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Calexico Schools Feel Pain of Crippled Economy

Above: The number of students getting free meals has skyrocketed in the Calexico Unified School District.

— The economy is forcing many school districts to do more than just teach. They're having to take care of families. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis spent some time in the Imperial Valley. She looked at how the region's skyrocketing unemployment and foreclosure rates are racking up a human cost.

A man sits alone in a beat-up old American truck. He's parked next to a shopping center in the border city of Calexico. Music blares from his car radio.

Three years ago this parking lot was filled with cars and the shops with people. Construction was booming and business was thriving. Not anymore. Now the region is full of empty homes and storefronts.

Alba Zazueta is principal of Kennedy Gardens Elementary School in Calexico. She says each family at her school is feeling the pain, including her own.

“I don't let it get me down,” Zazueta said. “Actually when I'm here, I forget about all my personal problems from home. The day goes by very fast.”

The day goes by fast because Zazueta's is making sure a flood of families that are slipping into poverty get extra support in the form of free school meals, a ride home, or afterschool care for kids.

A drought, housing bust and crippled economy has resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs in the Imperial Valley. Cross-border business has also been hit hard because of the falling peso. Parents are struggling to find work. Zazueta says many choose to relocate.

“In every one in these enrollment reports I either have new students coming in or students leaving to other places,” Zazueta says, skimming thorough papers. “(They’re) leaving to Arizona, coming from Stockton. We have students leaving to Mexicali.”

“The families that are leaving Calexico by and large are moving back to Mexicali,” said David Grosbeck, superintendent of the Calexico Unified School District. “Its usually the result of them having lost their homes, having the inability to survive. A large percentage of our families have relatives in Mexicali so for them there is a support system in Mexcali that families in other parts of the country may not necessarily enjoy.”

Maria Martiz is one parent who's thought about moving back. Maria has four kids. She lost her job working in the fields. Now she lives with her sister.

“As for living in one house, it's okay for now,” Martiz said. “My sister has two kids. And I have my four kids. Our husbands are both away, looking for work right now. I'm not sure what job he might get - but anything is good as long as it brings us money.”

School officials say a large number of families are now forced to double-up or triple-up under one roof. In one case, there were 15 kids living in one house.

The district's Hortensia Armendariz is working to help families like that.

“If we don't have the services here onsite, we'll make sure we have an agency that can help families,” Armendariz said.

Armendariz runs Calexico Unified's Family Resource Center. It's a one-stop shop where needy families can access social services. These school-based centers are located throughout the Imperial Valley. Together they report a 23-percent hike in Medical cases and a 14-percent jump in food stamp recipients.

Amrendariz has also created her own arsenal of donated goodies.

“Here are some school uniforms, we have jeans, as you see, that are in really good condition,” Armendariz says, folding donated clothes at the center. “Oh wow, this is nice, you don't see too many clothes here. A lot of empty hangers, that means families are taking advantage. I want our families to know that yes, these are good clothes, but they are good clothes.”

She says the silver-lining is the community is coming together to help those in need.

“I think as long as we work as a community and as long as there are agencies, our families are going to have it hard, but its not going to be impossible,” Armendariz said.

But other educators are not so optimistic. They say state budget cuts are tearing into their spending plans, forcing them to scale back on the very people and services that these families need.

Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.

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