New El Centro educational program tells young people “¡Sí, se puede!”

The Sí se Puede Academy aims to help 18 to 21-year-olds pass the GED and pursue careers or school beyond.

It’s a ticket to higher education, better job opportunities and more earnings over the course of your life.

But for many young people who are already working or caring for family, passing the General Educational Development (GED) test is no simple task. And even students who excelled in school outside the U.S. can find their education isn’t valid for colleges or workplaces here.

Local nonprofit El Centro de la Raza’s new GED certification program, called the Sí se Puede Academy, is a fresh attempt in the Federal Way area to tell young people “Yes, it can be done.” (Sí se Puede is translated as “Yes we can” or “Yes, it can be done” in English.)

The program launched Oct. 31 for young people who haven’t completed secondary education. It will help them attain their GED certification, get exposure to apprenticeships, trades and college career paths, and network with people already established in various industries. El Centro plans to expand their program to help students get their full high school diploma.

Along the way, El Centro aims to meet the students halfway and help them learn about their own culture.


The idea behind Sí se Puede has been growing for about two years.

“Discussion started in 2020 around a need for Latin@ students who hadn’t earned their GED,” Youth Services Director Liz Huizar said in an email. (Latin@, like Latinx, is a gender-neutral shorthand for Latina/Latino.)

While many of those students were enrolling in alternative high school diploma programs, Latin@ scholars faced the lowest rates of completion, Huizar said. Worldwide, the pandemic stressed students and in many cases caused worse learning outcomes — especially for Latino, Black and multiethnic students, who were more likely than others to cancel or postpone their higher education plans, according to research by UCLA.

What wasn’t working about those original re-engagement programs? Through interviews, King County learned youth often were too busy supporting their families via babysitting or work, lacked transportation or mental health support, needed more practical education, or didn’t get the support, cultural understanding or care they needed from staff, according to a report by King County.

At the same time, some pieces were working. Students said they appreciated getting individualized help, more flexible schedules and “not being blamed for where they were at” academically.

El Centro, a Seattle-based nonprofit serving those students and other communities, stepped in to evolve the model with the King County Re-engagement Program, which aims to serve young people in their late teens and early 20s who haven’t earned, or aren’t on track to earn, a high school diploma.

Grant funding helped take the vision from dream to reality.

Sí se Puede is one of two organizations selected for $500,000 grants from the United Way of King County. The other is Good Shepherd Youth Outreach, which this newspaper profiled in September. With a similar model to El Centro’s work, Good Shepherd primarily will serve the Black community.

Both groups are reaching out to young people from the premise of “What didn’t work for you in a traditional high school? What can we do to help you learn? And what do you want to accomplish next?”

“We are a very resilient community, and we put family first,” Sí se Puede Program Manager Elsa Alvarado said. “I think the pandemic led a lot of our young people to start going into the workforce early than expected, just to survive and to support their family. … Unfortunately, (that) led to them either falling behind or dropping out of school.”

So the Sí se Puede program is meant to show those students that they can move forward and reach higher achievements while still prioritizing their families.


El Centro’s model, like that of Good Shepherd, will draw mentors and educators who look like the students and can relate to what they’ve been through, like having immigrant parents or navigating both a home culture and a mainstream culture.

One of those professors is Juan “Nito” Flores, who is affectionally called “Profe Nito.”

“My name is Juan, my dad is Juan, and his dad is Juan,” Flores explained. “So growing up I was always ‘Nito, nito, nito,’ which is short for Juanito, or ‘little Juan.’”

“Profe Nito” has worked in education for 12 years, spending time tutoring math and English, mentoring young kids with traumatic home lives in Los Angeles, teaching English in South Korea to young people and adults, and teaching Spanish at the high school level locally.

His work with El Centro currently involves preparing students directly for the GED, and in the new year, Flores said they plan to install more cultural learning such as Chicano and Latino studies.

“I try to instill this joy for learning,” Flores said. “When students come into my classroom, they’re here for a few months, maybe a year, and then they’re gone on their life journey. Something that’s important for me is: Can I make learning enjoyable? … Do they have the skills to critically think through something that might come to them on social media or within family?”

Then there’s the practical stuff — helping students with transportation or other challenges that may keep them from success. Sí se Puede is built with the kind of flexibility a college campus might offer, and caters to students with work or family demands by offering lessons over Zoom, office hours with instructors and sessions students can take in the morning, afternoon and evening.

