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IN THE CLASSROOM

One-Stop Schooling and Help for the Poor

A Garden Grove center is part of a trend in serving parents as well as kids. It's a form of cultural catch-up.

October 01, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

While 4-year-old Azucena Cruz learns to be a student at a Garden Grove preschool, her father is in an adjacent classroom learning to be a better parent.

The little girl's lessons focus on numbers and colors. Factory worker Javier Cruz's classes, in the same cluster of green-and-white portable buildings, cover English and child nutrition, along with U.S. history in preparation for the citizenship exam.

Azucena's two older siblings walk to the center after school for tutoring, and the entire family uses the on-site library, computer lab and mobile health clinic.

The Clinton Corner Family Campus opened in September as one of a growing number of one-stop centers in low-income communities that blends social services with traditional classroom learning. Members of some of the dozens of families who use the center's services said the education will help improve their lives.

"We all need to learn, so we can achieve our goals," said Cruz, 36, who works the night shift and spends time at the center with his children while his wife works days. "Not just my daughter, not just me, but all of the families in this area need more opportunities for a better future."

It cost nearly $2 million to get the center started, including $1.5 million of adult education money from the state, and other funds from tobacco taxes, corporate donations and state preschool allocations. It will be mainly supported by state reimbursement for daily attendance.

The family campus, in a tidy neighborhood of houses and strip malls in eastern Garden Grove, serves families from four Garden Grove Unified School District elementary schools, including Clinton-Mendenhall, where the facility is located.

At those campuses, nearly 80% of children come from poor families. The same percentage are English learners, mostly Spanish or Vietnamese speakers.

Preparing very young children for school should be a priority, and combining several complementary services in one place is more powerful than simply opening site-by-site preschools, said Debbie Youngblood, the district's director of categorical services.

"Giving children a step up needs to involve the whole family for it to work as well as possible," Youngblood said. "When both parents and children are excited about school and what it offers, it really evens the playing field for underserved, impacted neighborhoods."

Dozens of centers offering services similar to the one in Garden Grove are scattered throughout the state, although only a few others offer its range and depth of programs, education officials said. Among those that do are the Lennox and Lawndale school readiness centers in southwest Los Angeles County, they said.

A connection between the Garden Grove center and the Boys & Girls Club sets it apart from other centers that provide similar services, said Michael Ruane, executive director of the Orange County Children and Families Commission. The club offers tutoring and after-school day care at the Clinton campus.

Services can reach families more effectively when they're in one location, and not just because such one-stop centers are convenient, Ruane said.

"Everyone is on the same team with the same goal: making life better for families, from the youngest child to the parents," he said.

School districts with such centers in the area soon will see the dividends in student achievement, he said. Officials at the Garden Grove center agreed. Last year, a free eight-week preschool class was offered, and kindergarten teachers told them they already have noticed how much more prepared those children are for school.

This year, nearly 200 children are enrolled in the preschool, and dozens more are in child care while nearly as many parents take the adult education classes in the adjacent portables. Eventually, said District Adult Education Director Jim DeLong, those classes will be expanded to include high school diploma courses and more complex computer training, although there are no plans to build permanent structures for the campus.

All programs are free, although some require parents to volunteer in the classrooms two mornings per month.

Each morning, Cruz, 36, drops off Azucena, nicknamed Suzy, at preschool. Then he's off to his own class: either intermediate English or a weekly citizenship seminar, where a recent lesson covered Christopher Columbus' voyage to America.

When preschool ends at 11 a.m., he and other parents with children in the classes pick them up and take them to the adult education classrooms. There, for another hour, teachers and parent volunteers work with the youngsters on learning colors, numbers and letters as the other adults continue their own learning.

Cruz's two older kids, 10-year-old Ivan and 7-year-old Jazmin, have their own options. They walk over from their elementary school to be tutored at the Boys & Girls Club.

Cruz said improving his English and learning computer skills will open doors for his career that he never would have dreamed possible otherwise.

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