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Mean Streets School Provides Lifeline to Neighborhood Children

New America Media, News Feature, Written by Donal Brown // Photos by Melanie Reynard Posted: Jun 21, 2008

Editor's Note: The seven-year-old De Marillac Academy provides students a co-ed Catholic education right in their neighborhood - a rough area of San Francisco. The children achieve, even with their occasional trips back to Mexico.NAM reporter Donal Brown taught for 35 years in Californias public high schools.

SAN FRANCISCO Amid drug dealers, homeless and garbage-strewn streets, children walk to school in white polo shirts and red sweaters. Street denizens respectfully step aside as they pass by.

Instead of sending students from the Tenderloin a San Francisco neighborhood known for its homelessness, crime, drug deals and sex trade to private schools in tony areas, the seven-year-old De Marillac Academy provides its pupils a co-ed Catholic school education right in their neighborhood.

Most families apply to the school after hearing about it from neighbors, friends and relatives. Students and their parents are interviewed at home, where teachers are able to see the challenges they might have in finishing homework in the crowded confines of a studio apartment. Finally, the students are tested for academic promise.

homelessA homeless man sleeps outside De Marillac Academy.The school demands that students make a significant commitment to the program -- including attending summer school -- and that parents attend regular school meetings.

Ninety percent of the students are Latino, many of whom are working to improve their English skills.
The school includes more learning time to bring the students up to grade level in reading and composition. The last 45 minutes of the extended school day is a time for quiet study and tutoring by teachers and volunteers.

While some critics of public school education argue that spending more per student will do little to improve education, adequate financing is central to the schools success.

The tuition for De Marillac is $15,000, but every student is on scholarship. Parents pay $420 to $900 annually depending on household income. The actual cost for each students education is greater than $15,000 since the California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) provides several costly programs essential to the success of the school.

By contrast, according to a report by Jennifer Imazeki published by Stanfords Institute for Research on Education Policy & Practice, the average spending per student in Californias public schools is $8,268. The current system of school finance appreciably under-funds districts with the highest needs, says Imazeki. California now ranks 46th out of 50 in spending per student.

The schools director of counseling Michelle Batista says the students generally come in with four major problems. They may suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from being subjected to physical or sexual violence. They may witness domestic violence. They may have to endure the deportation of a parent by immigration authorities. They invariably live under the stress of confined quarters in their homes.
tenderloin school
The CPMC provides a speech therapist and a psychologist who test the students for dyslexia and processing disorder. De Marillac is able to devise individualized curriculum to help these students.

With CPMCs help, the school provides group or individual counseling to students with anger problems or other disorders caused by the stress of their everyday lives. Group counseling deals with social pressures, relationships and family stress. Thirty-five percent of the students are in counseling. At a time when public schools are forced to cut counselors, or reduce their hours, the De Marillac School has four counselors for their 100 students.

Not surprisingly, De Marillac students have registered impressive educational gains. The class of 2007 entered the sixth grade with fourth grade-level test scores in reading, math and English. By the time they graduated from eighth grade, they were academically ready for high school. This year every student in the class of 2008 was admitted to a San Francisco Catholic high school.

Students are taught respect for each other, something they say leads to a more supportive atmosphere. Minor disagreements among classmates usually result in bringing people closer together because weve learned to communicate with and respect each other, says Henry Soto of the class of 2007. Soto says students have no problem asking other students for help in preparing for a tough test.

De Marillac even holds night orientation classes to inform the parents of new students on the workings of the school and their obligations to their children as well as to teach them computer skills and how to open savings accounts. In effect, De Marillac builds social scaffolding that parents struggling at the bottom of the economic scale may have difficulty providing.
de marillac schoolDe Marillac Academy

Even when students are expelled (a rare occurrence), when they leave for Mexico or go on to high school, the school does not cut ties. They find proper placement for expelled students, maintain contact with the students in Mexico so they can help them if they return, and monitor the performance of the high school students. Those still in the neighborhood are required to attend the monthly after-school meetings.

The De Marillac Academy whittles away at the stereotype that students from a destitute neighborhood cant succeed. Batista says that for students to achieve, it is essential that the school focus on each students strengths before addressing their problems. That approach, Batista says, sets a positive tone and a strong foundation for students to feel like they can make positive changes.

Photos: Melanie Reynard / New America Media.

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