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THE GIFT OF TIME / VOLUNTEERS IN ORANGE COUNTY

After-school Special

Every Thursday, O.C. Superior Court Judge Frances Munoz tutors students at Santa Ana's Madison Elementary. She organized the tutorial program in an effort to help kids with homework and to show them that someone cares.

October 06, 1998|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The slender, dark-haired woman sat elbow-to-elbow with a handful of Latino youngsters at Santa Ana's Madison Elementary School, patiently helping them with their homework as she has most every Thursday evening for nine years.

They didn't seem to mind having their grammar corrected ever so gently by the elegant, well-spoken tutor, who looked more "like a contessa" than a judge in her tailored tan suit, according to Madison principal Marti Baker.

But Superior Court Judge Frances Munoz was all business as she handed out an article describing how to write a research paper. When she heard several of the students talk about their struggles with science projects, she recommended a trip to the public library.

Munoz asked if their parents could help them with their projects. "My parents don't speak English," one girl responded. "They don't understand science projects."

Munoz knows the answer all too well, which is the reason she trades in her judge's bench for the hard plastic chair in Madison's media center virtually every week after a full day of dealing with miscreants of all stripes in her Newport Beach courtroom.

"If we didn't do this, what would happen to the children?" asked Munoz, one of 11 children born to a Mexican coal miner who immigrated to Colorado, then settled in California.

Madison Elementary, in the heart of a tough Santa Ana neighborhood, is troubled by gangs and crime, which is one reason Munoz chose it to launch her Extended Education for Excellence program in 1989. To help children in need, particular Latinos, who have a significantly higher-than-average dropout rate, she wanted to create a one-hour program.

Each week, she and four or five other adults tutor about 50 students. The program is aimed at elementary school children, but Munoz lets some who have moved on to junior high school continue their Thursday sessions.

All the volunteers do more than help the students with their homework once a week. They've taken the kids to local museums, to tide pools in Dana Point, to an Anaheim Angels game and a symphony concert at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Every December, the tutors stage a Christmas party with small presents for all of the children and food donated by Taco Bell.

"These students don't have all of the opportunities the average child has," Munoz explained. "We try to make up for that. We do things they normally don't do."

At least once a year, the judge brings the students to her courtroom, where she stages a mock trial of Goldilocks. The children assume the roles of the jury members, lawyers, witnesses, wronged bears and the accused.

"They always find poor Goldilocks guilty," she said.

Watching the tutors in action, it's clear that everyone--even the stately judge--is having fun.

"Judge! Judge!" the four girls and one boy exclaimed excitedly, each vying for her attention.

Before the hour was up, the students recounted one of their favorite adventures, when the judge took them to tide pools in Dana Point and Munoz got knocked over by a wave.

"You know, I really don't remember that. Are you sure that happened?" said the Corona del Mar resident.

They are sure.

"She can remember everything but that," one girl said knowingly.

The judge laughed.

"Do you see why I come every Thursday? I'd miss them if I didn't," she said.

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Hers is not a formal tutoring program that follows specific learning requirements or keeps records of students' progress. The tutors take a more relaxed approach, working with kids on educational trouble spots, but also devoting part of every session to crafts or games.

"The students are a little rowdy, so we try to make it fun," Munoz said, as three girls in her group proudly demonstrated the splits they've been practicing for an upcoming cheerleader competition.

"They sense the tutors are here because they really like them and their self-esteem goes up, and that transfers to their grades. What's most important is that somebody cares," she said.

One sign that the program is working: Volunteers have seen many students go from failing in school to making good grades.

"It helps me do my work," said Lauro Nevarec, a sixth-grader who has turned his Cs into A's and Bs. "And we learn not to say bad words."

The program provides an escape from possible pressures at home and a refuge from the gangs on the streets.

"One boy had all the earmarks of getting involved in gangs, and when I see him now I can't imagine it," Munoz said. "We had to kick him out of the program several times, but he kept coming back."

His tutor, Joyce Appleby, figured the boy's disruptive behavior was due to an excess of energy, which she channeled into art.

"Now he thinks he's an artist," Munoz said. "He was getting Fs, and now he gets A's and Bs."

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