We live in an extraordinary community where you often hear stories of philanthropists writing large checks from their foundations to personal causes. Last week, Meg Whitman announced in East San Jose that she is giving $2.5 million to Summit Charter schools for 10 new 400 student high schools over the next decade. That same amount would pay for youth gang prevention services for up to 14 San Jose Schools in six districts for four years. Let me explain.
In the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force’s strategic planning document on the City of San Jose’s website, Mayor Reed is quoted as saying, “We have expectations for our youth to become important members of our community. It is everyone’s job to raise our youth and ensure we have safe neighborhoods …” Unfortunately, the City of San Jose’s budget of 2011-12 slashes funding for the Gang Prevention Task Force by $2.2 million, or nearly 50% from the previous year. This is a tragic development but easily understood when we look at the reality of the choices.
The STAND (Striving Toward Achievement with New Directions) gang prevention program employed eight city staff members who provided services to students in Alum Rock, Franklin-McKinley, Luther Burbank, San Jose Unified and Oak Grove school districts. STAND worked with youth on skills and experiences in leadership, conflict resolution and gang awareness. According to anecdotal reports, the program was changing student behaviors for the better and was cost effective.
It is alarming and wrong to continue to cut services to youth, especially those services proven to make a positive difference while improving the quality of life in our neighborhoods. In this era of less government it is urgent for village elders to step up and make a difference, even if they do not have the personal wealth to write a large check. I truly believe we can become creative and find ways to provide gang prevention services to youth in critical San Jose neighborhoods and schools.
I agree with the Mayor that it is our collective responsibility as a member of this village to step up. Therefore, the question for the village is: How can we work to either develop the $600,000 funding source to keep the previous model of prevention services in place for one year, or work to develop a less costly model by connecting dots with those social-service, non-profit organizations to provide the services and counseling at each of the identified schools? One or two dedicated volunteers with a curriculum and training at identified schools can make a huge difference.
I have asked the Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools to prepare a report to the County Board on STAND, as well as how the Office of Education might be helpful and resourceful in helping connect the dots for at-risk children who need our support and guidance. To abandon them at this time of need is insane. If we don’t help now, we will get these students in our schools for incarcerated youth later.
We can do better, and here is one example. Last Wednesday, I dedicated our County Office of Education Board meeting to Mr. and Mrs. Brian O’Halloran, who are contributing in major ways to make a difference in one of the STAND schools, Washington Elementary in San Jose Unified. They volunteer to work with at-risk youth up to 20 hours each and every week. Brian is retired from a very successful engineering career, but his San Jose Downtown Rotary work connected him with Washington Elementary several years ago.
Brian is the volunteer advisor to the school’s Adelante Club. The Club is comprised of 50-60 fourth- and fifth-grade boys. Maria Evans, the school’s principal, along with Steffanie White, a resource teacher, formed the Adelante Club as part of the larger gang prevention strategies that Washington employs.
Brian, who served with me as a volunteer member of Gardner Children’s Center Board in the 80’s, wrote in an email, “ At its core the purpose of the Adelante is to cultivate leadership skills in boys by providing opportunities to improve their school, neighborhood, and their future. Implicitly, we are trying to provide positive reinforcement; exposure to positive role models; and in general offer a sense of the possibilities they may not be aware of, particularly paths and professions that involve college education.”
At last week’s County Office of Education Board meeting I wondered out loud how many other Brian O’Halloran’s are in our village wishing they had something to do to contribute to making our community a better place. Replicating the Adelante model— trained and vetted volunteers—at other schools where gang prevention funding was cut might be a partial answer for our village to consider. Or, perhaps there are philanthropists in the village ready and willing to write a check to the City of San Jose to fund the staffing for gang prevention services the program had the last several years.