Harlem-inspired Children's Zone envisioned for San Jose's troubled Santee neighborhood

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San Jose Mercury News

By: Sharon Noguchi

February 19, 2010

 

In San Jose's Santee neighborhood, a horrific beating near Kelley Park witnessed by middle school students last year has become this community's enough-is-enough moment: It galvanized leaders to tackle an ambitious vision to inoculate families and children in one of the roughest sections of town against the scourge of poverty and violence.

Next Friday, a year after distraught adults sat down together, they will begin work on the Franklin-McKinley Children's Zone. Beginning with a $200,000 planning grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, representatives of the city, county and 10 agencies hope to begin creating what most Silicon Valley communities take for granted: a safe, fun environment where kids can learn and thrive.

 

It will be patterned after the Harlem Children's Zone, a much-lauded program that has rescued families living amid New York gang violence. With a motto "from cradle to college to community-building," the family-centered program prepares mothers for parenthood, toddlers for school and students for college.

 

Children in the Harlem zone attend charter schools and win national chess championships. Preschoolers learn French or Spanish. Student math achievement has soared high enough to eliminate the achievement gap between New York City's black and white students. President Barack Obama has proposed funding replicas of the Harlem program.

 

San Jose's zone will start with Santee Elementary School's 24-block attendance area, which is rife with gangs, drugs and broken families. It is a mobile population of recent immigrants from Mexico, elsewhere in Latin America and Vietnam.

 

John Porter, superintendent of the Franklin-McKinley School District, envisions the children's zone as a way to offer many of the educational, social and financial services of the 12-year-old Harlem Children's Zone.

 

"I want every 3- and 4-year-old in preschool. I want every mother in Baby College," Porter said. Among the "wraparound services" are classes for parents that begin during pregnancy, microloans for women to start small businesses and before- and after-school programs. Santee School could become a community hub offering recreation, child care -- and a place to gather.

 

Lucy Muñiz is so enthusiastic that she's volunteered to be a "parent ambassador" to involve residents. She'd love to have a community center where her fifth- and seventh-grade children could study or play soccer and volleyball. "It's so easy for the kids to end up on the street," she said.

 

If the pilot project at Santee succeeds, the zone could expand to cover the entire 17-school Franklin-McKinley School District, with some of San Jose's lowest-performing schools, which serves 13,000 students in grades K-8.

 

Sounds pie in the sky? The Harlem program has flourished in an area much tougher than anywhere in San Jose, supporters say. On standardized tests, 93 percent of fifth-graders in the Harlem zone score at a level deemed proficient or higher in English and math. Last year among Franklin-McKinley second- through fifth-graders, 44 percent scored proficient or above in English and 59 percent in math.

 

San Jose already has a head start on problems in Santee. The city has worked for more than a decade to clean up blight, winning a court order against negligent apartment owners, stepping up policing and moving toward building a community center at Santee School. And although Santee and nearby Fair Middle School lag on standardized test scores, Santee has gained 100 points on the state's Academic Performance Index in two years; Fair gained 41 points last year. Fair teachers recently voted to transform their school into a charter to gain more flexibility and take on more responsibility in teaching students.

 

Clearly, achieving these goals will not come cheaply. The 100-block Harlem Children's Zone's budget this year is $100 million.

 

San Jose planners say that rather than creating new services requiring huge new spending, the initiative will begin by coordinating existing efforts by the social workers who oversee foster children, probation officers trying to prevent delinquency, educators who work to keep kids focused and tutors who offer remedial help.

 

And, they say, each agency can apply for grants to fund or expand programs. For instance, the Santa Clara County Office of Education recently won federal funding for more than 100 children in Head Start, said Lisa Kaufman, director of preschool services.

 

By coordinating services and creating the zone, Porter hopes to create a tipping point in expectations of children and families. At the after-school program, "No child will leave without homework being done."

 

The focus on education is critical, said Greg Kepferle, CEO of Catholic Charities, which will direct the children's zone and will seek grants to help fund it.

 

"We're not working on being rescuers of a few," he said. Instead, outreach workers will canvass the neighborhood to survey and enlist all the residents. "You prevent poverty through education."

 

But new facilities could help, too. Guillermina Gutierrez, Santee's principal, said she's hoping to get better outdoor lighting to make the school feel safe and to discourage taggers. She'd love a gym or multipurpose room for recreation.

 

"This is me dreaming, but once we start exploring what parents would like to see," she pauses as if it's almost too much to consider, "it could be a huge benefit to the children."

 

She estimates that of Santee's nearly 500 children, about 300 go home after school, most of them with no supervision.

 

"The kids have lots and lots of potential," she said, but little direction.

 

That reality spurs on Porter. "We're going to do it even with the budget mess," he said, referring to California's historic budget crisis. "Sometimes that's the best time to do things."

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