by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
School employees were devastated when Park Oaks Elementary School in Thousand Oaks was closed last year due to budget cuts. Staff and students were reassigned to other schools in the Conejo Valley Unified School District.
“It was a horrific experience,” says Mandy Nygren, a member of the Unified Association of Conejo Teachers (UACT) who was part of the Park Oaks “family” of teachers, classified staff, students and their families. “We just couldn’t fight it.”
The district may have closed the school, but the commitment to the neighborhood remains strong for employees who once worked at the site. It is impossible, they say, to just walk away. Teachers and classified staff have continued volunteering — and recruiting numerous other volunteers — to help low-income students and their parents in the school’s former attendance boundaries. They have turned a portion of the site into the Park Oaks Community Center, and offer services for students and their parents every Wednesday evening in empty classrooms on the campus, which is now the home of a charter school. Ana Alvarez, former outreach education director at Park Oaks Elementary School, works with UACT members and community organizations to coordinate the program.
On a recent Wednesday evening, 12 classrooms were filled to capacity. The 63 volunteers included UACT members, retirees, high school students, representatives of faith-based organizations, and employees from Amgen, a biotech company. Some volunteers offered one-on-one tutoring and mentoring to approximately 125 students in preschool through fifth grade in English and math, while other volunteers conducted workshops in science for youngsters in white lab coats, or dancing lessons for preschoolers. Approximately 72 parents took workshops in subjects that included English as a second language and parenting skills. The event included sandwiches donated by Amgen and produce from the local Rotary Club.
The Wednesday night program began a decade ago because a handful of students needed extra help. As word spread, the volunteer program grew in popularity. Parents, unable to afford tutoring or classes out of their own pockets, eagerly embraced the educational opportunities available for their children and themselves. Wednesday night classes are now filled to capacity.
Tutors and teen mentors work with the same student each week, and strong bonds are formed over time. They may also communicate with the child’s regular teacher about the progress their student is making in school.
“These kids are great, so it’s fun,” says Sheri Groenveld, a member of Holy Trinity Church who volunteers regularly with second-grader Maritza Lopez. “Maritza is improving so much in her math skills that it’s exciting.”
Viewpoint High School senior Jeanne Lieberman started a mentoring program for fourth- and fifth-graders, which also offers tutoring as needed. She and fellow teen tutors give their charges little “assignments” like studying foreign countries, to teach them about the world and the opportunities that are available to them.
“It’s important for these kids to have a role model that’s from their generation,” she says. “And it’s also good they have academic support.”
Claudia Hughes, a parent whose three children attended Park Oaks Elementary School, says it helps her to deal with the loss of a community school by coming back to volunteer.
“Park Oaks staff is a unique bunch that not only thinks outside the box, but teaches with their hearts,” she says. “They go the extra mile.”
While most classes were packed, one held just three men. All of them were unable to read or write in Spanish, their native language, or speak English. One student wrote his name for the first time.
“I have lived in darkness all these years, and you have brought me to light,” he told Carman Mendez-Schedtman, an employee of Thousand Oaks High School who volunteers her time.
For Nygren, coming back to her former school site is still painful, but it’s also like coming home.
“We promised our students and our families that we would always be there for them no matter what,” explains Nygren, who now teaches at Glenwood Elementary School. “As long as our families come on Wednesday nights, we have to be there.”