By Sonya Hamasaki, CNN
Los Angeles (CNN) – On a brisk, spring-like day in March, Diana Rivera walked into a classroom at Centinela Valley Adult School, just like she’d done everyday for nearly the past two months. She was eager to hear a lecture in her “medical assistant” class, a course she believed would be key to successfully starting a career in the medical field. Getting there had been a struggle.
“I searched and searched for so long,” she said. “I tried to get in three years ago, but there was a waiting list.”
The medical assistant course was started 12 years ago, and over the years, it grew to become one of the most popular on campus. But on that day, just as Rivera was settling into her coursework, everything changed.
“They just came in, gave us notice that school was over, and took us out,” she said.
And just like that, her dreams vanished. The class and its instructor were suddenly eliminated due to cuts in state funding.
“It was devastating,” Rivera said. “I was let down.”
But as she was escorted off campus that morning, what she didn’t know was that her teacher was also about to become her champion.
Educator Cristina Chiappe, who created the course and has taught it since its inception, suddenly found herself unemployed. And while she no longer had a physical location to teach, she never once thought to stop the class.
“I didn’t want to leave my students with nothing. They cut the money back. This is not all about money, it’s about education,” she said.
So Chiappe came up with an idea – one that her students and onlookers have described as “brave”, “risky” and “heroic.”
She decided to continue teaching her group of displaced students, and open her own school.
“The students wanted to continue their education,” she said. “I proposed to them, if we can open our own site…we’d be able to buy all the equipment so that they can have hands-on training. So we did it.”
Her students were thrilled, but nervous at the same time.
“We knew it was going to be something different. You don’t hear this every day. We were ready for the ride, but also a little scared,” Rivera said.
Of the 20 students enrolled in the original class, 16 young women pledged to give Chiappe their full support and embark on this adventure.
But first, there were some barriers to confront. Chiappe successfully registered her not-for-profit school, South Bay Careers, with the state of California and Los Angeles County. However, her application for a business license from the City of Lawndale was denied due to insufficient parking, she said.
“I was pretty shook up,” she said.
Thinking about how she didn’t want to see her students let down a second time, Chiappe decided to continue her class in a secret location.
She agreed to show CNN her classroom on condition we don’t disclose its whereabouts. Each of her students paid $1,600, which covered rent, liability insurance, utilities, a television, Internet service, and medical supplies. Chiappe herself went without a salary.
The doors were open within weeks.
“I couldn’t believe it,” student Sally Montenegro said. “The first day we were in class, everybody was laughing. We couldn’t believe she got the place, she had the tables and everything set up.”
Many of her students couldn’t afford to pay the tuition upfront. So she bought text books and medical equipment as the money trickled in.
“Little by little, she started buying [the instructional materials], and we were always excited when new equipment came in to get the hands-on training,” Montenegro said.
The room slowly filled to include exam tables, stethoscopes, an electrocardiogram, baby mannequins and surgical scissors.
“It was a team effort,” Chiappe said. “The students and I, we did it together. I can’t take all the credit. They believed in my dream.”
But that dream didn’t come without tremendous personal sacrifice.
“The rent is due on the first of the month, and if I didn’t have the money, I had to reach into my pocket,” Chiappe said. “When I was laid off from Centinela, my husband and I (who is also a teacher), sat down and we looked at the numbers, and there was no way I could keep my house.”
The Chiappe family decided to sell her home and rent. “All the efforts should be in the school, versus paying the mortgage,” she said.
Her efforts paid off. Chiappe successfully led her 16 students, who she says she considers to be “family” now, through the course. She also placed them into externships with physician offices in the South Bay community. When they complete 160 hours of service, the young women will receive a course completion certificate and be on their way to starting full-time careers as a medical assistant.
Once their class work was complete, the group even staged a small graduation ceremony, complete with the requisite caps and gowns.
It was only then, as the students celebrated their success, that Chiappe told them of the missing license, and the need to hold their class in a secret location.
“I wanted the students to finish their program. I said from the beginning, ‘I’m going to finish with them, and then everything here will go into storage and I’ll get a proper permit,” Chiappe said.
The students were floored when they heard this. “It came as a shock,” Rivera said. “It’s very brave of her to do.”
“The risk she has taken for us is just amazing, there are no barriers for her,” said Montenegro.
Centinela Valley Adult School has not reinstated their medical assistant course, said Jose Fernandez, superintendent of the Centinela Valley Union High School District. If one of the two state education tax initiatives are approved in the November election, the board will address the possibility of bringing it back.
Moving forward, Chiappe plans to focus on cultivating South Bay Careers.
Her first step is to ensure she has a city business license.
“I will do what I need to get things done, but the law is the law. And I will follow the law, and get the proper permits,” she said.
She is currently scouring different cities to work in and is applying for business licenses within those communities.
“In order for me to apply, they have a fee. Obviously, I don’t have the money to pay, but God will provide. That is my rule,” she said.
The risk and the sacrifices she made over the last five months were a small price to pay, she said.
“I’m very humble when it comes to what I do. I get emotional about this because this is something I really believe the students need,” she said. “Many of them don’t have a chance to have a formal education. Some of them are single moms, some of them don’t have jobs, some of them are on welfare. I know them well, because I’m part of them.”