Noe Valley Voice December-January 2009

Noe Street School a Stepping Stone for Latino Immigrant Children

By Heather World

Principal Deborah Molof and students (left to right) Aaron Rosas, Kimberlin Soriano, Ruth Quiñonez, and Matthew Aguilar enjoy the close family feeling at Mission Education Center, a school located within the Kate Kennedy building on Noe Street.
Photo by Pamela Gerard

Women's rights crusader Kate Kennedy immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1849, so it is fitting that the school named in her honor at 30th and Noe streets is now a transitional school for recent Latino immigrants.

Mission Education Center--one of five transitional schools in the San Francisco Unified School District--provides a yearlong introduction to English and American life. Depending on the numbers of new arrivals, the student body ranges from 100 to 250 children, in kindergarten through fifth grade. Students come from Mexico, Central America, and sometimes South America, says Principal Deborah Molof.

"These kids are motivated to learn, and they're grateful to be here," says Molof. "The same with their parents."

Being surrounded by Spanish-speaking staff helps ease the adjustment to a new country, says fourth-grade teacher Ricardo Cortez, who attended MEC after arriving from El Salvador 36 years ago. He says he appreciated having a school specifically designed to acclimate him to the United States.

"It was quite a surprise because El Salvador was the only place I knew," Cortez says. Suddenly he was making friends with Mexicans, Nicaraguans--even two students from Greece. "There were people from just about everywhere." The students compared lives from their former countries: what food they ate, what slang words they used.

These days, all students at MEC are from Spanish-speaking countries. Many of them have a lot to learn, sometimes starting with Spanish itself, says Molof.

"Often their skills are low--some of them are pre-literate," she says. Once students reach grade-level Spanish, they start on oral and written English. The emphasis is on academics and language acquisition, but Molof has worked hard to secure grants and create partnerships to give the students more than rote learning.

The Museum of Craft and Folk Art hosts culturally relevant workshops, like one on Incan art. The Performing Arts Workshop sends dance and creative writing teachers to teach students. The San Francisco Ballet spends 10 weeks teaching world dance to second- to fourth-graders. Other grants are used to teach children and their parents healthy eating and exercise habits. San Francisco School Volunteers sends people to help in the classroom and in the afterschool tutoring program, Excel.

Molof also secures the kinds of district and city resources that will best serve a transplanted population, like vision, hearing, and dental screening. To follow up on possible problems, school staff compiled a list of agencies that can help with everything from getting glasses to getting financial aid.

Staff, parents, and students work closely together, weaving a tight-knit community. There are twice-monthly workshops for parents, on subjects like positive discipline and how to help with homework. Turnout is good, in part because parents enjoy meeting each other, Molof says.

"They're building a foundation here in this country and they're making connections," she says.

Molof wants to connect parents to the school, as well as to each other. She accommodates parents who work long or odd hours by offering workshops in the mornings and in the evenings. Teachers can conduct the parent-teacher conferences by phone, if necessary. In November and December, Molof and her staff spend a lot of time helping parents with enrollment applications for next year, helping them choose schools that will best suit their children, and guiding them through the appeals process if necessary.

Woven into the academic and artistic program are the traditions and customs of American life. Though the school celebrates traditional Latin American holidays like Dia de los Muertos, students will learn to say "trick or treat" on Halloween and to tell the history of the American flag on President's Day. They learn about Cesar Chavez and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thanksgiving at the school is a huge affair, and schools Superintendent Carlos Garcia has attended in past years.

"It's not about the pilgrims and Indians," says Molof. "It's more about coming to a new land and being grateful." Her students relate that to their own experience in essays.

School secretary Marina Vargas has been with Mission Education Center since its inception in 1972, when it was located on Fair Oaks Street.

"There are so many things that families need when they come to this country," she says. "This is the best place for those children because they come to a place where they feel comfortable."

The Noe Valley site, at 1670 Noe Street, recently underwent renovations and now sports a dramatic earth-tone paint job, a new playground, and better access for the handicapped. Built in 1911, the school was for many years an elementary school that drew most of its population from Noe Valley, says Molof. Many older residents remember it fondly.

"I have people come in and say, 'I went to this school as a kid,'" says Molof.

One of the school district's 35 child development centers is located on the campus. The centers offer meals and homework assistance before and after school and during vacations. Twelve schools use the Kate Kennedy Child Development Center, though Molof estimates only 10 of her students are currently enrolled.

Molof has been at MEC for nine years now, and she measures success in part by how many families and students use the school as a resource even after they've left.

"We're the first place they come because of the care and the trust we build here," she says.

Cortez also senses a close, family atmosphere. He himself went on to Lowell High School and San Francisco State University before returning to MEC to teach in 1989. At that time, civil wars raged in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and Cortez was able to empathize with his bewildered and sometimes traumatized students. He, too, had relatives who died in the wars.

"I knew what this school was all about," he says. "This was the first school I wanted to work at. It feels I'm doing something worthwhile."

Renovated last year, the 98-year-old Kate Kennedy building at Noe and 30th streets now houses Mission Education Center, a school for Latino immigrant children, and the Kate Kennedy Child Development Center, a before- and after-school program.
Photo by Sally Smith


Mission Education Center
Deborah Molof, Principal
1670 Noe Street at Noe Street

Fairmount Elementary School
Mary Lou Cranna, Principal
65 Chenery Street at Randall

Alvarado Elementary School
Robert Broecker, Principal
625 Douglass Street at Alvarado Street

James Lick Middle School
Bita Nazarian, Principal
1220 Noe Street at 25th Street