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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Program Enlists Youths to Help With Census

Outreach: Students are given prizes if they return parents' forms. Some class lessons focus on the nationwide count as well.

March 31, 2000|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Continuing their campaign to raise awareness about the census, local workers are visiting Ventura County schools and appealing to kids' sensibilities.

Bring back your parents' census form and get a prize: a pencil, lunch bag or water bottle. Get your whole class to turn in forms, and you may get the best prize of all: a classroom pizza party.

Through an aggressive outreach program called "Census in Schools," local officials are enlisting children to persuade their parents to stand up and be counted.

Since the beginning of the year, census workers have held schoolwide assemblies, given speeches in classrooms and handed out curriculum guides to help teachers craft lessons on the subject. Now, they are helping parents fill out forms at school.

"We're bringing this information to the kids, and we hope they'll bring it to their parents," said Guadalupe Carrasco, census outreach specialist for Ventura County schools. "Sometimes the kids are the only ones who've heard about the census."

The campus outreach is part of a nationwide effort to prevent an undercount of low-income and immigrant parents, many of whom do not know what the census is or how it can help schools in their community.

The data are used to determine where schools will be built and how to allocate more than $180 billion in federal funds. The money pays to reduce class sizes, promote drug-free campuses and train teachers. Funds also go toward Title I programs that support low-income schools.

In 1990, the U.S. census did not account for about 800,000 California residents--half of whom were children. As a result, California lost an estimated $2.2 billion in federal funds. Census workers hope to get a more accurate count this year by reaching out to traditionally undercounted groups: the homeless, farm workers and children.

Census in Schools coordinators targeted 1 million classrooms throughout the nation--about 40% of all schools. Local districts that participated include Fillmore Unified, Ventura Unified, Oxnard Elementary, Oceanview Elementary and Rio Elementary.

El Rio Elementary School Principal Orvel Jones said he believes students' awareness will allay parents' fears. The information gathered by the census is confidential and is not shared among government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service or the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"We need to make parents aware that the census is safe and nonthreatening," Jones said. "If they hear it from their kids, they are not afraid to fill out their census forms."

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At the beginning of the year, the Census Bureau provided an information letter and promotional materials for parents, as well as maps and curriculum guides for teachers.

The teaching materials included lesson plans--for kindergarten through 12th grade--on reading maps, graphing data and community planning. There were also guides on the history of the census and how the data are used to determine legislative districts.

In one lesson, seventh-graders analyze population density and population shifts. In another, third-graders take a survey of how their classmates travel to school, and plot the information with a pictograph--using images to convey the results.

Michelle Townsley, a fourth-grade teacher at El Rio, has taught social studies and math lessons using the census materials. The census is a real life lesson in civics, Townsley said.

Children learn that the federal census is different from the five senses. And they learn why the census is important.

"They count the population of the United States, so everybody has a place to stay so they're not living on the streets," said Cesley Tafoya, 9, one of Townsley's students.

"The census is so we can have better schools and better playgrounds," said classmate Lizeth Ojeda, 9.

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On a recent morning, bilingual outreach workers sat in front of Driffill Elementary School in Oxnard and helped parents complete their forms. Colorful balloons were tied to nearby trees, and baskets of prizes sat on the table.

Elaine Martinez pulled her van up to the school, and her 9-year-old son, Michael, jumped out to turn in the family's questionnaire. He walked back to the car with a handful of prizes.

Martinez said she had planned to fill out her questionnaire eventually, but Michael urged her to do it quickly.

"The majority of people will throw the forms away," she said. "Kids pressure the parents to turn them in because they want to win prizes."

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