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Needy Kindergartners Get a Hand From Philanthropists

July 17, 1988|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

Pasadena school officials knew they wanted to extend their kindergarten program to 4 year olds, but their plan called for money they didn't have.

At the same time, three philanthropists were looking for a way to make a real impact on education.

Each had something to offer the other, and the attraction was immediate.

As a result, the Pasadena Unified School District is working through the summer to open a kindergarten for 4-year-old disadvantaged children in September, months ahead of schedule.

Richard Riordan, a Los Angeles businessman and lawyer, John Shea, head of a Walnut construction company, and his wife, Dorothy, have pledged half of the $1.4 million the kindergarten will cost for the first year and are raising the other half from other donors.

"We knew about each other," Supt. Phillip Jordan said, "and then it happened fast. They set up an appointment and committed themselves right then."

Riordan, head of the Riordan Foundation, which has donated to education programs all over the country, said he had "read somewhere that to make things happen, you have to be obsessed. I'm obsessed with the belief that all children should read and write by the time they're out of the second grade because if not, their chances of being dropouts, homeless, criminals, on drugs (or) teen-aged parents goes up to 80 and 90%."

Dorothy Shea said she and her husband, who live in Pasadena, "just started thinking--we have eight children and want to keep the world good for them. And then Pasadena had the plan all ready to go. We were terribly impressed."

The kindergarten would differ from day care, Head Start and traditional nursery schools because it would teach English, provide some health care and introduce children to computers. It would also emphasize parent participation.

Few Details

Many details, such as which children will qualify for the program, how they will get to school and the definition and extent of parent participation have not been determined.

School officials had included the two-year kindergarten proposal in their "K-12 Program Revitalization" program that the school board approved in May. School board President James McBath said the district sent copies of its revitalization program to PTAs, other school districts and foundations--including Riordan's--in the hope of raising money.

About the same time, Riordan said, he and the Sheas invited representatives from Pasadena and Los Angeles school districts and the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to discuss ways education could help stem the growing tide of adolescent crime and drug use.

"We found the program we liked the most was Pasadena's," Riordan said. "We (he and the Sheas) are Catholic, but I don't think God makes much of a distinction."

Short Meeting

The Sheas and a representative of the Riordan Foundation met at Pasadena district headquarters on June 9 for a more thorough examination of the kindergarten plan.

"They caucused for just a few minutes and then made their offer," Jordan said.

"The minute we went in and saw their plan, we knew this was it," Dorothy Shea said. "We just went to the foot of the stairs to talk, and it was done."

Kindergarten for 4 year olds is called early childhood intervention in other parts of the country, including cities in New York and Texas. It is part of a 2-year kindergarten program tailored for children who usually come from impoverished urban areas, don't speak English well and may be behind other children in their cultural and social development.

California does not finance such programs, although a recent State Department of Education study recommended intervention programs for "at-risk" 4 year olds.

The study said disadvantaged youngsters may drop out of school and have "wasted lives" as adults unless they get educational support and develop strong self-images as children.

Use of Computers

One way to reach such children is with computers, Pasadena school officials said.

"Computers are positive reinforcers that make kids feel good about themselves, instead of criticizing them and making them feel like failures," Riordan said. Last year, he gave the Los Angeles Unified School District $275,000 for computers. He said his foundation has given about $2 million to schools throughout the country.

Riordan said several computer companies offer excellent programs for children, many with "voices" that give encouragement.

Riordan said one of the reasons for choosing Pasadena for the financial gift was because "the system is in place. The district has the buildings, the classrooms and the plan. So with relatively little money, you can have a big effect."

The ultimate effect Riordan hopes for, he said, "is to set an example that could result in a billion dollars being put up. That's what we'd like to see. And then John (Shea) came to me and said they were very interested in this type of program."

Their interest coincided with the Pasadena district's "K-12 Program Revitalization."

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