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Calexico Schools Face Loss Of Learning Challenges Following Earthquake

Above: Students at Mains Elementary School were excited to return to school after a month-long break due to earthquake damage.

Audio

Aired 5/10/10

Calexico elementary and middle school students begin their first full week of classes Monday since an earthquake struck the Imperial Valley last month. All 13 campuses were damaged in the border-city. More than 9,000 Calexico students were forced to stay home.

Hundreds of school kids wait anxiously outside Mains Elementary School for classes to begin. This is first time they've seen each other in more than month. The girls hug and hold hands. The boys tease and crack jokes.

Calexico Unified School Superintendent Dr. Christina Luna (center) and other school officials welcome back students to Mains Elementary School.
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Above: Calexico Unified School Superintendent Dr. Christina Luna (center) and other school officials welcome back students to Mains Elementary School.

Calexico High School Principal Gilbert Barrazs stands in the middle of a school building that was damaged from a 7.2-magnitude earthquake on Sunday, April 4, 2010.
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Above: Calexico High School Principal Gilbert Barrazs stands in the middle of a school building that was damaged from a 7.2-magnitude earthquake on Sunday, April 4, 2010.

Mains Elementary is one of 13 Calexico schools that shut down after the so-called Easter earthquake. Damages included exposed electrical wires, asbestos contamination, cracks in ceilings and roofs and busted water pipes.

Mains Elementary School Principal Carlos Gonzales says most repairs are done. He’s focused now on getting kids quickly caught-up in school. He hopes they can survive California's state standardized tests.

“It's a huge assessment,” Gonzales said. “We have to show growth. That is something that is on our minds. We have to show growth even though we've had this natural disaster.”

The results from these high-stakes tests can make or break a school. If students do poorly, the campus is placed on a state and federal watch list. It also faces academic sanctions -- from a curriculum overhaul to a state takeover.

Calexico schools have already been hit with academic penalties for several years. One factor is the district's student population. The district is located along the U.S.-Mexico border. The majority of students speak Spanish as their primary language. Most come from poor families.

Some teachers say one month of lost instruction can set these students back an entire year.

Calexico School Superintendent Dr. Christina Luna says the district was already struggling with an absentee problem at schools. It's also reeling from deep budget cuts, which could be made worse by the loss of instructional days. Schools are funded based on how many students are in class each day. Luna says the district was in the middle of overhauling instructional programs when the earthquake hit.

“Its very, very frustrating for us. All our efforts have stopped because 100 percent of everyone's time has been on earthquake recovery,” Luna said.

Luna stands by her decision to shut down all 13 campuses for a month. She says the damages were too great.

But many parents are frustrated. The district's 9,000 students were stranded at home. Parents were encouraged to pick up instructional packets with worksheets and assignments. Teachers held their own tutoring sessions and posted assignments online. Ana Carrillo is mother of three school kids. She says you just can't replace classroom instruction.

“I have three children and only one computer, so it was hard,” Carrillo said.

Carrillo said when her kids opened the district’s instructional packets, they either had completed the assignments before the earthquake hit or they didn’t understand the material.

Then there are the city's high school students. Calexico has only one high school. The campus remained closed until today. Fabiola Chavez is a senior who's about to graduate. She's worried about the coursework she missed.

“The most confusing part is not knowing in general. There are some assignments that require me to be (at school). And those assignments I can't really make up. I have to be there in person. Its stressful,” Chavez said.

Calexico High School Principal Gilbert Barraza stands in the middle of room in complete disrepair. Books cover the floor. Metal book shelves are bent sideways. Barraza says it's tough knowing his students were not in school but there was simply no room at the other campuses.

“We believe we're setting a precedent for the rest of the state to examine. One day we'll look back on this and ask ourselves if we could have done better,” Barraza said. “The idea is to be proactive, and stay proactive despite people who don't completely understand the situation.”

Luna wants to bolster online classes and summer school programs this year to make up for the loss of instruction. She's hoping state education officials can waive her district's standardized test scores this year. Luna says her district shouldn't be penalized for something that was out of its control.

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