Sunday, April 19, 2009


By Diana L. Chapman

I confess. I went on vacation…a long, long vacation. It was one I needed to rest and to lick my wounds after my son graduated from Dana Middle School where my friend and I started a series of after school programs. Now, I just feel foolish.

I can’t say why now we even did it.

I can say why it started. We both enjoy kids so much and innocently believed a drive for change could – and should --come after school where scores of kids were milling on the street and fights broke out. It was a simple solution to a hard-core problem.

And it was working. After launching an art and newspaper club, parents started several other clubs, such as swimming, Spanish, art, cooking and so on.

But who knew we’d be walking into a hornet’s nest, make that many hornets nests. We

had, after all, unknowingly wandered into a territory of the big dogs, the bureaucrats and the empire of non-profits, who I have since learned, rule this world.

Who could know that after school programs swirled with angry political bees – just waiting for someone to disturb them. Sting. Zap.Not a couple of silly moms, I guess.

What seems mostly to be missed is that 50 percent Los Angeles students are dropping out of school; for that reason alone, we have to shuck our attitudes that we are the only ones who know how to do this – because:

We need everyone. The kids need parents, police, the business community, the school district, the mayor of Los Angeles, our councilwoman and so on, to become part of the solution. Schools cannot raise thousands of children, many who live in poverty and in broken homes, on its own. It’s a belief I’ve been harping on for three years to anybody I can get to listen -- and frankly, I can’t accept that it’s ok for kids to get gunned down in the streets of Los Angeles, whether they are in a gang or not.

Take for instance a 14-year-old was fatally shot on his own porch last year in San Pedro, struck with several bullets. Sadly, his 13-year-old girlfriend, a Dana student, raised the money for the services and arranged them, since his mother was alone and spoke no English.

Was he in a gang? I have no idea. Does it matter? The fact is he was 14 and surrounded by a world of poverty, drugs and gangs. How can we expect 14-year-old to make the right choices in this environment? We have to divert them with things to explore after school.

That’s why Kim and I delved deeply into programs at Dana – to show them others paths, then gangs, drugs, and crime – as well as to guide kids, who had none of those issues, but came from broken homes or otherwise. We were so successful at Dana. The clubs were flourishing and I knew this could be done at every single middle school in Los Angeles -- if we pulled everyone together, which we tried to do.

A group of us visited the mayor of Los Angeles’s staff – because after all Antonio Villaraigosa told the public he could run schools better than the district . Wanting to see if he would put his efforts where his smiling mouth always seemed to be, we pedaled it to his office.

They weren’t interested. Not sexy enough.

We visited Councilwoman Janice Hahn’s office, who seemed interested, but didn’t offer much in the way of support in any fashion accept to say she liked it.

Los Angeles School Board Member Richard Vladovic backed it 100 percent, but had no money. But money wasn’t the issue.

It all boiled down to leadership. When my son started at Dana at a sixth grader in 2006 at Dana, the school had a horrible reputation and my friends looked at me in horror that I enrolled him there. They were disgusted with my choice. But I wanted to be part of the solution and bring my son’s home school back up to the level I knew could be. No question, the test scores had shot up by the third year, I"m sure for many reasons, but I don't doubt for an instant the after school programs were part of the answer.

The Boys and Girls Club got involved with our program, using our students to maintain a grant, and bused kids to Peck Park Pool for the Swim Club – with a good end result. The parent chaperone said the students grades were improving! They stayed at Homework Club first for one hour before they went off to swim.

When Basketball Coach Derrick Smith joined the team, we were ecstatic. He trained his students to play basketball, to do their homework and watched over their grades. He urged the school to hold pep rallies for his players, which were accompanied by our awesome Dana band and cheer leaders

I laughed watching even the cool students – to cool for anything – magnetized by the rallies. Derrick believed it was all about the school spirit.

It should have all been good, because it was really a miracle in a way. A handful of volunteers, many parents, students staying after school in a safe environment because they wanted too and it was growing. We hadn’t even needed that much money to maintain and run it. We did candle fundraisers and asked for funding from our Neighborhood councils, by far our biggest supporters: Coastal donated $5,000 to the plans; and Central: $3,500.

But like anything, there’s always walls, obstacle courses and politics – and those can shut down many things in an instant. My friend, Kim, who had worked at Dana for years, had invested her soul in the school was becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of administrative support.

She was a true treasure at the school, a gem who had spent countless volunteer hours helping kids. I can only say she was an angel; if only some administrators could see it that way.

After two years of helping run the programs, she left to work at another school. Perhaps I should have joined her but the Cooking Club started with San Pedro High’s Culinary Teacher Sandy Wood and on Friday’s after school, nearly twenty kids marched up to her classroom and whipped up foods like pancakes, omelettes, cookies and salads.

But trouble, as it always does, brewed drastically by the third year. I had sought help from a myriad of places, because it was clear several leaders were necessary to pull everyone together – and it couldn’t be done by a couple of parents. It had to be someone who could pull together the police, the business community, the city’s Recreation and Parks, the schools.

Finally, Celia Sawyer, of Beyond the Bell, which runs the after Los Angeles school district’s after school programs, wanted to take over the programs – which made sense to me to have a professional arm of the district involved.

But within a few weeks of starting to train all our volunteers, Celia retired leaving no one to truly head this program, which left me carrying the load. Of course, she did not tell me that she planned to retire and I’m still wondering about her motives to this day.

When your faced alone with something like this, you learn a lot about yourself and others. I learned that several administrators were not going to help a single ounce and in and, in fact, worked hard to damage the program.

San Pedro High coaches didn’t like our basketball coach, claiming all the time that he was recruiting. No one seemed to care that every one of his kids had improved in school – and all of them crossed the stage at 8th grade graduation, including kids who were destined to not make it. Prior to Derrick’s arrival,, no one had even come to look at the students there.

I learned many lessons, many that are ugly -- that politics was the only reason that the district’s program had even been interested to circumvent some grant money. And I learned, working with the Boys and Girls Club would be incredibly difficult because they didn’t want competition – nor for that matter, did any other non-profits.

Finally, my health spiraled and I could no longer cope with the stress. I was doing a balancing act, hanging by a thread. There are a lot of people delighted I left Dana, not because I wanted too, but because my health forced me too.

Today at Dana: The Boys and Girls Club took over and runs everything. The parent volunteers are mostly gone, replaced by younger Boys and Girls Club employees and the door of opportunity is closing at Dana, because – in all honesty – without parents it’s going to be hard to really make it a better school. With about 1,800 kids, and some 200 plus adults, there’s simply not enough adults to help kids discover where they shine.

The other day, I heard the school district, the council office, the police and the Boys and Girls Club pledged to work together. Perhaps it will work -- especially if parents are encouraged to climb aboard along with the many other non-profits that offer different resources than the Boys and Girls club.

But two things need to happen: first, the school has to be considered the second home of students where they can truck back and forth between the school and the Boys and Girls club. And the parents need to return.

I continue to say – and will always say – if we truly want to see changes: We need everyone.