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A Close-Up Look At People Who Matter : Teacher Delays Resignation to Help Students

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ray Garcia had already sent in his letter of resignation to the Los Angeles Unified School District and was planning to move to the Napa Valley and start a wrought-iron business.

Then he got a call from Principal Larry Gonzales at Pacoima Elementary School. Gonzales said he needed someone with Garcia’s experience in physical education to work at the school.

Never mind the resignation, just meet with me and see the school, and you’ll have no regrets, Gonzales told Garcia. Now, Garcia is in his third year at Pacoima Elementary.

“What does that tell you?” Garcia asked as he stood in a classroom of energy-filled students, ages 7 to 13, conducting an after-school activity program.

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Garcia stopped speaking when he spotted two boys wrenching a Lego piece from a smaller boy. He called all three of them over.

“Now, what rule did you break?” Garcia asked gently.

“Keep your hands to yourself,” replied one boy.

“And?” said Garcia.

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“Respect others,” the second boy said.

“Now, how could you have dealt with this better?” Garcia asked as he led the boys into a discussion that ended with all three shaking hands.

It was much different than when Garcia first came to Pacoima Elementary. Then, it was common for 15 to 20 children to band together and race around the playground attacking whoever got in their way. Garcia used to call it a “tornado” or “feeding frenzy.”

“I’ve seen so much marked improvement here,” Garcia said.

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The change began with Garcia talking to the students, individually, about what is right and wrong, and the structure of games and sports. He developed a “Kids in Charge” program, in which he works with 120 at-risk kids in the school, taking them to hockey games and special events, trying to give them a better sense of themselves and the world around them.

“When I came out here, I knew there was a need here,” said Garcia, who had been a physical education teacher at a Highland Park school before coming to Pacoima. He had resigned because the future of teaching in the district looked bleak.

But Garcia said he could not refuse the opportunity offered at the Pacoima school.

At the beginning of December, the 4-H Club started its After School Activity program and made Garcia a site coordinator, working with kids from 2 to 6 p.m.

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It is the first program of its kind that 4-H has started in the San Fernando Valley. A handful of similar programs have been started in East Los Angeles, South-Central Los Angeles and the South Bay area since April.

The 4-H program “fit like a glove” with what Garcia had already been trying to achieve with the kids, he said. “This program seems to be more precise and to the point of what the children need.”

Because of the after-school program, the youngsters no longer have to spend their free time on the streets, Garcia said.

If you believe the kids, Garcia is also what they need. “He’s nice, and he’s funny,” one girl said. “He started by being my friend,” a boy said.

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“It’s not me,” said Garcia, who downplays his impact on his kids. “It’s the program.”

The activity room is filled with kids building projects with Legos, Tinker Toys and Erector sets. Recently, Garcia had a group of kids making Christmas decorations out of Cheerios and string, teasing one girl that she’ll be eating every other Cheerio.

Garcia needs help in the classroom or in planning trips and programs. Those interested can call Katherine Crow at (213) 744-5138 or (213) 744-5139.

“I’m very proud of my kids,” Garcia said. “Down the line, these children are going to realize what has been done for them, and then they will teach and help others.”

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Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please address prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311. Or fax them to (818) 772-3338.


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