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Treating Schools Like Family

June 06, 1993|DIANE SEO

When the principal of Glen Alta Elementary School asked Andy Vargas if he'd be willing to "adopt" the Lincoln Heights school in 1985, Vargas paused for a moment and then asked: "How many children do you need me to take home?"

After being assured that adopting a school simply meant helping students, the 66-year-old businessman made it a crusade. With limited resources, he established a college scholarship fund at the school by sponsoring an annual menudo breakfast and a golf tournament and by collecting thousands of aluminum cans.

In 1988, while struggling to raise money for his cause, Vargas won $5.28 million in the California Lottery and immediately contributed $20,000 of his first annual post-taxes check of $190,000 to the foundation.

"I think when people told me I couldn't do it, it gave me more motivation," said Vargas, who has raised $70,000 and will award the first 15 scholarships this summer. "It's one of the best things that has ever happened to me to see the kids get this."

Vargas is one of 1,000 individuals and businesses now participating in the Los Angeles Unified School District's Adopt-a-School program, which is designed to increase community involvement in a school system that is both broke and suffering from a lack of public confidence. Along with contributing $15 million over the past 15 years, Adopt-a-School participants mentor students, sponsor attendance programs and participate in many other educational projects at 700 of the district's 855 schools.

Before last year's riots, district officials said they were lucky to receive three calls a week from businesses and residents inquiring about how they could get involved in the schools. Since the riots, the district has averaged two calls a day.

"After the riots, we got a lot of apologetic calls from people who said, 'Education is the key. We want to do something,' " said Eiko Moriyama, an adviser in the district's Adopt-a-School office who has helped organize 200 new partnerships since the riots.

"The trend has been companies looking for inner-city schools, but we've had trouble making adoptions in the inner-city because there's not a lot of big businesses there. It's not always convenient for companies to send employees there."

While critics credit Adopt-a-School with introducing businesses to the schools, they say companies should take the relationship further and tackle some of the district's more complicated financial and educational problems. They say businesses should lobby on the district's behalf, and offer administrators advice on how to run the schools more efficiently.

But others say business involvement should focus on the children.

"It's not things but people we need," said Alvis Andrews, principal of Grape Street Elementary School in Watts. "We live in an environment where self-esteem is low, and when people from the community come here, it validates the youngsters' self-worth. They feel like someone out there thinks they're important."

Los Angeles' Adopt-a-School program, the largest in the country, grew from a partnership initiated by the Atlantic Richfield Co. with the 10th Street Elementary School in 1978. Since then, hundreds of new participants have come on board, contributing an average of $28,000 per company, according to a 1989 Adopt-a-School survey.

On a recent afternoon, Arco's Jim McCreary, a corporate real estate manager, sat in a conference room on the 49th floor of the Downtown Arco building while Angel Pantaleon, a junior at Manual Arts High School, worked on an algebra problem. Most employees had gone home for the day, but McCreary stayed into the evening making sure Pantaleon mastered his math lesson.

"When I first came (to Arco), I was shy and did not feel comfortable," said Pantaleon, whose math average has jumped from a D to a B over the past two months. "But after we started to do math, we became like friends. I feel like I'm doing better in math because I understand it more and I'm getting more attention."

McCreary is one of 80 Arco employees participating in a Joint Education Project with Manual Arts, Berendo Middle School and 10th Street and Hoover Street elementary schools. Along with allowing employees to spend two hours a week working with students, Arco provides transportation to and from the schools.

"The company makes it so easy for you to do it that there's no reason not to do it," said financial consultant Joanne Cech, who has mentored students for the past decade. "Especially after the riots, we all felt so helpless. This is just a little thing we can do."

It's difficult for Cech to talk about the program without bringing up her experiences working with Angela Salcedo, now a freshman at UC Riverside.

While tutoring Salcedo as a fifth-grader, Cech encouraged the girl to take a test that would qualify her for the district's gifted and talented program. Salcedo passed the test and immediately switched into advanced classes.

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