“We we’re not trying to baby them,” student support advocate Emmanuel Lopez said. “We’re not trying to tell them how they should learn. They’re already interested in telling us … what they need to be successful, (and) what didn’t work for them before.”

Aside from Sí se Puede, El Centro will use the space for a couple other youth services programs, like a pre-apprenticeship program aimed at 16- to 18 year-olds or their workforce program for older jovenes seeking apprenticeships in the trades.

That will give the young people a chance to see what they could do next and the older ones an opportunity to provide mentorship.

“When they’re here and earning a GED, we want them to already be immersed in the idea that there’s a career path afterwards,” Lopez said. “I’ve been likening it to going to a college and meeting the career services team the moment you set foot in the door.”


When young people walk inside the program’s home at 1625 S. 341st Place Federal Way, one of the first things they see on the wall is “Bienvenidos, we’re glad you’re here.” Like the name of the program itself, the phrase combines Spanish and English.

“We have this saying in our community — ‘Ni de aquí, Ni de allá’ — which means we’re neither from here nor there,” Alvarado said. “A lot of our youth have parents immigrated to this country, and they’ve grown up with two cultures. We wanted to make sure the space reflected that.”

Alvarado has worked in school districts, including Federal Way’s, and for the past six years has worked in re-engagement programs for young people. The part of Sí se Puede that’s really exciting, she said, is the cultural and identity engagement.

For example, the social studies part of the program will include ethnic studies that reflect the backgrounds of the classroom — from language to geography, traditions and indigeneity, and the cultures that some students may have been forced to leave behind.

Alvarado works at the academy with Lopez, who has worked as an admissions advisor for Eastern Washington University.

“When you’re learning something and you see yourself reflected … your investment in it becomes that much richer,” Lopez said.

That can be an enormously empowering experience, Lopez said, and can re-ignite a love of learning.

“There’s a lot of grief that can come with learning how things got erased in culture, society and history, but then there’s this fire that gets lit in you,” he said. ” ‘Now I want to know more. What I was denied in the past, or wasn’t given … I want to immerse myself in it, and take a joy in learning again.’ ”

Inside, the lab room upstairs will give young people space to work independently and practice for the GED. A neon sign inside reads “Ponte Las Pilas” in hot-pink cursive. The literal meaning of the Spanish idiom is “put your batteries in,” a note of encouragement (often said by one’s family members) to pull yourself together and get things done.

On Fridays, the team opens things up for art or field days, including trips to college campuses.

“A lot of the times, we don’t see ourselves in those spaces,” Alvarado said. “We want to start planting those seeds, like yes, you belong here, you have these opportunities.”

And downstairs, a large activity room offers space for art, movie nights, dance classes and unwinding with friends. Profe Nito plans to hold a hip-hop dance class, for example.

“We want it to feel like we have an opportunity (for) these artistic outlets, being able to see ourselves outside of this nine-to-five grind of work,” Flores said. “We’re also trying to say there’s importance in your artistry.”


Though rooted in the Latino community, El Centro’s mission is all in the name — it’s the center for people of all races, so the Sí se Puede Academy, like the rest of El Centro’s services, shouldn’t be considered exclusive to Latino, Chicano, Indigenous or Spanish-speaking people, Lopez said.

The Sí Se Puede Academy will be El Centro’s first foray into GED prep specifically, but the 50-year old organization has focused on youth services since its inception, with the occupation of an abandoned Beacon Hill school building in 1972.

But El Centro’s work in the Kitts Corner area has only just begun. The nonprofit now operates the former Pattison’s West Skate Rink and plans to build a three story community center and two mixed-use affordable housing developments with space for an early learning center and business tenants.

That’s especially helpful for Sí se Puede, since one of the takeaways from King County’s re-engagement research was that some students would have benefitted from access to childcare.

At Sí se Puede, the goal is to soon expand into an “Open Doors Program,” which, through the state superintendent’s office, will let them offer both GED and high school diploma programs — still in tandem with their workforce development work.

The program is growing and has room for more young people looking to achieve their GEDs. They’re hoping to serve 120 people over the school year, Alvarado said.

“It’s like the sky is the limit right now,” Lopez said. “We want to listen to the community here and say ‘What is it that you need?’”

For more information about the Sí se Puede Academy, contact Lopez at 206-883-8862 or