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After-School Refuge : A principal’s simple idea of helping students has inspired volunteers to turn a campus into a safe and caring place. : HEARTS OF THE CITY / Exploring attitudes and issues behind the news

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After traveling around Southern California and Mexico for 14 years helping USC dental students examine the teeth of needy youths, John Pomeroy realized last year that charity sometimes has to start in your own back yard.

After the USC students were asked by the principal of Covina Elementary School last year to provide the dental checkups to its students, Pomeroy found that children living in their midst needed far more than dental care.

“The blinders came off,” said Pomeroy, who heads the local Rotary Club that works with the dental students. Pomeroy, owner of a water softening business in Covina, said he saw a school racked by crime and isolated by poverty in a mostly middle-class city.

Since that first visit, Rotary Club members have extended their efforts beyond the dental program. Pomeroy and his colleagues return to the campus almost daily to serve as sports coaches and homework tutors. Matched up one-to-one, they have taken the children on field trips and bought them clothes during the holidays.

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But even they are only a part of an extraordinary turnaround in less than a year at the school where more than 60% of the 560 students participate in school lunch programs for low-income children.

What started as a principal’s simple plan to provide an after-school refuge for his students snowballed into an inspiring citywide adoption of its least fortunate children.

Within a year, Covina Elementary has started 17 programs to fill the voids in its students’ lives. The programs are run by 19 community organizations.

Using money provided by a state grant, the school last year established an after-school program that offers far more than day care.

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Now, children and their families have access to regular medical and dental care and psychological counseling. The dental care is provided free by USC interns, and doctors and counselors extend medical and psychological services either on a sliding scale or for free.

Retired teachers from the American Assn. of University Women return to the classroom to offer students tutoring.

Youths can play in the schoolyard until the sun sets under the supervision of workers from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

A medical van from Citrus Valley Health Partners visits the campus each week and parents and their children line up for checkups.

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The YWCA runs a day-care center for very young children.

English classes are available for adults. This winter, the school will restart a weekly arts and crafts class for the students.

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The force behind the turnaround was Principal Ron Iannone, who has headed the school for 12 years.

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After years of watching the neighborhood around his campus grow more dangerous for the children, Iannone set out to make a few simple improvements by inviting the dental group in and opening the playground as an after-school refuge.

The effort took on a life of its own, as volunteers for one community group contacted friends at another group that might help. In a year, the program became larger than Iannone had ever imagined. But he’s not stopping there: One plan is to create a summer program on campus to help give youngsters somewhere to go during vacation.

Perhaps most important, Iannone said, is that the children understand the message of consistency that the school and volunteers are sending by their constant efforts to help them.

“People don’t give up,” Iannone said. “Not everyone gives up.”

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All of this activity has not only improved the lives of the students and their families, but also created a safer neighborhood.

Before Covina Elementary started its program, Iannone said, vandals regularly defaced school property and gang members came onto the school’s campus trying to recruit members. In the nearby apartment buildings, drug trafficking and crime were rampant and many of the buildings are run-down.

Last winter the city helped organize a neighborhood preservation committee to improve conditions in the area surrounding Covina Elementary, according to Hal Ledford, a Covina city planner who heads the committee.

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City code enforcers ordered landlords to improve their buildings and screen out troublesome tenants, while police stepped up patrols.

Crime has gone down as well, although the neighborhood near Barranca Avenue and Badillo Street still has a higher crime rate than the rest of the city, Covina Police Sgt. Pat Buchanan said.

The state has taken notice of Covina’s efforts. Last month, the California League of Cities honored the school and the city with the Helen Putnam Award for excellence in service to children and their families.

Eighty to 120 children show up for the after-school program each afternoon, school officials said. Some children scamper across the field in an energetic game of touch football and others gather in corners with volunteers, playing Scrabble and listening to stories.

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The students said they are happy they have a place to play after school with friends and a place where they can find assistance.

“They help a lot,” Rachel, 11, said of the volunteers who assisted her with her homework.

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Parents said they are grateful that their children have somewhere to play and do schoolwork in a supervised setting. “A lot of these kids would just hang out if they didn’t have this,” said Melissa Cohen, who has two children at Covina Elementary.

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More rewarding than accolades from the state, Iannone said, is knowing they have made a difference in the children’s lives.

“They love the school,” he said. “They know they have something to do.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Beat

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Today’s centerpiece focuses on extensive volunteer programs that have improved the quality of life for students at Covina Elementary School.

To get involved, call:

Maureen Blanchard, volunteer coordinator at Covina Elementary, (818) 915-0172.


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