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School Opens Doors to Hispanic Community

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San Francisco

The sun is setting on the city's Mission district as Maria Truba hesitantly pushes her baby stroller into the computer lab at Cesar Chavez Elementary School and stands patiently waiting for attention.

It takes a little while to be noticed because instructor Rose Martinez, from the neighborhood campus of San Francisco's City College, has her hands more than full helping some 20 eager adult learners. She darts from machine to machine, alternately dispensing playful jokes, pointers, and words of encouragement to her students, all of whom are slowly mastering such word-processing mysteries as spell-checking and tab-setting.

Aside from Martinez' voice, the rattle of computer keys and jovial chatter in lilting Spanish dominate the room. The classroom at times seems more like a busy family living room. The course is open to anyone in the community whose son, daughter, niece, or nephew is enrolled here. And the school provides care for infants and toddlers while their parents are learning.

In time, Martinez sits down with Truba at one of more than 30 computer carrels and begins to walk her through the course syllabus. "I'll show you how to turn on the computer, and you'll need to remember certain words," she explains.

Overhead, flanked by examples of childrens' work in English, Spanish, and Chinese, a banner on the wall reads "Empowerment Through Technology." And though that's the official name of the adult-learning program, it is, at the same time, a statement of aspiration. These fathers and aunts, single parents and recent immigrants, high school students and hospital workers are all here for their own reasons, but it's doubtful any would take issue with the course's premise.

Truba herself says simply that she has come tonight "to better myself."

What's in a Name

By almost any measure, Cesar Chavez Elementary is an unusual school.

On a recent spring night, while parents on the second floor are learning the lingua franca of the Information Age, a rhythmic beat and the scent of incense drifts up from the auditorium below. A group of young girls wearing seashell ankle rattles is practicing Aztec dance steps there, while some boys pound out a rhythm on a huge drum.

Principal Pilar Mejia, meanwhile, meets with teachers and parents in a conference room next to her office. They're planning the unveiling ceremony for a two-story mural featuring Ch vez, the founder of the United Farm Workers union and advocate for migrant farm workers for whom the school is named.

After-hours meetings are a regular part of Mejia's workweek. And the doors of this math and science magnet school, both teachers and parents confirm, are rarely closed. Its warmly lighted corridors draw people out of the darkened streets like a proverbial lamp of knowledge.

Four nights a week, for as many as 50 adults, the flame is sparked by the chance to learn how to use Cesar Chavez Elementary's brand new computers, furnished through a federal magnet-schools grant.

The school's staff members hope the class will help fill a void that is particularly pronounced among Hispanics nationwide. A recent studyby the T¢mas Rivera Center, an Austin, Texas-based advocacy group, found that Hispanics, on average, have far less access to computers than other Americans--even when such variables as income level are factored out.

Rejuvenated Mission

Cesar Chavez Elementary was not always such a bright spot in the community. In the late 1980s, when it was still called Hawthorne Elementary School, tensions between the faculty and administration prompted NEA President Keith B. Geiger to write to then-Education Secretary William J. Bennett to complain that the working conditions here were among the worst he ever had seen.

Mejia attributes the rejuvenated sense of mission to the efforts of the school's teachers, many of whom are still in their classrooms long after the school day has ended. "I don't think a principal alone can make all of this happen," she says.

She also notes that it was teachers who helped launch the after-school computer program a year ago, not long after the new machines were installed.

"Some of them were talking about volunteering time in the evening to teach computers," Mejia recalls. "They were saying, 'How many nights would we each have to work each week to be able to do it?'"

The staff eventually realized that volunteer teaching was impractical. But Carlota del Portillo, the dean of the City College Mission Campus and a city school board member, decided that--with donated faculty time from the college--the program could work.

As success in the modern workplace becomes more dependent on technology, and as school districts begin to spend heavily to upgrade their stock of computers, using the equipment to help adult workers hone their job skills is a role many feel educators should try to fill. Yet so far, only a handful have.

At Cesar Chavez Elementary, teachers and administrators hope to eventually extend the after-school electronic link into homes by distributing donated computers to parents. But, for now, Mejia says, the after-school program seeks to draw parents and relatives like Truba--many of whom are as uneasy about schools as they are about computers--into a larger learning community.

"For many people, school is something that they're alienated from," Mejia explains. "Parents have come to this that have not come to the school before. This was their entry to school."

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