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Education Is Youth's Legacy to a Community : Education: The Rogelio Flores Foundation helps Boyle Heights students' improve their math scores.

August 06, 1995|IAN JAMES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A group of friends were sitting in the bed of a pickup on a Boyle Heights street corner one night in April when a car with tinted windows rolled by. A passenger opened fire, and the teen-agers fled.

All escaped the bullets, except 17-year-old Rogelio Flores. He was shot from behind as he jumped from the open tailgate. As he bled, members of his "party crew" heard him say: "Don't let me die."

Later that night he died at White Memorial Hospital. But if it's true that people who are remembered live on, then in a way the plea of Rogelio Flores was answered.

His brother Martin Flores has established a foundation in his name to try to reverse the cycle that leads too many Eastside boys to drop out of school, become involved in gangs and perhaps even pull the trigger on someone else's little brother.

"To this day, we don't know who did that shooting," Flores said. But if the shooter had received a little more attention at home and school, Flores said, maybe he wouldn't have dropped out and become a killer. "He might not have understood something as simple as math."

That's why the Rogelio Flores Foundation is tutoring 80 elementary school students in mathematics this summer. Participants gather at Sunrise Elementary School four afternoons a week for the Si Se Puede! Tutorial Program, which gives personal guidance to second- through sixth-grade students who score below average in math on the California Test of Basic Skills. The program is unaffiliated with Sunrise Elementary, but the school provides two classrooms for the tutorials.

The children put their pencils to paper in clusters of four or five with high-school and college-age teachers who guide them with a small erasable board and a grease pen.

"They may need someone to just explain it differently," said Flores, looking out over a classroom of remarkably focused children.

The 22-year-old former varsity football nose guard at Roosevelt High School said about half of the young teachers knew Rogelio--or Roger, as they used to call him--and asked to help. The foundation's 20 staff members also receive $800 for the six-week session this summer through a youth employment program of the city's Community Development Department.

Flores hopes to expand the tutoring program to 40 staff members, with the help of work-study funds from USC and UCLA. Flores estimates that the teachers--all of whom go through a weeklong training program before the start of each session--will teach at least 120 students next fall at the Boyle Heights school.

After his brother's death last spring, Flores left UC Berkeley, where he was a premed and Chicano studies major. He returned to be with his parents and seven other siblings, to grieve and to find some way to respond to the tragedy. He has remained in Southern California as a student at UCLA this year to guide the group through its initial stages.

In the fall, Flores will return to Berkeley to finish his last semester, but he says his dedication will continue. He plans to start a similar program in Berkeley, and the foundation will continue its work under the direction of friends while he is away.

Flores now carries a mobile phone to organize and coordinate the group's activities, which also include community beautification and fund raising. Carwashes, breakfasts and local charities have supplied about $11,000 during the foundation's first year. Most recently, Flores enlisted students to help raise money by selling candy apples.

The money is also used for a project Flores calls La Belleza Del Barrio, in which adult artists work with taggers recruited from Boyle Heights high schools to adorn stark walls and freeway overpasses with murals depicting figures ranging from the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl to the Virgin Mary. The group has completed seven murals, and Flores says the images do more than beautify the barrio.

"We want to educate people about our history, our culture," Flores said.

The foundation's staff members recently traveled to the Central Valley to learn about the struggles of migrant Latino fieldworkers and help build a plaza in memory of Cesar Chavez in La Paz.

Two pictures of Chavez hang on the walls of a bedroom in the Flores home, which has been converted into the foundation's command center. The room is stocked with computers and a fax machine that were purchased in January, as well as family photographs ranging from Rogelio's Little League portrait to his funeral procession.

Flores remembers the hundreds of people who walked together in the funeral procession from Garcia Park to Resurrection Catholic Church and the many friends who laid poems and letters in the open casket.

In memory of Rogelio, who used to be involved with his church youth group and liked to write streetwise poetry, Flores works constantly, even in baking-hot classrooms during the summer.

At the end of a recent school day, he sent one boy home with a pat on the head and a few Spanish words in remembrance of his brother: "Do your homework."

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