Sonoma Family Life Magazine August 2010 : Page 18

Sonoma Valley High’s AVID Students Build School in El Salvador All photos courtesy of Steven and Judith Cohen Students in front of the romero Center, Suchitoto, el Salvador. Left to right: Vianette Contreras, Emily Chavez, Yvette Hernandez, Frey-Cohen, Sam Alton, Bob Miller, Jorge Torres, Jose Dominguez, Walter Aldana, Gabe Stein, Ethan Cohen, Lisa Maconagle, Stephanie Braziel, Mariah Percy, and Simran Chahal. By Suzanne Maggio-Hucek When Jose Dominguez and his classmates begin school in late August, they will have some fascinating stories to tell about how they spent their summer vacation. D ominguez is a student in Judith Frey-Cohen’s AVID class at Sonoma Valley High School. AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) is a program that targets students who have the desire to go to college but are falling short of their potential. These students are often the first in their families to attend college, and many are from low-income or minority families. They stay with the same teacher throughout their high school years and focus on four areas of development: writing, inquiry, cooperation and reading. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Frey-Cohen has been teaching in the district for over 10 years: She 18 Sonoma Family Life understands that sometimes the most important lessons are learned outside the classroom. As part of their annual curriculum, her students take on service projects, supporting local organizations and bringing culturally rich experiences to their community. “It’s a way of paying it forward,” she says of the commitment to be other-centered. This year they were looking to do something a bit larger in scale. Her students were entering their senior year, the culmination of this 4-year educational program. Now would be the perfect time to take on a more global challenge, one that would stretch them once more. They had to look no further than their own back yard. During the school year, a former August 2010 “‘It’s a way of paying it forward,’ she says of the commitment to be other-centered.” student came to speak to her class about his experience with Seeds of Learning (SOL), a Sonoma-based non-profit organization dedicated to improving the educational opportunities in rural Latin America. To accomplish that goal, groups from the United States and Canada travel to El Salvador and Nicaragua to work side by side with the local community, building schools and offering assistance through mentoring, tutoring, and educational scholarships. The kids were excited. It seemed like a perfect fit. After all, isn’t that what AVID was all about? Frey-Cohen inquired about the possibility. Coincidentally, there happened to be a slot open, but she and her students would have to work www.sonomafamilylife.com

