PACOIMA — It began with a 10-year-old child expelled from school for ditching.
When school officials turned down the frantic mother's pleas for another chance, she knew where to turn for help.
At the Family Center on campus, she told her story to a parent advocate who agreed to intercede. The deal he made was that to get back in school, her son would have to take counseling and she would have to join a parenting class.
In the sessions that followed, other tensions surfaced. The woman's 16-year-old daughter was abusing her own 2-year-old. And a disciplinarian father was demoralizing his two sons, contributing to their problems in school.
Now, the daughter is in parenting classes, too, and has started working part time at the family center. The father and mother are receiving counseling. The boy is doing better in school.
This fantastic-sounding story happened at Vaughn Street Elementary School. It is a prime example arising from an experiment there to show that the delivery of comprehensive health and social services through a school-based program can improve students' performance and even lift a community up by its own bootstraps.
The Vaughn Family Center is a one-stop resource for the predominantly Latino and poor families whose children attend Vaughn.
Occupying a two-room bungalow on campus, the center distributes food and clothing, connects children and parents to benefits such as Medi-Cal and welfare, enlists the help of other community agencies for child care and health care and involves parents in helping their children in school.
If the services parents need don't exist, the Family Center tries to create them, using resources at hand, including the parents. When the center opened, there were no licensed day-care providers in the Vaughn attendance area. So the center formed a partnership with the Child Care Resources Center to train families how to set up day care in their homes. So far 20 families have been licensed, providing 102 new spaces for Vaughn families. A new training session is held every two months.
Other Vaughn parents worked with a health educator from Olive View Medical Center to develop a curriculum for prenatal care. Now parents are being trained as lay health educators to teach pregnant women in the community.
The hope is that this focused investment in one of the Valley's most poverty-impacted schools will break cycles of failure, saving money in the future.
"We're experimenting with different ways of getting services to people much earlier and using a lot more paraprofessionals and community volunteers," said Dorothy Fleisher, planning director of United Way's North Angeles Region, which co-sponsors the Family Center. "If we're successful, it should cut costs at the other end: dropout rates, being unemployed, winding up on AFDC (Aid for Families With Dependent Children), the cost of being in jail."
The Vaughn experiment was born three years ago out of a collaboration of United Way's North Angeles Region and the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a business alliance that channels private donations into educational reform. Both agencies were independently exploring the problem of social barriers to education. They decided to start a model project.
Vaughn offered the perfect laboratory. It had the worst test scores in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was one of California's 64 lowest-achieving schools, ranking in the 20th percentile statewide in language achievement.
Its educational deficiencies reflected social conditions of the school community. Ninety-six percent of Vaughn students were eligible for the federally subsidized free lunch program and, therefore, were considered to be eligible for Medi-Cal. Yet few had signed up. Nearly 80% of them suffered acute dental problems. Nearly 90% were Spanish speaking with English-language deficiencies.
A more positive factor in the choice of Vaughn was its new principal, Yvonne Chan. Assigned in May, 1990, she quickly established herself as a high-energy, media-savvy administrator who wanted to make the school a model for educational change.
Chan lobbied aggressively to bring the program to Vaughn, assuaging teachers' fears that it would drain resources from the classroom or dilute their authority.
The program got off the ground in 1991 with a funding package that included a $160,000 planning grant from United Way, $200,000 from the California Department of Education and grants from several corporations.
A governance system was established in which parents joined school staff and representatives from United Way and the educational partnership in hiring as director Yoland Trevino, formerly director of Bienvenidos, a shelter for infants and toddlers who are court dependents.
Relations between the Family Center and the school have evolved with some rough spots, Chan said. Early on, she set up meetings between the social workers and teachers to smooth out differences in their viewpoints. Still, there were conflicts.