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A school bus, donated dresses, Alicia Keys' hairstylist: Two LAUSD students go to Oscars

North Hollywood, CA - March 10: Film participant and Palms Middle School sixth-grader Porche Brinker, center, joins film makers and fellow participants as they board a LAUSD school bus to ride to the Oscars Sunday, March 10,2024. The students and instrument repair technicians are featured in the "Last Repair Shop" and get ready to attend the Oscars, where the film is nominated for Best Documentary Short Film. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Porché Brinker, a Palms Middle School sixth-grader featured in "The Last Repair Shop," boards a school bus for the Oscars. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

When girls in their junior year of high school scour the mall for the perfect dress in the spring, it's time for prom. But not for 17-year-old Ismerai Calcaneo. She's shopping for the Oscars.

It's a quest for a dress that this Roosevelt High student could have never imagined. And it's taken her teacher's Instagram plea and a corps of donors to prepare Ismerai and sixth-grader Porché Brinker for their red carpet walk on Sunday at the Dolby Theatre.

People get ready to attend the Oscars.
Roosevelt High junior Ismerai Calcaneo, 17, right, FaceTimes with her teacher as hairstylist Tanya Nena Melendez does Palms Middle School sixth-grader Porché Brinker's hair before the Oscars. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Both Los Angeles Unified School District students are featured in “The Last Repair Shop", which has been nominated for the documentary short prize at the 2024 Academy Awards. The film, presented by L.A. Times Studios and Searchlight Pictures, tells the story of the technicians who repair LAUSD students' musical instruments.

Read more: L.A. Times wins first Oscar for 'The Last Repair Shop,' about LAUSD music program

Ismerai, an alto saxophonist from Boyle Heights, has used a borrowed school district instrument since she was in fifth grade. Brinker, of Palms Middle School, started playing the violin in fourth grade.

"I never ever thought in my whole life that a small dream of playing my instrument will take me to walking the red carpet," Ismerai said.

Read more: The 2024 Oscar winners list

But once the excitement of the Academy Award nomination and ceremony invite subsided, worry started to creep in.

"My mom told me that going to the Oscars was going to be more preparation to find a dress, someone doing my hair and makeup," she said. "When my mom said these things, this made me more anxious because we don’t have the money to pay for these expenses."

Co-director Ben Proudfoot, left, joins a pre-Oscars rally.
Co-director Ben Proudfoot, left, joins a pre-Oscars rally at his house in North Hollywood. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Her uncle, who is like a father to her, works as a janitor. Her mother is a housecleaner. Mexican immigrants, they both work long hours to support the family's basic needs, Ismerai said.

When Ismerai told her former ninth-grade English teacher, Jo Anna Mixpe Ley, that she was going to the Oscars, Ley said she noticed the girl's wary tone.

Co-director Ben Proudfoot heads to the LAUSD bus after hosting a pre-Oscars rally.
Co-director Ben Proudfoot heads to the LAUSD bus after hosting a pre-Oscars rally at his house. Ismerai Calcaneo, 17, clutches her saxophone pin while riding an LAUSD school bus to the Oscars. Ismerai Calcaneo joins the filmmakers as they look out the school bus windows. Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times

"There's a lot of disparity when it comes to economics and resources, but also the access that you have to things," said Ley, who also grew up in Boyle Heights. “I told her don’t worry about it. The community always takes care of community.”

Ley, who has worked as a community organizer in Boyle Heights since she was a LAUSD student, put out a call for help via Instagram on Feb. 22. Messages began flooding her inbox almost immediately. Parents offered donations at a parent conference night that same night.

Within days, Ismerai had a free facial, a professional makeup artist and Alicia Keys' personal hair stylist, Tanya "Nena Soul Fly" Melendez. Her $189 dress from Macy's was donated by Ben Proudfoot's filmmaking company, Breakwater Studios.

The "Last Repair Shop" Co-director Kris Bowers, right, prepares an Oscar acceptance speech.
On the school bus, Porché Brinker sits with her violin as "Last Repair Shop" co-director Kris Bowers, right, prepares an Oscar acceptance speech if his film wins. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Melendez and Ley are longtime friends and when she saw the Instagram post, she said she had to help.

"I feel like a lot of the reasons I'm in the position that I'm in now, how I've overcome a lot of my own personal challenges is because people showed up for me," Melendez said. "It's important for me to continue doing the same, and with this young lady, she's the next generation moving up."

Melendez grew up in Highland Park and attributes much of her success — styling Bad Bunny's hair for the cover of Time magazine in 2023 and most recently Alicia Keys' hair for a portrait painted by Kehinde Wiley — to community members in East L.A. She made and sold jewelry wherever she could, barely scraping by until a friend gave her space in 2017 at a gallery in Chinatown to showcase photos of her artwork through hair styling, which was ultimately seen by Alicia Keys.

Read more: 84 years after Hattie McDaniel, the Oscars still put Black women in a box

Ismerai, too, expressed gratitude to all who made sure she could walk down the red carpet with pride.

"Ben and the whole team are amazing people who understand the students’ circumstances," Ismerai said. "All those times my dad had to take me to music schools, those late nights, all the hard work he has to put in, has finally paid off.”

Attendees arrive along with crew on the red carpet in a LAUSD school bus at the Oscars.
LAUSD brass instrument technician Paty Moreno, left, LAUSD instrument repair general manager Steve Bagmanyan, second from left standing, and co-directors Kris Bowers, seated at center, and Ben Proudfoot, right in seat, arrive at the Oscars. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Porché will be seated next to Proudfoot and co-director Kris Bowers on the first floor of the Dolby. The rest of the team, including Ismerai, will sit in the third mezzanine due to limited seating in the orchestra section, Proudfoot said.

When Porché's grandmother and primary caretaker, Joy Biagas, heard her granddaughter would be going to the Oscars, she felt an equal mix of excitement and stress. She went straight to Amazon to find shoes for her granddaughter's big night. After failing to find the right size online, grandmother and granddaughter headed to Nordstrom Rack at the Westfield Culver City, where they found white shoes with a lace bow on top.

For the dress, Biagas took a more hands-off approach. Porché went to a bridal shop with two representatives from Breakwater Studios and chose a poofy, blue ballerina-like dress.

Read more: All the looks from the 2024 Oscars red carpet

Attendees arrive on the red carpet in a LAUSD school bus at the Oscars.
The group steps off the school bus and head for the red carpet. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

"I didn't want to interfere when she picked out her dress," Biagas said. "I'm too money-conscious. I would have gotten in the way."

Breakwater Studios' support for Porché goes beyond donating her dress and hair styling expenses. Proudfoot also funds her violin private lessons, Biagas said.

“At my old school when I didn’t have private lessons, there was one teacher for the whole orchestra and he didn’t know too much about violin because he plays flute," Porché said. "Sometimes, he would just put on a video for us to watch.”

Proudfoot, Brinker, Calcaneo and Bowers on the red carpet
Proudfoot, Brinker, Calcaneo and Bowers on the red carpet. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Proudfoot said a key theme in the documentary focuses on accessibility to the arts for students in low-income communities. The documentary's team of 18 — which includes the production team, instrument technicians, Ismerai and Porché — will roll up to Hollywood's largest stage in a yellow school bus.

"You don't have to go in a nice limousine to represent your community and represent who you are," Ismerai said. "I'm excited to showcase my childhood going in the bus... and represent LAUSD.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.