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Making Time for the Children at School

Mercedes Amaral proudly wears a pin on her lapel that identifies her as a PTA president at Santa Ana’s Franklin Elementary School.

For Amaral, the junior high school dropout and native of Mexico who barely speaks English, the title is one that makes her beam.

And for the Santa Ana Unified School District, where many schools do not even have a parent-teacher group, her hours of volunteer work are not only rare but invaluable. She was recently recognized by the school board for her work with the school and its children.

Amaral, the mother of 11-year-old Rosario and 8-year-old Nel, both students at Franklin, said she used to be like many other parents in her neighborhood.

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“With my oldest daughter, I used to come to the school only to drop her off, and to pick her up,” she said.

But then Lupe O’Leary came along. O’Leary, principal of the school and herself a Latina, brought a new concept to the campus, Amaral said. “The first thing she did was to open the doors of the schools to the parents,” she said.

Most children in the school are Latinos, many the children of recent immigrants and many of them of meager means. For whatever reason, these parents seldom took an active part in school activities. That is, until O’Leary put forth the invitation, and Amaral, for one, took advantage of it.

“She always wanted to include us, to let us know what the teachers were doing, she wanted us to have Cinco de Mayo festivals and other school events,” Amaral said. “She made us feel better about being here.”

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Amaral began by volunteering, helping kindergartners or first-graders make cutouts, photocopying papers for teachers, reading to the youngsters. Soon, she was spending five to six hours a day at the school.

She became engrossed in everything. She ran a Girl Scouts chapter, bought shoes for poor children at the school and helped parents with their applications for legal immigrant status.

Through it all, she was also exposed to the world her daughters were living in--the new math, their teachers, the pressures of the streets that held out the temptations of drugs and gangs.

When Amaral was a girl, her mother sent her from Mexicali to Orange County to live with an aunt and have a better life. A few years later, her mother grew ill and Amaral returned to Mexico, dropping out during junior high school. She returned in 1977, and soon after, met her husband, who works as a construction laborer.

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“I tell my girls, ‘I did not have the opportunity to study more, but if I can see that you make a better life for yourselves, I will do whatever I can,’ ” Amaral said.

She said she wants them to graduate from high school, and has even started a savings account so they can go to college.

And, Amaral said, she will be there as often as she can for the children of other people, too.

“There are families who are extremely poor in this neighborhood. But I tell the parents, don’t worry, I have time, I will help them,” she said. “It makes me feel good.”

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