Newsletter | May/Jun 2010

Members in the Community

by Suzan Swabacker
My husband and I spent Saturday on a Habitat for Humanity type was a bit different in that it was his church rather than the official organization, which we've also done for many years. This church, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (or MPPC) takes on a dozen school/classroom remodels every year. Remarkable remodels happen in a weekend, and probably have for nearly 30 years. MPPC has a long-term commitment to the East Palo Alto schools for teacher-support, educational materials support, etc. I like that they walk-the-talk.

Our project was to change a former shower room into a small sports center. I had a discussion with one of the middle-school youngsters who would be using the revamped sports center. I didn't think much about it at the time, but upon relating the story to my husband at the end of the day I realized that I need to walk-the-talk.

Perhaps starting a column in the OWA newsletter that deals with stories from our own communities would benefit all of us. The goal being that the more we participate, the more our community will shrink until we are a village that looks out for one another every day. With this in mind, I've written #1 Notes of the Bay Area Village. If we could get members from all over the Bay Area sending in an article every month I think it would be wonderful...............

Cesar Chavez Middle School Academy, East Palo Alto
East Palo Alto. The name conjures up images of peeling paint, unrepaired homes, and car-studded streets. East Palo Alto lies between Highway 101 and the lower end of the San Francisco Bay. Comprised mostly of long-time African-Americans and newcomer Hispanics, the area is known for its car-covered lawns and its gangs, not necessarily in that order. Very few people know that East Palo Alto crosses Highway 101 and butts up to the lush well-manicured lawns of Palo Alto, but it does.

A worn-down middle school sits on a huge property just blocks down the street from the Home Deport/Highway 101 corner. Cesar Chavez Academy houses Grades 6, 7 and 8. Courtesy of caring teachers, classrooms open well before school starts, during lunch, and after school. There are many reasons why this is valuable. For example: there are a number of Pacific Islander families, living 15 - 20 in a standard home. No closets exist in these homes, clothes are simply dumped in the middle of a space. If it fits, you wear it. Privacy, study desk spaces, and quiet are nonexistent. Consequently, a number of these students want to "hang out" at school as long as they can. An open school means a place to study, a quieter environment, and maybe a chance to "be yourself".

Many students excel at sports, and the school encourages them. These students must have a 2.0 or better gradepoint to play a sport. Miraculously, during their sports season the students work hard to keep and maintain a 2.0. During the off-season, however, many give up. The local P.E. teacher and the school staff have decided to create an after-school Sports Center. Hoping to make it "rad" and "cool", a student cannot be a part of the Sports Center unless they maintain a 2.0 or better GPA. That's where the renovation comes in.

On a warm Saturday and Sunday in April a group of 10 - 20 folks convened to transform a former locker room, Our project included demolition, carpentry, and paint. It did not include a water line rupture, removal or small I-beams, chipping out concrete, nor refilling chipped concrete floors with Ardex (gypcrete). As anyone who's worked on a building project knows, this is not unusual. Pain in the rear and it delays the proposed schedule, but still common.

Part of the assembled team included a well-known structural engineer (he held the copper water line together as best he could, for nearly an hour while everyone scrambled to see where the water shutoff was located), electricians, and several former carpenters who were knocking together lockers, benches, and nailing up replacement gypboard walls. Others put together shadowboxes promoting varsity sportshirts and team photos.

To clean up the beater used to mix the Ardex, I stepped outside. There I discovered an 8-grader munching happily on a sandwich. I was surprised to learn that the students from this middle school transfer across the highway into one of the most competitive high schools on the Peninsula. I asked this young lady, I'll call her Flavia, how she felt about the competition at this high school.

"Well," said she matter-of-factly, "My mother and my older brothers all went to the high school. They all dropped out, though. None of them finished high school." "They didn't like high school?" I asked. "They didn't do well?" "Oh, they couldn't avoid the gangs that are there," Flavia replied. "My third brother, H, really liked school. He wanted to go on to college. But both gangs kept pressuring him to join one. He told them he didn't want to be a member of either gang. He couldn't stand it. He couldn't get them to leave him alone, so he dropped out."

Flavia stopped and ate another bite of sandwich. "Then he saved his money and bought a car, but one gang decided to get even and they torched the car. H. hadn't paid off the car, so the gang said it was stolen. He's in jail now. He shouldn't be there. He's coming out at the end of April." "How about you, how are you feeling about high school? Do you like school?" Another bite of sandwich and a thoughtful nod to herself. "I'm nervous. Sometimes I don't understand and I don't want to get behind."

While we designers are concerned with the built environment, there's an intersection between the lives of people using the buildings, and our community. Anyone of us has enough education that we can help with tutoring. It takes a village, as the saying goes. Hopefully you'll give some consideration to tutoring on a regular basis today.

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