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Programs serve needs, fulfill dream

May 28, 2002|By JENNIFER RALTON-SMITH
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Staff Writer

Dateline: Calexico

Remember the days when seemingly only minutes after the last school bell of the day rang, the school grounds lay empty with maybe a custodian or two moving from classroom to classroom readying the school for the following day?

Increasingly that's a rarer sight across America these days as more and more schools embrace after-school programs that keep the school gates open long after the last bell has sounded.

One of those schools is De Anza Junior High School in Calexico and it has a program in place that is proving successful well beyond anyone's dream.

"This is a dream put together by educators who saw a need for our students and our community," soft-spoken school Principal Rebecca Ayala-Rodriquez said as she sat with a group of parents and staff discussing the program.

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That dream is embodied in the school's 21st Century Community Learning Center, which opened its doors in school year 1999-2000, supported by funds at the state level.

The learning center is headquartered at the De Anza school site and has programs in place in the four elementary schools in its feeder pattern.

Initially the program was limited to much-needed tutoring and homework labs for the students plus some "fun" learning classes that kept the kids in a safe, nurturing environment until parents could get home from work. But the staff and parents at De Anza saw the program as being capable of so much more.

In its second year the program attracted funding at the federal level as part of President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative and for school year 2000-2001 there was close to $3 million on the table in funding for De Anza's learning center.

"These big funds meant we could not only provide after-school programs for our students, but we could start offering a whole range of programs to parents," Dorene Johnson, coordinator for the program explained.

"Our vision has always been to help families; you can help families in a lot of different ways and one of those ways is to provide safe, academically sound after school programs. But there are a whole lot of other things we can do to make them healthy, happy families," Johnson said

The staff envisioned it being much more than a learning center. They saw their school site as being the perfect place to act as a clearinghouse to city and county agencies.

Collaborating with agencies such as Clinicas de Salud and the Center for Family Solutions, Johnson says, has given families easier access to the services these agencies offer.

"We want parents who don't know the answer to something to say to themselves, ‘ I'll go to the school and ask them — they'll know!'"

For those parents who become part of the learning experience at the center, the benefits can be profound.

Maria Ramirez is a perfect example. Born in Mexicali, Ramirez is now a U.S. resident and runs a family day-care center out of her home. With three children of her own in the Calexico school system, Ramirez decided she wanted to go to school as well.

"First I took the (English-as-a-second-language) class and the computer class. Now I'm doing the citizenship class and my kids go to extended learning after school," Ramirez said in hesitant but grammatically sound English.

Johnson points to the fact that Ramirez's diligence in applying herself to learning has been a motivating force for her children because they see their mother "working so hard to better herself."

On the other side of the school desk is Linda Rubio, who simply turned up at a school site meeting one day as a new parent in town and said, "I'd like to do whatever I can do to help."

Rubio is concrete proof that parent volunteerism is way beyond the bake sale at De Anza. She is teaching one of the extended-day technology classes and substitutes in the adult education program when needed as well as having coordinated the recent parent health fair.

What motivates Rubio to give so much of her time to the school's learning center?

Her answer is quick in coming.

"I have a child in elementary school who will be coming to De Anza soon enough … so I ask myself, ‘What will I like this school to look like when my child gets here and how can I help create that?'"

Johnson sees the learning center as simply a matter of, "Bringing the mountain to Mohammed."

"Schools are the one agency that if you have kids you're going to be going by a school most days … why not offer as many services to these families as possible? Parents want the best for their kids, so talk to the parents and help them help their kids and themselves — in every way you can."

For further information on adult education classes at the learning center call the school on 768-3950. Free baby-sitting is available for children 2 years and older for parents participating in a class.

>>Staff Writer Jennifer Ralton-Smith can be reached at 337-3442 or dingo87@earthlink.net

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