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SOUTH GATE : Peers Help Students Gain Self-Esteem

October 11, 1992|DUKE HELFAND

It is Sylvia Avila's turn on the "hot seat" at the front of the room. One by one, her classmates offer compliments--some like her eyes, others her smile or her red-and-white, polka-dot dress. Although she blushes, the shy fourth-grader seems pleased.

"They liked my dress," Avila, 9, said afterward. "That made me feel good."

The self-esteem exercise for the fourth- and fifth-graders at San Miguel Avenue Elementary School in South Gate is part of a nine-week program designed to help keep them out of trouble.

The curriculum is offered by the South Gate-based Juvenile Assistance Diversion Effort, or JADE, a nonprofit agency that also provides counseling, education forums and parenting classes for adults who have trouble with their children.

Program counselors hope that the sessions, which include discussions on personal interests, goals and gang activities, will help provide students with the self-confidence and awareness they need to stay away from gangs and drugs.

"We're looking for the positive things within each child," said counselor Mary Huggins, a former probation officer who runs the San Miguel sessions. "If one teacher lets you know that you're all right, that could make the difference. That could save your life."

Last fiscal year, the program reached more than 7,000 elementary and junior high school students in South Gate, Bell, Huntington Park, Maywood and the Walnut Park and Florence-Firestone areas. School principals select classes to take part in the program.

Huggins, one of three counselors who teach as many as seven anti-gang classes daily, believes that the programs are helping reduce gang membership in the area.

Between 1988 and 1991, the number of gangs in South Gate dropped from 17 to eight, and the number of known gang members fell from about 1,000 to 300, according to figures compiled by the Commission for South Gate Youth, a volunteer panel made up of business, school, church and government leaders.

Commission Chairwoman Dianna Winnor praised the anti-gang classes, saying they are part of the reason for the decrease: "(The classes) are helping the kids to have a broader understanding of what gangs are all about and teaching them self-esteem. Kids join gangs because they don't have self-esteem. We want them to succeed in life."

Eduardo Rodriguez, 9, said he occasionally thinks about the classes when he is away from school. "When my feelings are bad, it makes me feel better," the fourth-grader said. "I like what people say about me--that I'm smart, that I'm really good at math."

The key to the program's success lies in student involvement, said director Marcos S. Vega: "There's a difference between lecturing (at students) about self-esteem and having them hearing it from their peers. There's more credibility when it comes from them."

Although principals and teachers laud the program, it could face tough financial times. The South Gate Police Department, which had earmarked $50,000 annually for the program over the past four years, is cutting off funding after this fiscal year, Vega said.

The agency also receives funding from other Southeast cities it serves, the County Board of Supervisors and the state Office of Criminal Justice.

Vega said he plans to seek new public grants, but financial worries have not dampened his enthusiasm, nor that of his staff.

"The only thing we have going for us in this wretched society are our children," said counselor Huggins, a mother of seven. "If you set one person straight, that makes it worth it."

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