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He's Back--With a Mission

Education: Kennedy Elementary principal knows the Santa Ana neighborhood. After all, he once lived there.

January 28, 2002|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rick Mojarro calls it his "ministry": balancing roles as principal of an overcrowded elementary school and leader of a parents group working to improve the school and neighborhood, one of Santa Ana's poorest.

He is principal at Kennedy Elementary School on East McFadden Avenue, across the street from the Minnie Street apartments, which are among the most densely populated in Orange County.

Mojarro, who lives in Tustin, is also president of the Cornerstone Village Neighborhood Assn., a group of Minnie Street tenants whose children make up a significant number of his students.

For decades, the apartments were cash cows for absentee landowners, who neglected the crumbling buildings crammed mostly with Latino families, many of them undocumented immigrants. The area was a haven for drug traffickers, prostitutes and gang members.

Murders, assaults and drug deals were common. Lawlessness was so rampant on Minnie Street that one landlord voluntarily turned over an apartment to the Santa Ana Police Department, which still uses it for a substation.

When Mojarro, 41, was assigned as Kennedy's principal in 1999, he knew the neighborhood only too well. He had lived on Minnie Street for about two years after his family arrived from Mexico in 1968. His parents and four of their five children were illegal immigrants, Mojarro included.

It was also on Minnie Street that Mojarro's brother was shot and wounded in a misunderstanding over a parked truck eight years ago while he was dropping off an employee of his landscaping business.

After graduating from Santa Ana High School, Mojarro attended college, earning a master's degree and teaching credentials. He then traveled the world, teaching in private schools in Kenya, Germany and Spain.

Eventually, he returned to teach math at his old high school. He was vice principal at another elementary school when he was tapped as the principal for Kennedy in March 1999.

It seemed that Mojarro's life had turned 360 degrees.

"This is a ministry for me. I'm embracing the opportunity God gave me by putting me back where I started," he said. "I'm trying to make the most of it. It's my turn to give back to the children and parents what my parents gave to me: an opportunity to succeed and better their lives."

Low Test Scores and an Exodus of Teachers

It was a daunting task at the start. The school's API score at the time was 393, the lowest in the district, Mojarro said.

In 1999, nearly all of his teachers and staff resigned, forcing Mojarro to hire a new staff for the 1999-2000 school year. He also started that year with 17 substitute teachers.

In a school where practically all of the students are learning English as a second language and where some Mixtec children do not even speak Spanish but an Indian dialect, optimism was in short supply. Nevertheless, Mojarro's job was to improve test scores.

"It's an impossible task as far as what the politicians want me to do. It takes time. You don't learn a language as readily as you do a skill. Some of these Indian kids come from rural areas and had no schooling until they arrived on Minnie Street," he said.

"It's a challenge, but somebody has to take these kids. We take them and work with them. Our success is beginning to show."

API scores confirm Mojarro's assessment. Results released in October show the campus' score jumped to 486.

"I credit my incredibly hard-working staff and the kids' parents. It's a proven fact that when you get parents involved, test scores improve," Mojarro said.

Indeed, on a recent Wednesday night, three teachers were wrapping up their day at 8 p.m., while a group of about 140 parents and kids were jammed into a campus meeting room with a designated capacity of 92 persons.

The parents' meeting with Mojarro began at 6 p.m. and was conducted in Spanish. It segued from classroom issues to the need for a traffic light on McFadden Avenue and a discussion about rents.

At 7 p.m., a few city officials and four businessmen in suits arrived, summoned by the Cornerstone Village Neighborhood Assn. to explain the ongoing renovation of the Minnie Street apartments and hear concerns about rent increases.

Mojarro played a key role in organizing the association about three years ago. The group lobbied the city to approve an $8.1-million bond offering to renovate 527 apartments on Minnie Street that are home to about 3,500 people.

Santa Ana schools Supt. Al Mijares praised Mojarro's leadership role in the Cornerstone Village Neighborhood Assn.

"We encourage our principals to embrace the community. It's the only way they can do their job effectively. You have to be involved around the clock, not just in school," he said.

Santa Ana Police Officer Ernie Conde, who has patrolled the Minnie Street area for seven years, credits Mojarro and the association with lowering the crime rate and improving tenants' quality of life.

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