Santa Ana Unified uses nonprofit to fill in summer school gap

Third grader Karen Quezada (R) is one of about 10,000 Santa Ana Unified students signed up for the district's summer enrichment program.
Third grader Karen Quezada (R) is one of about 10,000 Santa Ana Unified students signed up for the district's summer enrichment program. Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Public school budget cuts have decimated public summer school programs. One Orange County school district is leaning on a nonprofit to fill in the gap and offer a program that does more than babysit students.

In Santa Ana during this time of year, it’s hard to miss the strollers on the sidewalks in broad daylight. Mothers on errands push young kids, usually with an older sibling or two walking alongside.

Veronica Ventura’s 7- and 5-year-olds walk home while her younger daughter watches from a stroller. Ventura frets about keeping the kids at home all summer.

All they do is watch TV, she says. Crime’s going up in this area, and that worries her too.

Research indicates that kids who grow up in working class neighborhoods like this one fall behind better-off kids during the summer, says UCLA researcher John Rogers, "when they do not have access to quality learning opportunities. So many policymakers have strongly recommended that we target summer learning opportunities to high poverty students."

At Lincoln Elementary School across the street from Veronica Ventura’s house, the Santa Ana Unified School District is trying to offer some of those opportunities. Despite a $1 million cut to what it spends for summer school, the district’s hired the nonprofit Think Together to run summer enrichment at this and 32 other sites.

College student and teacher Karissa Pulido, with the help of a red vinyl cape and a red, white and blue cardboard shield, is helping a roomful of third graders unlock their imaginations in the doldrums of summer. "Good superheroes fold their capes," she tells the children.

"They’re making their superhero outfit, they’re making capes and they’re making masks, and they’re going to make a name for their secret identity, or their superhero name," says Pulido. She leads them by example, describing herself as "Super program leader."

The exercise is fun, but that doesn’t make it fluff, says Santa Ana Unified’s Michelle Rodriguez. "[It] provides a motivational context for the other things, because as they’re doing math, as they’re doing the comprehension piece, as they’re doing all of that, then what’s allowing them, is they are motivated due to the theme."

One third grader’s so into the theme, she proudly wears the hand-colored name of her superhero around her neck. "It says my name, Karen Quezada, well it has flowers, it has a tulip and stars and more like a blue."

Quezada’s also been paying attention to two lists of words on the dry erase board. They’re vocabulary builders, like “dirt” next to “soil,” or “student” next to the word “learner.”

Pulido grew up and still lives nearby. She maintains that if these kids weren’t in summer school, most of them would while away hours in front of the TV or would stir up trouble with the other kids at home.

"They deal with probably, say, older siblings and older cousins involved in things that aren’t so great," says Pulido, "so I think being here they get a positive environment, they get to do fun things, maybe learn about things that they’ve never seen before or heard of before."

This summer enrichment program reaches one-fifth of the students in Santa Ana Unified. Most of the sites offer three hours of activities a day. A foundation grant allows Lincoln Elementary and two other locations to offer a six-hour program that’s more attractive to working parents.

As funding cuts worsened a few years ago, Santa Ana Unified’s Rodriguez says, the district began to look for options rather than wait for Superman to save them. "The district administration had the foresight to know they needed to make partnerships with other organizations so that our students didn’t suffer due to the financial deficits, so because of that there was never a year where there was a lag."

The program ended last week. Rodriguez says the district hopes to expand it next summer. She considers it a social justice issue, because working class families don’t have the resources for camp, arts lessons and other activities that parents in more affluent areas can afford.

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