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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

How Teamwork Transformed a Neighborhood

This is the story of how one elementary school overcame the challenges of neighborhood poverty and crime to build a community coalition.

Pio Pico Elementary is an almost five-year-old school located in a barrio in the center of Santa Ana, California. Nearly every family lives below the poverty level. Most of the adults have had fewer than four years of schooling, and most families double up in overcrowded apartments. More than a third of the children have never seen the ocean, which is fewer than 10 miles away. In most households, both parents work, usually for less than minimum wage. Spanish is the primary language of 98 percent of the residents, as this is a port-of-entry neighborhood populated primarily by families from Mexico and El Salvador.
The students who attend Pio Pico come from one of the poorest, most densely populated neighborhoods in one of the richest counties in California. The one square mile surrounding the school is home to some 26,000 children under the age of 18.

The School Context

The large number of students in the area justified building a new school in close proximity to three other elementary sites. Overcrowding was so severe, in fact, that it became necessary to open the school before the intended site could even be cleared. In August 1991, 330 students began attending classes in a collection of bungalows on the playground of a school a few blocks away from the permanent location.
Because Spanish was the primary language for most of its students, Pio Pico was designated as a Spanish Language Arts Demonstration School. In collaboration with the University of California at Irvine, teachers would help students maintain their primary language skills as well as develop their fluency in English. This approach was very different from the sink-or-swim version of language instruction that many of the parents had experienced. The teachers were eager to share their plans for this program at a Family Night held before the school opened.
It became clear at the meeting, however, that the overriding concern of the parents was the safety of their children. Highland Avenue, where the new school would be located, was a street ruled by gangs. It was a place where drug sales occurred 24 hours a day. Discussions about the curriculum had to be put on hold until the safety issue could be resolved.
That evening, a group of parents developed a plan to escort the children to school and back each day. A short time later, this same group of parents formed the Pio Pico Safety Committee, a group that would continue to grow and evolve. This was the first time residents had joined forces to improve conditions in their neighborhood.
In August 1992, the school moved to new temporary quarters. The campus was now a makeshift group of bungalows on the very street about which the parents had expressed strong concerns the year before. During the first few weeks of classes at this site, staff members sat in the teachers' lounge and watched drug deals occur. Parents continued to escort their children to and from school, and they began to stay and visit after classes had started, talking out their concerns at the lunch tables.

The Catalyst

Initially, the school's principal and teachers had reached out to the families. Now the families were ready to join the school staff and reach out to the community. The Pio Pico Safety Committee enlisted the help of the Santa Ana Police Department, which had a federal grant to redevelop the downtown area and purge it of drug and gang activity. Although Highland Avenue was just outside the prescribed area, the Department agreed to assign a team of officers to do stakeouts and surveillance in the area for two weeks. During that short period, 34 drug busts were made in front of the school. By the end of the two weeks, the drug dealers had gotten the message that the area was no longer safe for them, and they moved on.
With the principal as facilitator, the Safety Committee expanded into a Neighborhood Association made up of three representatives from each building in the area: the apartment owner, the apartment manager, and a member of a family with children at Pio Pico. This group mobilized to assess community needs, and to match school and community resources to meet those needs. The fact that most of the volunteers lived in the neighborhood and shared a linguistic and cultural background with the other residents made them much more effective ambassadors than the teachers or the principal might have been. And, the inclusion of property owners gave added weight to the requests of the group at the city level.
With the drug problem under control, the Neighborhood Association, the school staff, and the groups that had formed partnerships with the school decided to hold their first Operaci¢n Limpieza (Operation Clean-Up). Their goal was to improve physical conditions on Highland Avenue. A week before the event was to take place, parents were asked, via newsletter, to help and to donate ingredients for a luncheon. A group of dads volunteered to grill the carne asada brought by the families, and the teachers chipped in for tortillas, salsa, and other condiments. A local McDonald's agreed to provide punch and cups, and the Boys' and Girls' Club across the street from the new school site opened its kitchen to host the luncheon.
On the day of the clean-up, teachers, other staff members, and students (with their parents, brothers, and sisters) were joined by representatives from the Police Department, Fire Department, Police Explorer Scouts, Home Base of Santa Ana, and the Santa Ana Neighborhood Improvement Program. The work crew also included two city council members, several district assistant superintendents, and two school board members. Even neighbors who had no children attending the school got involved; they were caught up in the feeling of pride and accomplishment.
By lunch time, they had swept the sidewalks, picked up and bagged trash, painted over graffiti, and planted flowers along the sidewalks. Home Base provided the paint, brushes, gloves, trash bags, and plants. The Fire Department used its pump trucks to water the new plants and to clean the fences and walls before they were painted. This was the first time all the groups had come together for such a positive purpose.
The goal was to show the community that the Pio Pico students and their families cared about improving the deplorable conditions in which they lived, and to demonstrate that they could do so. They succeeded: Operaci¢n Limpieza has become an annual event in the Pio Pico neighborhood. The area has remained clean and well cared for, and the people living there take the responsibility to keep it so.
And that's not all. In the last four years, crime in the community has dropped by approximately 35 percent. There have been no homicides, robbery is down 25 percent, and aggravated assault is down 19 percent. Small children can now play safely in their yards.

The Effort Continues

The clean-up was just the first step in reaching out to the families and the community, and in enlisting the help of local businesses. The school's extended family has grown, and the community has become more involved with the school. Partnerships with community organizations such as the Boys' and Girls' Club and the Santa Ana Police Department have led to even more connections with the community, and to other partnerships.
For example, when a group of Korean-American entrepreneurs began building a strip mall near the school, a Korean-American police officer who had participated in the partnership program introduced us to several of the merchants. They visited the school, and in December 1994, they partnered with a class for the annual holiday gift exchange. In June 1995, they joined the Neighborhood Association in a multicultural celebration of independence for the community, with dancers and food and a program that commemorated the struggles for independence of the United States, Mexico, and Korea.
Recently, the merchants invited some of our bilingual 5th graders to administer the oral final examination for their adult Spanish class. The "professors" were invited to attend the dinner held in honor of the "graduates" they had tested. The children honored the adults by singing an impromptu version of "Ari Rang," a Korean anthem.

Four Years of Achievement

These past few years, Pio Pico Elementary School has grown from 10 classrooms located on the grounds of another school to more than 860 students in a brand-new building. The parents have become advocates for their children's education. They are interested and involved in what happens at school, and they are determined to help their children achieve.
The school continues to boast 85 percent parent attendance at PTA meetings and 99 percent attendance at parent-teacher conferences. Adult ESL classes consistently run at full capacity. In addition, 195 parents have graduated from the Parent Institute for Quality Education, a program that teaches parenting skills and encourages parents to be active participants in their children's education. One hundred eighty-five more are enrolled in the program in progress now.
When interviewed, one graduate—a mother of two Pio Pico students—said she now believes that her children can go to the university, and she now knows what she can do to help them get there.
The Pio Pico vision of "lifelong learners, eager and well prepared to make positive contributions to a diverse global society" will take years to evolve, but the physical changes in the neighborhood where its students are spending their childhood already are obvious. Our experience clearly demonstrates how much caring educators, a willing community, and empowered families can achieve when they work together.

Martie Theleen Lubetkin has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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