A School Grows in the Tenderloin

San Franciscans launch drive for a school in a neighborhood that has not had one since 1942. Their proposal is winning city-wide support.

LIKE millions of American children, seven-year-old Regginea Smith rides a bus to school. At 7:30 every morning, the second-grader and her mother, Dorothy Waller, leave the family's apartment in the low-income, multiethnic Tenderloin district to walk to the bus stop.

But Regginea's walk is neither short nor safe. In the dozen blocks between her home and the bus stop, she and her mother pass homeless men and empty liquor bottles. They skirt one area where Hispanic drug dealers congregate and another where black drug dealers reign. They also avoid a street where, as Mrs. Waller puts it, ``the ladies of the night are.''

When they reach the bus stop in front of a coffee shop, they join other parents and children - some Asian, some Hispanic - waiting for a bus to John Muir Elementary School, more than 50 blocks away. Across the street, other students and mothers wait for buses going to other schools.

``This is like walking to a different side of town,'' Waller says. ``These children need a school in their own area they can walk to.''

That wish, long shared by parents throughout the Tenderloin, may finally become a reality. An unusual citywide drive is under way to build an elementary school in this neighborhood where no school has existed since 1942. Spearheaded by the Bay Area Women's Resource Center, a nonprofit group that helps low-income families, the effort has captured the support of civic groups, school commissioners, and residents throughout the city.

More than 4,000 children live in the Tenderloin, according to building-to-building surveys the women's center conducted in 1990. Growth in the neighborhood has mushroomed in the past decade as immigrants from Asia and Latin America have poured into San Francisco. Asians make up 72 percent of the Tenderloin's elementary school children, according to Midge Wilson, executive director of the women's center. Latinos account for 15 percent; whites, 7 percent; and blacks, 4 percent.

``Our elementary school-age children go to 47 different schools,'' says Ms. Wilson. ``We have kids in the same family going to different schools. It makes neighborhood cohesion around family and education issues extremely difficult.''

Long distances

Because of the distances, some parents have never seen their children's schools or teachers. If an emergency arises during the day, parents usually encounter transportation problems in getting to the school.

The proposed school would accommodate 500 to 600 students. Joe Esherick, an architect who helped design the Monterey Bay Aquarium, is working pro bono on the project. Because the Tenderloin is ``a real concrete jungle,'' he says, the school should not be ``fortesslike.'' He envisions a structure with open corridors and ``terraces that can house educational functions - a place where children are able to grow things.''

Even residents without children stand to benefit from the school. It will function as a multiservice center, providing social and health services that don't exist in the Tenderloin. Elderly housing might also be included on the site, Esherick says.

In January, Wilson, co-director Jacky Spencer-Davies, and other backers presented a detailed plan to the San Francisco Board of Education. The board unanimously passed a resolution mandating that the school district work with the women's center to get a grade school in the neighborhood as soon as possible.

Volunteers distributed bumper stickers reading ``Support a Tenderloin Gradeschool!'' They also blanketed the city with posters bearing the message: ``We Need Your Help! 4,000 children and NO public schools. Help us tell the city The Tenderloin Needs a Gradeschool.''

This Sunday, children and adults from around the Bay Area will join Tenderloin families for the seventh annual ``Walk for Tenderloin Kids'' to support the school.

In June, San Francisco residents will vote on a $95 million bond issue for education, $11 million of which would go toward construction of the Tenderloin school. The bond requires a two-thirds vote to pass, which ``is hard to get,'' says Tom Ammiano, a school board commissioner.

Commitment to build

Even if the bond issue is defeated, Mr. Ammiano says, ``We're still committed to the school.'' In that case, funds would have to come from the state, corporations, and other sources. ``[The school] really is a right answer to some of our problems around parent involvement and newcomer students. When it's that right, people feel motivated,'' he adds.

Ammiano praises Wilson and Ms. Spencer-Davies for their thorough preparation, which has included planning a curriculum and narrowing the list of possible sites. ``Their tenacity and their follow-through are really to be admired,'' he says.

Wilson herself is a study in can-do determination. From her storefront office in the Tenderloin, she specializes in what she calls ``impossible'' projects.

``Even our best allies in the neighborhood, when we first approached them with the idea of a neighborhood school, were skeptical,'' Wilson says. ``Not that they thought it was a bad idea. They just thought it wasn't going to happen. The city hadn't built a new school in almost a decade. But we're not going to stop until it happens.''

Esherick shares Wilson's optimism about the project. ``I'm convinced that people do things that are self-limiting,'' he says. ``They only ask for the possible. This is a great opportunity to expand in people's minds what the possible is.''

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