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Program Gives Healthy Start to Youths With Special Needs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dalia Felix, a fifth-grade student at Oxnard’s Cesar Chavez School, had been a B student for years.

But last week, after receiving a semester’s worth of tutoring in math, reading and writing, Dalia was thrilled to open a report card with straight A’s. “Look what I got, look what I got!” Dalia shouted as she ran to her tutor with the pink piece of paper.

Dalia is one of more than 200 students at three Oxnard schools who has received tutoring through a program dubbed the Healthy Start Initiative.

Overall, nearly 3,000 students at Fremont Intermediate School, and Rose Avenue and Cesar Chavez schools are eligible to receive a range of academic, health and social services through Healthy Start.

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“The goal of the program is to meet the needs of the students and their families related to health, dental and social services,” said Richard Duarte, administrator of curriculum and instruction for the Oxnard Elementary School District.

The program was started in January, 1993, with a $400,000 state grant. Since 1992, California has made such grants available for schools with high numbers of low-income children.

“We selected the schools that historically had the greatest number of students in need of those kind of services,” Duarte said.

In Ventura County, only one other district has such a program--Santa Paula Unified, which operates a Healthy Start program at Webster School.

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During its first year in Oxnard, the program has performed more than 400 physical exams, Duarte said. The number of students having dental emergencies at Cesar Chavez School has decreased 98% since January, 1993, said Linda Butcher, the district nurse.

“One child in pain versus 50 in pain is a tremendous improvement,” Butcher said.

The success of Healthy Start during its first year has been so great that the school board has decided to expand it to two other elementary schools--Norma Harrington and Driffill.

The program works through a referral system in which teachers identify students who need assistance and refer them to the appropriate Healthy Start department.

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Saul Perez, a student at Cesar Chavez, was performing poorly on exams. A teacher referred him to the Healthy Start clinic for a physical. It was discovered that Perez was nearsighted and needed glasses, which were provided free.

“It would have been extremely difficult for us to pay for the eye exam and the glasses,” said Saul’s mother, Maria Perez. “I don’t think we would have been able to afford that.”

Most services are provided by existing county social agencies. For example, health services are provided through the Ventura County Child Health and Disability Program. Counseling services are available through the county’s Department of Mental Health.

“The beauty of this program is that everyone in the community, every social agency collaborates,” Butcher said. “We work as a big team.”

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Also participating in the program is the Assistance League of Ventura County, which has clothed more than 500 children in the last year, and St. John’s Regional Medical Center, which has conducted health seminars for parents.

The tutoring service, which employs students from Hueneme High School, conducts three-hour sessions three times a week at the site of closed Ramona School. Pupils typically go to one session per week.

Tobi Schwenk, coordinator of the tutor program, said parents are grateful for the help that their children get with homework.

“A lot of parents are not academically prepared to help their children with their homework,” Schwenk said.

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The children also appreciate the help, she said.

“The children feel a lot better about themselves. They want to turn their homework into their teachers because they feel secure that they have it done in the correct way.”

After each tutoring session, students have an opportunity to socialize. Most spend about an hour jumping rope, playing cards or just talking.

“A lot of the children don’t want to go home,” Schwenk said. “Many don’t have the luxury of television or computer games at home, so they prefer to stay here where they have something to do.”

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But the children are not the only ones receiving assistance through Healthy Start. The parents also get help.

Once a week, social worker Lilia Trujillo meets with a group of mothers to do a variety of arts and crafts and talk about common problems while their children are tutored in a nearby classroom.

“In our meeting, we discuss a variety of issues, and the mothers have an opportunity get away from their daily household chores,” Trujillo said.

“It is really convenient for me,” said Raquel Pimentel, 44, the mother of three Cesar Chavez students who are in the tutoring program. “I can enjoy myself here while I know that they are enjoying themselves in the next room.”

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In addition, a parents’ group meets once a week.

“Through our work with the parents, we hope to make the various social services in the county available to them and to teach them how to function independently,” Duarte said.

Although the program seems successful, not all school officials are pleased with it. School board member Jack Fowler strongly opposes the district’s participation in the program.

“I don’t think it is the business of schools to be involved in social programs,” Fowler said. “The objective of schools by nature is to educate children.”

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Fowler said he recognizes the needs of the families that take part in Healthy Start, but said schools are not prepared to handle those needs. Eventually, he said, the schools will be so overwhelmed by the social problems that the whole system may collapse.

But like a majority of her colleagues, school board member Mary Barreto said she sees the program as a way of investing in the future. With the kind of help provided by Healthy Start, children are more likely to stay in school and not get involved in antisocial activities such as gangs, she said.

“If nothing else, it is a message to the teacher saying we are going to help you,” Barreto said. “If you don’t provide that type of help, it can be very overwhelming for the teachers.”


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