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The shock tour for teachers: seeing where students live

March 26, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

Just a mile down the road from Duroville sits Las Palmitas Elementary School, the poorest in Riverside County.

Teachers here start from the ground up, undergoing special training to deal with extreme poverty.

It begins with a bus ride to the trailer parks where nearly all of the school's 870 students live, a trip that rarely fails to stun staffers.

"I was shocked, and I grew up in Watts," said teacher Josifina McTavish. "I have been to India, North Africa and South America, and I was shocked to find that kind of poverty here."

Her smiling fifth-graders, some wearing layers of dirty clothes, describe a life of routine deprivation. Omar tells of sharing a two-bedroom trailer with nine others and sleeping on the floor. And there is Luis, who wears his coat and gloves to bed each night in a toolshed. He even wears the gloves in class so not to lose them.

"In private schools you give hours and hours of homework, and it gets done," McTavish said. "In Duroville the other night, the lights went out, so we won't get any homework."

Many students have no English skills, and nearly 100% qualify for free lunches. Teachers often buy them books and clothes, though they are urged not to by district officials.

Las Palmitas shares a food and clothing bank with Desert Mirage High School and distributes flashlights so students can navigate the unlighted parks at night.

When it rains and the parks' dirt roads liquefy, pupils arrive in class with mud up to their hips.

"These are my favorite kids," said Shannon Rodriguez, who previously taught in Long Beach. "They are respectful, hard workers."

Marcie Rivera is the principal. She makes no excuses for her students but knows they face hurdles most cannot imagine.

"Everyone has a sad story," she said, her voice breaking. "But my kids have it day in and day out."

Rivera routinely visits Duroville to check on the welfare of students and their families.

On a recent trip, she marched down a dirt road, her crisp, blue suit getting dustier by the step. She spotted Maria Gonzalez, a small woman with a bright-eyed son at school, emerging from a trailer.

At 34, Gonzalez is already a grandmother with a lifetime of weariness etched on her face. "My husband left me, and I don't think I can afford to move anywhere else," she said.

Gonzalez's trailer was surrounded by a chain-link fence. A torn, green tarp hung from the front, and a few broken Christmas lights had been strung up.

Rivera promised to get food for her family. Gonzalez clasped the principal's hands tightly and thanked her.

Rivera walked off.

"So what do you say? Do these people have below-average intelligence because they live here? Do we say that about people who live in the Third World? These children should have the same chance as any child -- to start at the beginning," Rivera said.

"Whatever they have gone through, they have gone through enough."

david.kelly@latimes.com

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