SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO : Youths Get Payoff for Graduating

Stung by growing violence in their community, a group of volunteers involved with an educational tutoring center is planning a novel inducement to keep children in school: Finish high school and receive a $1,000 scholarship.

"It's a program to dangle a $1,000 carrot in front of some of these children, and we think it would work," said Saul Barajas, 35, a project engineer at Unisys Corp. in Irvine and co-founder of the tutoring project at San Juan Elementary School, where the student enrollment is 65% Latino.

The program would raise at least $10,000 through community fund-raising activities and put it in a trust fund for 10 students, Barajas said. To qualify, children must maintain a C-plus grade-point average in high school, he said.

The project, now in its third year, is the community's answer to sagging academic achievement, including a lack of study skills and poor reading and math abilities because of language barriers and low self-esteem among Latino school-age children, said Catalina D. Senkbeil, the project's co-founder and an English and cross-cultural studies instructor at Saddleback College.

The tutoring effort focuses on Spanish-speaking children and those "at risk" who are struggling with the difficult cultural transition from Spanish to English. Many of the schoolchildren live in overcrowded conditions in neighborhoods plagued with unemployment, poverty, and gangs.

"I started the program to help mainstream our children by having role models assisting to help improve their self-esteem. For the most part, their parents are largely unskilled laborers," Senkbeil said.

Four nights a week from 5:30 to 7 p.m., about 10 volunteer tutors arrive at a bungalow next to the elementary school. They focus on second- and third-grade students but offer help to any student who drops in.

They read, listen to the students read and spend time instructing them in math, English and other subjects. To help raise the children's self-esteem and confidence, hugs and praise are a strong part of the program. Tutoring is often on a one-to-one basis.

Mark Serpa, 36, began as a volunteer tutor in September, 1989. He eventually paved the way for a $4,100 grant over a two-year period, made by his employer, Allied Signal.

"I share with (Barajas) that same feeling, that a lot of these kids need positive role models. I guess it's a battle of vision, whether you want a positive vision to win out in your community," Serpa said.

Another volunteer is Mary Carey of Compton, a single mother raising an 11-year-old daughter.

The teen-age gang problem in her neighborhood claims the lives of young men every weekend. She is a volunteer tutor and hopes to begin a similar program for the black community.

"My personal reason I got involved in this is that I felt that something needed to be done. I wanted to help," Carey said.

For parent Maria Barraza, the calls from teachers to her home about her son's poor schoolwork would always bring fear.

"When the teachers called, I would have to tell them I didn't speak English well. My children were coming home and asking me to help them with their homework, but what could I do?" Barraza said.

In many ways, Barraza typifies part of the problem facing educators. Born poor in Durango, Mexico, she and her family lived in a converted railroad box car and she has had a limited education. While she wants the best for her children, her inability to speak English has made it difficult for her children to be successful in school.

But when Barajas telephoned her home about a year ago, Barraza agreed to bring her son, Jose, 8, to the tutoring project.

"There is a big difference. Now he does his homework, and the teachers no longer call me up to tell me about his problems. He's learned a lot here at the project," she said.

When he began, Jose, then a second-grader, was a problem child. He was misbehaving in school and using foul language.

But Jose is now doing math and reading at his grade level and won a student-of-the-month award this year.

As a bonus, Barraza is beginning to learn English.

"My children, they're now my teachers!" she said.

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