A group of Anaheim High School reporters got a real lesson in journalism after they tried to track down the cost of graduation ceremonies this year — especially the difference between graduating at Angel Stadium compared to using a school-owned field. 

The young journalists got a tip that Santa Ana Unified School District had a nearly $500,000 contract with Angels Baseball to use the stadium for graduation.

But they ran into roadblocks from school officials, who weren’t prepared to answer questions, in both districts while trying to report out the story. 

The story was dead in the water until they reached out to Voice of OC. 

Santa Ana Unified spokesman Fermin Leal confirmed to Voice of OC that the school district reached out to the Angels to use their parking lot for its graduation ceremony. 

The high school reporters wanted to know why their district wasn’t using the stadium and get some context on how much graduations normally cost — something that can change every year. 

Anaheim Unified High School District officials said the price for using Angel Stadium was too expensive, while Santa Ana Unified officials said it was worth it — especially after the hardships students faced during the pandemic.

“We weren’t trying to do a hit piece,” said their advisor, Lizzette Barrios-Gracian. “We just wanted to do a story to understand why Anaheim wasn’t doing the graduation at the stadium and let our students know.”

Freshly graduated high school students Carolina Herrera, Jonathan Zendejas and Gilberto Salas — all 17 years old — said they spent roughly two weeks chasing down the story, especially trying to figure out why Anaheim Union High School district officials decided to not hold graduation ceremonies at the stadium and Santa Ana Unified officials said yes. 

The young reporters learned what their colleagues confront on a daily basis. Administrators aren’t always equipped to answer tough questions quickly, especially on deadline. 

They also ran into roadblocks from Angels Baseball — something that proved to be a learning experience for reporter Gilberto Salas. 

Salas said someone who works at the stadium told him they wouldn’t be able to speak specifics about the contracts.

“Especially since for me, this whole year, I was used to hearing yes, yes, yes. I know that not every interview would be a yes, but I wasn’t expecting how Angel Stadium just shut me down.”

Gilberto Salas, Reporter at Anaheim High School

Salas said he plans to go to Cal State Fullerton to seek a degree in bilingual education, with a minor in journalism.

Anaheim Union High School District Superintendent Mike Matsuda said he has been interviewed by the Anaheim High School reporters working at the Anaheim Exclusivo newspaper before, saying they do “incredible work.”

“The students are trying to address local issues and I think that’s great. I think they’re going to be empowered and be transformed to these types of activities and interviews,” he said.

When Voice of OC was interviewing the students and teacher in front of Angel Stadium last Friday, Cal State Long Beach’s graduation ceremony was being prepared for that night.

Reporter Carolina Herrera also said she learned valuable things about reporting while chasing the story — something that will come in handy when she studies broadcast journalism at UC San Diego.

“It never goes as you expected to and you really have to push people,” Hererra said. “It was very exciting — I didn’t expect it to turn out this way, but I think it was a very good learning experience.” 

Matsuda said the district had reached out to Angels Baseball about using the stadium for graduation ceremonies, but it was too expensive.

“It’s our understanding that we were quoted something like $93,000 -$100,000 for graduation by the stadium. We have 10 High school graduations. Combined, we spend maybe $60,000 on 10. So they wanted $93,000 for one,” Matsuda said. “For us, that was too much.”

The City of Anaheim is selling the stadium and the roughly 150 acres it sits on to the team’s owner, Arte Moreno, for $150 million after shaving millions of dollars off the starting $325 million price tag for nearly 500 units of affordable housing and a seven-acre park. 

The Anaheim school district held their in-person ceremonies on district property at Handel Stadium at Western High School over the past two weeks, spending between $60,000-$70,000, Matsuda said.

Santa Ana Unified School District Officials said nearly $500,000 to use Angel Stadium is worth it after having closed classrooms for over a year and other stresses faced by students during the pandemic.

“The district was looking for a place to have an epic graduation for our students due to COVID. We wanted to make sure that our kids had a wonderful graduation. They deserve it. They’ve been through a lot this year,” said district board member Valerie Amezcua in a phone interview last week.

The young reporters also wanted to know more details about the nearly $500,000 stadium contract Santa Ana unified signed.

Jonathan Zendejas, one of the Anaheim High School reporters, said a Santa Ana Unified official went dark on him also.

“I spoke to the assistant who told me that if I was going to do an interview, what type of questions I would be asking,” Zendejas said. “She told me it’s best not to ask questions involving any of that stuff [stadium graduation contract], so that confirmed to me … that they were under contract and weren’t going to speak on it.” 

Zendejas said he plans on going to Fullerton College to finish transfer coursework before going to Cal Poly Pomona for an architecture degree.

The Santa Ana Unified School district will be holding graduation ceremonies for six of their high schools at the stadium on June 10th, 11th and 12th with two schools per day.

There will be fireworks and each student will have six tickets for guests — four more guests than normal.

Amezcua said that a little over 600 students are not graduating this year because of challenges that range from logging onto online courses during the pandemic or lacking enough credits.

“COVID is very challenging for many, many of our students. We’ve never had this large number of students who are not graduating because as you know, Santa Ana has done very well with graduation over the years,” she added.

Amezcua said the district is working hard to help kids catch up and has requested an updated number of students not graduating.

She added that the families in the district have been through a lot and that the graduation ceremonies were supported by all five district board members.

The price of graduation varies from year to year in Santa Ana, according to data Amezcua sent to Voice of OC.

In 2016-17, graduation cost the district a little over $12,500.

The next year it cost them over $530,300.

And the year after that it was around $193,200.

The Angel Stadium graduations will cost the district $474,000, according to the contract.

“I think it’s worth it after going through COVID and I think it’s worth every penny to give our kids the best graduation ceremony possible,” Amezcua said.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.