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Parents Turn Building Into Environment for Learning

Times Staff Writer

Maria Ruvalcaba believes in a good education for her children. But as a working mother raising a family in San Ysidro, that belief has often been hard to put into action, especially after her oldest son, Miguel, dropped out of high school temporarily a couple of years back.

So despite her minimal free time, Ruvalcaba said yes to Frank and Margarita Vargas, who also live in her 400-unit Villa Nueva apartment complex, when they approached her almost two years ago for help in motivating the project’s many children to study harder and consider college.

“A lot of kids here don’t have enough space (in the apartments) to study, and many parents don’t have a high level of education to be able to help with homework,” Ruvalcaba said in explaining why she joined with other adults recruited by the Vargases. “The kids need a place to study, to have people they can ask questions of on homework.”

Special Study Lounge

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Today, the parents of Villa Nueva can point proudly to a special study lounge--nicely carpeted and with tables, chairs, a computer and wall maps--set up in the complex’s community center as a result of numerous fund-raisers and volunteer work.

Their group, the Pro-Education Coalition, has established ties with local school administrators and San Diego State University students and officials who provide tutors, equipment and counseling for the children, both to improve their secondary school performance and to cajole them into thinking about higher education.

And on June 30, the parents announced their first scholarships, presenting $150 awards to eight students at a banquet. Among the recipients was Miguel Ruvalcaba, who, after returning to high school, graduated last month and will attend Southwestern College in September.

“This is a terrific project and it has really blossomed,” said George Hutchinson, San Diego State director of student outreach, a department whose programs encourage minority students to go to college. “The fact that parents and students have organized where they live makes a big difference . . . and by us setting up shop in the complex rather than just doing it at a school, it is a real expansion of traditional outreach.”

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South Bay Meeting

Hutchinson learned of Villa Nueva’s efforts by chance during a meeting with educators in the South Bay over how to reach more students.

“It impressed me that San Diego State came to us, responding to the initiative of the parents,” said Father John Blethen, director of social services at Villa Nueva. (The 19-year-old complex is owned and operated by the Catholic Augustinian order, which also operates St. Augustine High School in San Diego.)

“We’ve been delighted to see the grass-roots activity of the parents. . . . The successes, while perhaps still small, result from their own work and enthusiasm, and not from anyone patronizing them.”

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John Gugerty, principal of San Ysidro Middle School, which is attended by almost all of the junior-high students in Villa Nueva, said the idea of taking outreach to the complex makes it easier to involve parents. Too often, parents fail to come to school-based programs, partly because many work during school hours and partly because many--especially those new to the United States--feel intimidated, he said.

“San Diego State has made a major commitment to work in the community with its people,” Gugerty said, “whereas so often you have people come in and come out, who you can’t get hold of a week later for follow-up information or to be available later to talk with parents.”

Both Gugerty and the parents reserve special praise for Ernesto Corrales, a San Ysidro-born graduate of San Diego State who now works as a counselor at the community’s mental health clinic. Corrales lived at Villa Nueva when it was built, and he graduated from nearby Southwest High School.

Corrales has arranged for regular tutors, works with parents on new programs such as summer field trips and spends a lot of time buttonholing students with information about how they can attend college.

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“He really talks to us about education,” said Pancho Salazar, a Villa Nueva resident entering his senior year at Mar Vista High School, who concedes that he has been less than enthusiastic at times about school. “He’s shown me all the courses in auto mechanics I can take at Southwestern, and even took me there to visit. . . . My parents are telling me, ‘Finish high school!’ ”

‘Energized Our Staff’

“Corrales has energized our staff (at the middle school) as well,” Gugerty said. “Four times a year now, our teachers get together with those at the high school level, they tell us how our graduates have been doing, and we talk about new students we are sending up, doing more than just sending up test scores.

“And to show how the overall relationship has been building, we put together some money, along with Montgomery High, this year for some scholarships to students, one of whom was a former San Ysidro Middle School graduate.”

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But everyone gives the major credit to the cadre of Villa Nueva parents who stuck together in the beginning when things looked bleak.

“We had a number of meetings at the start but there was a lot of apathy,” Frank Vargas said. “A lot of things sound great, but in practice they are very, very hard to carry out.”

About 10 parents stayed active, Vargas said, and gradually the contacts with San Diego State brought computers, counselors and support for the study room.

“We see peer pressure all the time on kids to do bad, but now we’d like to use some of that pressure for them to do well. . . . That’s part of the reason behind the scholarships,” he said.

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Proven Popular

“I want our young people to be helped, not to lose school but stick with it and maybe someday have something for themselves,” said Fidel Arce, who, along with his wife, Maria, is among the original nucleus of parents who planned dances, food sales and car washes to raise funds.

The study center has proven so popular that its use has been divided into two time periods: a 3:30-to-5 p.m. session for elementary school students and a 5-to-8 p.m. session for secondary and college students.

“My dad has been very active, and I heard about the center through him,” said Imelda Jaramillo, a graduate of Chula Vista High who plans to attend Southwestern this fall, along with her brother Mario.

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Griselda Villa Nueva will be a ninth-grader at Mar Vista High in the fall. Already, she has benefited from being tutored in reading and math by Claudia Alvarez, a San Diego State senior engineering major who also grew up in San Ysidro.

Both Raquel Marquez, a Mar Vista graduate attending Southwestern, and Ricardo Sepulveda, a Montgomery High graduate who will enter San Diego State this fall, have helped younger students at the center.

“The parents asked me to come, and at first I didn’t want to . . . but now I see how much it can help the kids, and at 3:30 they are at the door, waiting for us to open the room,” Marquez said.

Breaking Stereotypes

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Sepulveda said the parents have spurred San Ysidro students like him to motivate each other to graduate and go on to college, a sentiment strongly echoed by Miguel Ruvalcaba.

“I want to break stereotypes,” Ruvalcaba said. “Some of my friends have asked me why I am doing so well now, and maybe my experience can help inspire others. But there are others who don’t want to change too.”

The program is always in need of more tutors. Alvarez has received a part-time job at TRW in Rancho Bernardo and will be leaving the program soon. Many children still are hesitant to use the study room, Corrales said, because they do not believe deep down that education will benefit them.

“Some still think they can drop out and still get a decent living by working in construction,” Corrales said. “They don’t yet understand the benefits overall to having a good education.”

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Nevertheless, Father Blethen is optimistic. “When we opened Villa Nueva, only three or four kids went beyond high school at all, just a handful. Now the numbers have grown tremendously.”

Hutchinson said that San Diego State is considering requests from other housing projects in San Ysidro and Southeast San Diego for assistance similar to that given Villa Nueva. Ruvalcaba said students from other apartment complexes occasionally come to Villa Nueva’s study center for tutoring.

“I want to create a network to help anyone with the willingness to do what the parents are doing there,” Hutchinson said.


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