following year, PUENTE’s classes were packed to capacity with hundreds of eager students on waiting lists. With no room for expansion, the Center was moved into ten double-wide trailers on Boyle Avenue. This property was purchased for PUENTE by Richard J. Riordan, prior to his election as Mayor of Los Angeles.
A $10 million capital campaign was launched in 1992 to provide a permanent facility for PUENTE in order to accommodate the increased number of students and classes. That same year, Los Angeles experienced its greatest civil unrest since the 1965 Watts riots on the streets of South-Central Los Angeles. The aftermath of this unrest resulted in an influx of support for this severely impoverished community. Among the projects was an invitation to PUENTE by the ARCO Foundation to establish a satellite campus on land that had previously housed an ARCO service station destroyed in the riot. A small, two-classroom Center was opened in 1994 in temporary trailers akin to the Boyle Avenue facilities.
East Los Angeles
A successful capital campaign made possible the construction of PUENTE’s 40,000-square-foot facility in Boyle Heights, named for Mayor Richard J. Riordan, which was dedicated at a ceremony on October 27, 1995. The interest and response from the surrounding community were tremendous, drawing in over 1,800 students that academic year. The stunning new technologically-sophisticated facility, designed by Stephen Woolley & Associates, Architects, has garnered numerous architectural awards in addition to the praise of a grateful student body and neighborhood.
South Los Angeles
As a result of ARCO’s initial investment, the temporary PUENTE campus in South Los Angeles was serving 300 adults who were learning English and basic computer skills. Community demand for additional classes, especially for children and adolescents, prompted the launching of a second capital campaign to construct a permanent South Los Angeles home, which was opened in November 1999, with a multi-purpose room added in December 2001.
In order to expand its programs and facilities at its main campus in Boyle Heights, in February 2015, PUENTE sold its South Los Angeles campus, maintaining programs for children at that site through June 2017.
PUENTE continues to serve over 2,000 students annually at its facility in Boyle Heights. In 2018, the Los Angeles Unified School District approved PUENTE Charter School for expansion to serve grades TK-5. The school is utilizing a phased slow-growth rollout, expanding by one new grade level each year. During academic year 2018-19, PUENTE Charter School welcomed its inaugural first grade class in newly-constructed classrooms on the ground floor.
Over its 33-year history, PUENTE has served over 110,000 individuals, enabling children to develop a lifelong love of learning, helping parents succeed in their role as their children’s first and most important teachers, supporting youth as they move towards high school graduation and beyond, and assisting adults in need of English-language fluency, workforce development, and more.