By Tim Traeger
Ken LaVigne is the kindest tough-guy you’ll ever meet.
Follow the core values he’s entrenched in hundreds of Whittier students or end up on the wrong side of a knuckle sandwich on a dead-end street in Santa Fe Springs.
He is the genuine article in a world of fake news and disingenuous chatter.
Coach. Teacher. Mentor. Friend. The 64-year-old’s greatest achievement is assembling the OASIS (Organized Academic Support in School) and HAVEN (Harnessing Academic, Vocational and Educational Needs) programs at La Serna High School. They take at-risk kids with pathetic grade point averages and partner them with mentors to ensure every student graduates.
“You give love unconditionally. I’m not going to throw you away, but I’m going to tell you the truth,” the former football coach at Pius X, Cal High and La Serna said. “I always tell my kids that people who don’t care about you will tell you anything you want to hear. People who love you are going to tell you what you need to know,” said LaVigne, a 2012 California Teacher of the Year.
For sophomore Adrian Gonzalez, who entered Oasis with a 0.96 GPA but now has a 4.0 after the first quarter, LaVigne is different than any other teacher.
“He’s more empathetic, more compassionate. The majority of time, teachers throw stuff at you and expect you to do the work automatically,” Gonzalez said. “He comes in and assists you individually.”
Asked about the impact LaVigne has had on his life, Gonzalez didn’t hesitate.
“Everlasting,” he said.
Same goes for senior Jolissa Pedroza, who entered Oasis with a 1.50 GPA but now sports a 3.2. She said she wants to work in the film industry doing makeup.
“He just motivated me. Since I’ve been in his class, he just opened my eyes and I realized that my grades are important,” Pedroza said. “He teaches a lot of rules we might not know about. I’ve met my best friends here. I feel comfortable here.”
Former Whittier Union High School Superintendent Sandra Thorstenson hired LaVigne at Cal High in 1988. She’s glad she did.
”Ken LaVigne, 2012 California Teacher of the Year, has led the OASIS and HAVEN programs at La Serna in the Whittier Union High School District with his heart, mind and soul as he continues just as strongly as in his first year to literally alter kids’ lives and infuse hope and opportunity into their futures,” Thorstenson said. “Ken LaVigne is a hero to his students, he is the father many of them have never had and he is a role model to all educators throughout the state. This extraordinary teacher is a humble servant leader who I love and admire dearly. I am thankful to have known him since the 1980s when I first hired him as a teacher leader in the Whittier Union High School District. My family and I are thankful to call him our friend.”
La Serna Principal Ann Fitzgerald echoed that sentiment.
“I think he has a huge soft spot for kids who have additional struggles,” Fitzgerald said. “Ken’s been through a lot in his life, but he’s always been able to take the right path. He has a huge heart for kids who don’t have support, either at home or in the community in their extended family. He wants them to get the tools they need to be successful in school.”
For senior Conner Hobbis, who plans to join the Marines and later pursue a career in law enforcement, LaVigne is a solid role model.
“Ken LaVigne cares about his students and his people like he’s their own family,” Hobbis said. “I know from personal experience he always cared for me and tried to help out with anything I needed. I was having family issues a couple years ago and he decided to talk with my family and me. Honestly, it was hard. But coming out and talking with him is really easy. It’s really hard not to be honest with him. For me, it’s like having a dad at school.”
Nearly every students alluded to the same thing. To them, LaVigne is their father away from home.
Much of the success of Oasis belongs to Superintendent Martin Plourde. After LaVigne’s incredible success as a football coach, Plourde asked LaVigne a simple question.
“So what are you going to do now?”
The two traveled to Chicago to see a program for at-risk kids.
“I asked him to tell me what he wanted it to look like,” LaVigne said. “He said, ‘I don’t care, as long as it works.’ I built the program like a football program. I built it like a team. I built it around positive peer pressure to bring out the best in each other – to hold each other accountable. Every week, I have a ‘word of the week’ that reflects a core value.”
Samples of those important words include “Resilience. Identity. Courage. Humility. Respect. Empathy. Honesty.” And, of course, “Accountability.”
Plourde reflected on the teacher he has in Ken LaVigne.
“Oasis continues in the Whittier Union High School District’s tradition of ‘Whatever it Takes.’ Ken is one of those special teachers who doesn’t give up on kids even if they have given up on themselves,” Plourde said. “His love, support, commitment and drive helps his students realize they are smart, capable and worthy of success. His career choice, like many teachers, has made the world a better place by those students whose lives he has changed.”
The unassuming LaVigne, who credits local coaching and teaching legends like Dick Torres, Jack Mahlsted, Leo Camalich, Hans Verstegen, Drew Passalacqua, Zigg Ziglar, Marty Blackstone, Plourde and Thorstenson for his 35 years of coaching and teaching success, grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood in Santa Fe Springs. He was a tough guy who turned savior to so many.
“I’m going to love you,” said LaVigne, who has been married to Gisele for 34 years and has two sons, Clint and Mark. “I’m not here to save everybody. I’m here to save those who want to be saved.”