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Where Giving Is in Class by Itself

Capistrano Unified parents raise $1 million to save smaller class sizes and 50 teachers.

August 27, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

A month ago, when she was sure that state budget cuts had brought her teaching career to a standstill, Yolanda Rosenberg applied for unemployment.

Today, though, Rosenberg is not only due back in her classroom at Canyon Vista Elementary in Aliso Viejo, but is expecting to be happily handing out nametags and crayons to just 20 third-graders instead of a more difficult-to-manage 30 or more.

A parent-driven flurry of campus fund-raisers this summer generated $1 million to save the smaller third-grade class sizes -- and the jobs of 50 teachers -- after state budget cuts led Capistrano Unified School District trustees to eliminate them. Money came from lemonade stands, door-to-door appeals, auctions and, most unexpectedly, from a Middle Eastern sheik.

Canyon Vista and two other new elementary schools, which open today along with other Capistrano Unified campuses, faced a special fund-raising challenge because there was no existing parent group to tap for financial support.

"It speaks well for these parents' commitment to education that they were willing to do this before the school even opened," said Margi Williams, one of the other two Canyon Vista third-grade teachers.

Having only 20 students instead of 30 or more makes it easier for teachers to manage a classroom and spot learning issues before they've gone unnoticed too long, Williams said. Group lessons, such as the geography and writing exercises that teacher Stephanie Wilcox has planned for her students, work better when there are fewer children, she said.

"With bigger classes, it's 10 more report cards, 10 more [sets of] papers to grade and 10 more children to worry about," Wilcox said. "You can still do it, of course, but it's much more effective when you have fewer students."

In addition to being better able to monitor student learning, Rosenberg is thankful she has a job at all. "Those wonderful parents saved my job and so many others," she said. "I was so relieved when I heard."

When Christine Wisener, who organized the Canyon Vista fund-raising effort along with fellow parent Roselyn Smith, first heard about the fund-raising drives sweeping the district's 33 elementary schools, she assumed her school was exempt because it was new.

After realizing that they too had to raise the money in order to have three classes instead of two for their 60 third-graders, they panicked -- then mobilized to spread the word to every home within the school's boundaries.

Relying almost entirely on door-to-door fliers, they collected $20,000 in donations in two weeks.

"We worked really hard, really fast," Wisener said. "We just weren't going to let it fail."

At some other district schools, parents worried they wouldn't be able to meet goals of $40,000 for existing campuses and $20,000 for new ones. In mid-July, the district announced that 23 campuses had met their targets and five others augmented what they had raised with state financial rewards given to schools with improved test scores. Eight others used federal funds they receive because they serve large numbers of children from poor families.

Parents acknowledged that the fund-raisers wouldn't have succeeded in a district with fewer affluent families willing to donate. But they added that creativity and hard work, rather than merely waiting for families to give big bucks, were key in raising the money.

At one campus, a parent anonymously donated a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle to auction off, and at another, more than $500 was raised by auctioning a preferred school parking space on EBay.

But that's nothing compared with Las Flores Elementary in Rancho Santa Margarita, which received a $15,000 donation from United Arab Emirates President Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan after he heard about the campus' plight from a student's grandmother traveling overseas.

District officials hesitated in accepting the sheik's gift after learning of his ties to the Zayed Center, an organization that sponsors speeches by some who are labeled anti-Semitic, including those who deny that the Holocaust occurred. The district eventually allowed the parents to decide whether to accept the money, which they chose to do.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) and the State Department found no reason parents should return the donation, said Jennifer Timm, the Las Flores parents' fund-raising chief.

Wilcox and the other teachers said they feel sheepish that parents have had to do so much, because more fund-raising is likely. With $22 million cut from the district's $300-million budget, teachers still need parents' help in buying paper, glue and other basic supplies.

"I almost feel guilty the parents had to do this," Wilcox said. "It really makes me nervous to think about asking for more."

Rosenberg, the teacher returned to the classroom through parent donations, is singing their praises.

"There wasn't anyone else," she said, "who could have done so much in so little time."

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