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Kindergarten Cops

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Los Angeles

Four years ago when Anna McLinn became principal of Marvin Avenue Elementary School, students were running wild, graffiti marred the school from top to bottom, gang members were doing drive-bys, and crack dealers were plying their trade across the street.

Such were the images students saw each day as they made their way through the troubled Mid-City neighborhood to get to school. The effects were visible. Many of the 1,100 students in the K-5 school were exhibiting poor self-image and were acting out in class, leading to repeated suspensions. "The youngsters were in trauma," McLinn says simply.

She studied the records of students with multiple suspensions, many of which began to resemble police rap sheets, and asked herself, "How do we counteract these things?"

The answer came to her when a police officer took an interest in one troubled student and took the girl under her wing. McLinn thought, "Wouldn't it be nice to get youths and area police involved in a program?"

The result is a program called Helping Our Public Education System, or HOPES, in which students with three or more suspensions are paired with police officers from the Wilshire division of the Los Angeles Police Department for mentoring and tutoring.

The effort has two goals, McLinn says. The first is to curtail suspensions that eventually could lead to failure. The second is to build personal relationships between students and police. "I wanted something more than, 'Hi, boys and girls. I'm a police officer,"' she explains.

The program began in fall of 1994 with 27 youths and 27 officers. At the same time, the Wilshire division opened a mini-station next door to the school. The mini-stations, established under the city's community-policing policy, allow officers to get to know residents better.

"The vision was that there would be parenting classes and officers who would be involved in children's lives as mentors and friends and drop by and see how kids were doing," says Capt. Lyman Doster of the Wilshire division.

The center is open 24 hours a day, and students and parents can drop by anytime. It provides a place for officers to stop in and do paperwork and reports. But it's also a place where they can work with students and address parents' concerns about problems in the neighborhood. A school psychologist also offers counseling once a week at the center.

"We talk to parents about knowing how to handle bad influences and the distraction they cause for academics," says Capt. John Mutz, the commanding officer for the Wilshire division.

"It's important for youths at this age to have some hope as to what the future may be, and also focus and goals," Capt. Doster says. "If you don't, you go astray." Doster says that by meeting people in the community who have been successful, the students see something to strive for. "Officers talk to them, and it inspires them. Kids see that we're human."

Although police participation is voluntary, the division encourages officers to get involved. "Many officers live outside of the community they police and are looking for ways to participate in the community," Capt. Mutz says.

This year, 31 officers are paired with 31 youths. Most officers participate in their off-duty hours, and the mentoring is tailored to meet the needs of each student. For some, the effort means an hour a week; others spend an hour or more each school day helping out. Officers tutor students in academics, help coach sports, and teach parenting skills. They try to prevent students from following paths that would lead them to drugs, gangs, and violence.

Detective Natalie Doster, who is Capt. Doster's daughter, has volunteered with two students. She says that through the program she can "help reinforce values that kids may not get at home and give some positive attention."

Debunking Stereotypes

A popular element of HOPES is the Junior Cadet program, which involves about 100 students this year. Cadets learn positive values and good citizenship while gaining new respect for police officers.

Los Angeles has a long history of racial tensions between residents and police--a situation made worse by the Rodney King beating in 1992 and the department's handling of the O.J. Simpson murder investigation. Many of McLinn's students have had relatives or friends arrested.

McLinn started the program because she saw students lacked respect for authority. For the police, the cadet program is a way to combat the force's bad reputation.

"In large metropolitan police departments, we're trying to get back to the atmosphere of the small police department," Capt. Doster says. "The way we do that is through this program."

Officers train the cadets in character development, self-pride, and respect and teach them about careers in law enforcement. Cadets are responsible for reminding peers about school rules, helping supervise on the playground and hallways during lunch and recess, and "ticketing" students for such infractions as running in hallways, leaving equipment on the playground, or being out of class without a pass.

It's not all dirty work, however--being a cadet does have its perks. Cadets get to reward fellow students for good behavior and go on special field trips. And one day a week, the cadets wear uniforms similar to those worn by LAPD officers, including a cap and badge. The students' families pay for the uniforms, but scholarships are available for those who can't afford the $150.

Xochitl Mayo, a 3rd grader, says she became a cadet to help others and to learn right from wrong. But, for her, "the best part is marching and performing."

The faculty has noticed a difference in students. Fifth-grade teacher June Boyd, who has taught at the school for more than 20 years, says students in both the mentor and cadet programs behave better. "I've seen improvement in self-esteem more than anything," Boyd says.

The benefits seem to be spreading beyond the schoolhouse doors.

"The community has changed," says Stacy Green, the community liaison to Mayor Richard J. Riordan. "The school is like a center--people use this place as a resource. Ms. McLinn is exceptional, the way she has been able to engage the Wilshire division and help with the community-policing aspect."

The beefed-up police presence has led to a decline in criminal activity. "There is a tremendous respect for the school," McLinn says. "You can eat off the streets. There are no homicides and prostitution, and there is no graffiti--not even in the summer."

Fighting Fires

The program's popularity has brought the school support from all over. So far, 49 businesses and individuals have volunteered time and money to the HOPES program, which doesn't receive any funding from the Los Angeles Unified School District. Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams has recognized the program, and McLinn has fielded calls from across the nation from schools interested in replicating it.

In December, the local fire station got in on the act and started a Firefighter Cadet program modeled on the police effort. Eighteen firefighters now volunteer with 40 cadets, who wear junior firefighter uniforms.

"We're investing in the future of this city, our youth, and our community," says Capt. Kwam‚ Cooper of Station 68. "It gives us a new challenge, and we accept it."

McLinn, herself a product of Los Angeles schools, has come to see education as a business whose product is the student.

"You can't run a business and put out a product that doesn't work," McLinn says. "It's the same with kids who can't read or write. It is my job to ensure every child is given an opportunity for success."

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