Building A School In El Salvador

Suzanne Maggio-Hucek

When Jose Dominguez and his classmates begin school in late August, they will have some fascinating stories to tell about how they spent their summer vacation.<br /> <br /> Dominguez is a student in Judith Frey-Cohen’s AVID class at Sonoma Valley High School.AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) is a program that targets students who have the desire to go to college but are falling short of their potential. These students are often the first in their families to attend college, and many are from low-income or minority families. They stay with the same teacher throughout their high school years and focus on four areas of development: writing, inquiry, cooperation and reading.<br /> <br /> A former Peace Corps volunteer, Frey-Cohen has been teaching in the district for over 10 years: She understands that sometimes the most important lessons are learned outside the classroom. As part of their annual curriculum, her students take on service projects, supporting local organizations and bringing culturally rich experiences to their community. “It’s a way of paying it forward,” she says of the commitment to be other-centered.<br /> <br /> This year they were looking to do something a bit larger in scale. Her students were entering their senior year, the culmination of this 4-year educational program. Now would be the perfect time to take on a more global challenge, one that would stretch them once more.<br /> <br /> They had to look no further than their own back yard.<br /> <br /> During the school year, a former Student came to speak to her class about his experience with Seeds of Learning (SOL), a Sonoma-based non-profit organization dedicated to improving the educational opportunities in rural Latin America.<br /> <br /> To accomplish that goal, groups from the United States and Canada travel to El Salvador and Nicaragua to work side by side with the local community, building schools and offering assistance through mentoring, tutoring, and educational scholarships. The kids were excited. It seemed like a perfect fit. After all, isn’t that what AVID was all about?<br /> <br /> Frey-Cohen inquired about the possibility. Coincidentally, there happened to be a slot open, but she and her students would have to work Fast. They would need to raise $20,000 in a short time, money that would provide the resources and travel expenses to take on this project. It was a feat that would have scared many potential volunteers off, but not Frey-Cohen. A passionate and dedicated teacher, she believed her students could accomplish whatever they set their mind to.<br /> <br /> “Don’t let money get in your way,” a colleague told her, and it became her mantra.<br /> <br /> Donations came from everywhere. The students wrote letters and made presentations to local Rotary and Kiwanis groups. Private donors, service organizations, and foundation grants served as the basis for their fundraising. They held a community pasta feed, multiple car washes and a Cinco de Mayo celebration that got them within dollars of their goal.“We had money coming from everywhere,” said Frey-Cohen with a sense of deep gratitude and amazement. “People wanted to support these kids. They knew what an opportunity it was and they wanted to be a part of making it happen.”<br /> <br /> On June 20th, Frey-Cohen and 14 students departed San Francisco for a ten-day stay in El Salvador, a tiny country of 6 million that is still reeling from the effects of a civil war. Her husband, Steven, and college-age son, Ethan, accompanied them on their journey.A film crew, funded by an anonymous donor, followed them to document their efforts. A film will be made of their experiences, hoping to bring additional resources to this worthwhile cause.<br /> <br /> After landing in San Salvador, they headed to Utalco, the tiny village where they would help to build the new school. What they found there surprised them. The existing school was tiny. Two small classrooms held 60 or more children. The building was roughly put together and built of mud and bamboo. It was dark inside and when the rain came down on the tin roof, it was almost impossible to hear the voices of the students as they recited their lessons. Desks were crammed together on the muddy floor and it was hard to see. “There were no cabinets for supplies,” Frey-Cohen recounted. “As teachers we complain because we have one or two cabinets to store all our supplies.They had nothing. There weren’t any supplies.”<br /> <br /> But, what they saw also amazed them. The classrooms were full of children with the biggest smiles, eager and ready to learn. The teachers, despite challenges that seemed Insurmountable, taught with remarkable dedication and enthusiasm, grateful for what they did have. In fact, this school was only 5 years old. Before that, one of the teachers told her, they would go to the students homes and teach them there.<br /> <br /> The group stayed in the Romero Center in the neighboring town of Suchitoto. Named after Cesar Romero, an El Salvadorian priest who was assassinated during the revolution, the converted convent serves as a home base for the many humanitarian groups who frequent the country. They ate simple meals of beans and rice and almost everyone got sick during the trip, but despite the modest and somewhat primitive conditions, no one ever complained. “The kids were amazing,” Frey-Cohen recalled of the group of teenagers. “They never complained. Not a one.<br /> <br /> They worked so well together.Their personalities blended and they bonded through self-initiated activities. They were respectful, well behaved and easy to be around. It was so enjoyable.” Sofia Baires, an El Salvador based Seeds of Learning employee, was their on-site coordinator. She organized their work, took them on day trips and taught them about the history of the country.Roberto Rivas, another SOL employee, was the construction foreman, guiding their building efforts every step of the way.<br /> <br /> They built the school in the morning. It’s a tag team approach.<br /> <br /> A school typically takes 5 months to build and each volunteer group takes on a different aspect of the construction. The Sonoma Valley students’ task was to build the walls of this new three-room schoolhouse. Working side by side with community members, they placed cement blocks and filled them in with hand-made concrete. Creating volcanoes of cement, dirt and water, they stirred the mixture by hand And shoveled it in to stabilize the walls. There were no cement mixers or heavy equipment: They did everything by hand.<br /> <br /> After lunch, which was prepared by community members, the group took day trips to explore the area and learn about the country. During breaks from building, the students would go down to the school and teach the children, reading books they had brought from home. Frey-Cohen brought materials from her classroom: flashcards, tangrams and bingo games with mathematical facts. The children were thrilled.<br /> <br /> And they’d play fútbol. Fútbol became the universal language, especially for those who did not speak Spanish.“Typical volunteers are English speaking,’ said Annie Bacon, Director of SOL, ‘But this group of AVID students was different.” The students who spoke Spanish bonded easily with their counterparts from Utalco.<br /> <br /> This tiny country is still reeling from the civil war.Without much of an economy, unemployment is high and gang violence is common, especially in the urban areas. While they were in El Salvador, there were reports of violence and the students heard the story of a mother of two of the school children who was killed when she wandered into an area with which she was not familiar. “The poverty hit me hard,” said Dominguez, “It reminded me of Mexico. But in El Salvador, death is common. That was very hard to see.”<br /> <br /> In light of all this violence, how was it that they felt safe? Seeds of Learning has a strong track record of safety.<br /> <br /> Their employees know the country well and each year, Bacon says, the organization does a risk assessment, reviewing the current conditions and exploring ways to mitigate the risks inherent in a third world country. The students are monitored carefully, and information and instructions are given to orient the groups to their new surroundings.<br /> <br /> Frey-Cohen drew on her experiences in the Peace Corps to help prepare her students for the one they were now experiencing. “I made a lot of mistakes back then,” she said. “You don’t go in and do things yourself, thinking you’re going to change the world. You don’t act as though you know what needs to happen. With Seeds Of Learning, we worked with the community. The community members were with us every day, working side by side. They were building their school. We were there helping out, giving encouragement, and new energy to keep it going.<br /> <br /> There were some surprises as well. During the week, the Minister of Education came to visit the work site, followed by a visit from the television station Telemundo. The Minister’s visit coincided with a pedagogical conference about to take place in San Salvador. Discouraged by the country’s failure to see students continue on to college and excited by the idea of AVID, the Minister invited Frey-Cohen to come to the conference and speak. But it was not to be. “I wrote a speech,” Frey-Cohen laughed. “I even had a nice dress to wear, and then the hurricane hit. The conference was cancelled.”<br /> <br /> “One of the things I wanted to say [at the conference] was that the teachers that I observed were on the right track without any pedagogy at all. Despite abhorrent conditions, they took the love of learning that was so present in these kids and turned that enthusiasm into hard work and focus.It was amazing. These teachers had it.”<br /> <br /> And was the trip what she had hoped it would be? “It was so much more,” she said with a smile. “The students learned to appreciate their education and they grew in compassion for those who have so much less.” “To be able to make a difference in the lives of children was an incredible opportunity,” her husband Steven added, “To partner with them, to offer hope. That’s the future of El Salvador right there.”

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