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Dispute Resolved, Center Reopens for Tutoring Business

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Araceli Avila knew she would come back. True friends never hold grudges.

Two weeks after parent protests led to the closure of the Shalimar Learning Center, the center reopened this week to a stream of eager children from the gritty Costa Mesa neighborhood.

The after-school tutoring center, located in converted apartment units on Shalimar Drive, shut down after about 30 parents protested the dismissal of one of its founders, Maria Alvarez.

Araceli, 12, a student at Ensign Intermediate School in Costa Mesa, was saddened by the firing, but that wouldn’t keep her from returning to the center, which she has attended for six years.

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“I feel bad for her. Ms. Alvarez was here so long. She’s one of the people that started this,” said the youngster, clutching two thick school binders. But “I’ve been coming here every single day since I was 6 years old. They help me a lot here and I love the people here.”

She added: “And they love me.”

At a meeting last week, dozens of parents and children clamored for the revival of Shalimar Learning Center. They didn’t exactly have to twist center officials’ arms.

“In the end, we said, ‘We have to move around this issue,’ ” said Pablo Diaz, executive director for Think Together, a neighborhood organization that operates Shalimar and five other after-school centers. “The bottom line is that the children have spoken loud and clear: They want the center open.”

Officials of Think Together, a nonprofit group based in Santa Ana, would not comment on Alvarez’s firing.

The center’s teen center reopened Monday; the elementary-school wing will open Tuesday. Shalimar is one of its two learning centers that operate directly out of the apartments where many of the children live.

“You have to go where the poverty lies with all its intensity,” Diaz said. “Sometimes, you have to go to the heart of the community.”

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The learning center, which has three full-time staff members and one part-time person, gets operating funds from a variety of sources, including gifts and grants.

Despite the controversy over Alvarez, there was never a debate about how much Shalimar is needed in this tough neighborhood. Concrete barriers block several streets, reminders of days when drug traffickers drove along Shalimar Drive to cut deals.

The streets today ring with the din of large groups of children. But drive-by shootings were common just a few years ago before Costa Mesa police and community leaders like Alvarez took decisive actions to clean house.

Still, life here is spartan, and most children cannot get the academic help at home they need. Too often, parents--many of them immigrants--carry the burden of paltry educations in their native lands.

Antonia Reyes, 37, an immigrant from the Mexican state of Guanajuato, would like to help her two school-age children Maribel, 9, and Ignacio, 7, with their homework. But she does not speak English, and her own education stopped at the sixth grade, when her mother died and she took on caretaker responsibilities.

“The truth is, it’s difficult for me to help my children,” Reyes said in Spanish as she stood outside her apartment, mere feet from the learning center. “This place gives me security that my children are advancing. I don’t want them to fall behind because I can’t help them.”

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Some of the center directors have backgrounds not that different from those of the children they serve. Ruth Estrada, 31, director of the elementary children’s center, grew up with parents who never finished school in Mexico. Rival gangs warred in her neighborhood.

“I had to wing it,” Estrada said. “I can relate to these kids.”

Felix Naranjo, 17, knows of dodging some of the neighborhood’s dangerous elements.

“Before the street got more organized, it was really bad around here,” the Newport Harbor High School senior said.

His parents, who speak only Spanish, tried to help him, but they could do only so much. His English developed slowly. Often, before coming to the Shalimar center, Felix would hang out in the street. By the time he would sit down to do his homework, it was desperation time.

“It would get late, and I’d get frustrated and mad ‘cause I wanted to go to sleep,” Felix said.

Felix has been going to the after-school center for about five years, almost every day. He said he has found not just tutors but friends.

“The main thing is we talk about school, but sometimes we take a rest and talk about life. We can be sociable,” Felix said. “I’ve made a lot of friends here.”

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Newport Beach resident Ann Obegi, a retired teacher, began tutoring at Shalimar three years ago. The students know that there is a waiting list to get in, so they take coming here seriously, Obegi said.

“Coming here is not a right, it’s a privilege,” said Obegi, 53. “I love the personal one-on-one interaction, which you don’t get at school. And you get to build personal friendships.”

Young Araceli Avila said she is glad Shalimar Learning Center didn’t stay closed any longer.

“I got a lot of help in history. Now it’s my favorite subject,” she said. “If this place wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be getting as many A’s.”

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