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New community schools in works for Brawley, El Centro


Staff Writer

Valley Community School. "Where's that?" you might ask. Valley Community School in El Centro is part of a school system no student deliberately aspires to — it's one of five alternative education schools in Imperial County.

The community schools take kids who have been expelled from their local school districts or placed on probation by the court system.

"In the family of organizations providing educational services, we're between a continuation school and the Californian Youth Authority. We're what you would call an intervention school," is the way David Schoneman, director of alternative education for Imperial County, describes his school system.


"We deal with the at-risk students in the county and we feel we do a great job of providing a safety net for those students so they don't continue on into the adult court system," Schoneman said Friday.

Housed in what could charitably be described as a large industrial type tin shed on the east side of town since the early 1990s, Valley Community students are finally getting a new school costing $10 million.

The students won't have far to go when their new school opens. It's right across the road from their present school on Hope Street.

In place as county director of alternative education since 1994, Schoneman says the new school, slated to open this summer, will offer the students a multitude of support services on-site to make the transition back to their local high school a smoother ride.

The ultimate goal of community school, Schoneman says, is to have all the students be able to go back to their local high school and graduate.

"We need to bring all the agencies to bear with these kids — probation, law enforcement agencies, Behavioral Health, Department of Social Services — and we'll be able to have all these services here working with the kids in this new school," Schoneman said while negotiating around piles of building materials on the site Friday morning.

The facility is being built with a state construction grant and will eventually house some 160 students. Another grant worth $8 million is being used for work at Del Rio Community School in Brawley.

About 340 students out of a general school population of 34,000 students countywide are enrolled in the five community schools in Imperial County.

Over the din of construction noise, Schoneman details how each classroom will have a 20- station computer lab and high-speed Internet connections.

"Since the mid-90s we've really been changing our focus on how we work with the kids in our community schools in that we're really focused on academics these days," Schoneman said. "We've got an excellent reading and math program in place in our community schools now."

Schoneman says with increased reading skills the students' self-esteem "just skyrockets," and behavior improves accordingly.

Back in his office at the current school site, he gestures to a classroom across the hallway.

"Listen, we've got high-risk kids right back here right now and you don't hear them tearing the place up, do you? That's because they're all working at their reading and they're really into it."

Schoneman says community school students are not "bad kids" as the wider community may generally view them.

"We've got happy-go-lucky kids here who were just goofing around having a great ol' time playing truant from school … and we've got the kid who made one bad decision at high school," he says as he leads the way through the cavernous tin shed that doubles as a classroom.

Everywhere you look there are youths hard at work with noses buried deep in books, nice-looking, well-groomed kids who don't fit the stereotype of student misfits and troublemakers, kids who deserve better than to be housed in a tin shed.

Four years in the planning, Schoneman says the new school will make it much easier for the staff to deliver services to the students.

"We've had a great deal of success in our existing facilities but our staff are anxious to do more for these kids — and the new facilities will enable them to do more."

With a wry smile teacher, Patrice Larson says her students have definite opinions about their present classroom.

"They tell me, ‘This isn't a classroom, this is a warehouse' and they're really looking forward to moving."

Take one young student away from her books for a moment and ask her opinion about the new school and Lucy will tell you in awed tones, "Windows, it's got windows!" The tin shed classroom has no windows and Lucy says she's looking forward to seeing "… a little sunlight, maybe a bird flying…"

Schoneman says above and beyond the aesthetics of the new school, the most important improvement will be the presence of the multiple support agencies needed to transition the students back into their mainstream schools.

"The parents of these students are also looking to these agencies for guidance," he adds. "The parents are looking for tools so they can work with their kids for success. The majority of our parents here are looking to help their kids."

"These kids have been expelled, placed here by the court — so they have to be here — but shame on us if we don't do our best by them and their parents. Yeah, they probably did something wrong but still, shame on us if we don't give them our best effort."

>> Staff Writer Jennifer Ralton-Smith can be reached at 337-3442 or

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