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Taking Charge in Loleta 

Amid school discord and racial differences, community group finds its voice

If you were to miniaturize Humboldt County, shrink it down to about 10 percent of its size and population, you'd wind up with a region that looks a lot like the 95551 zip code. Rural and low-income, this coastal community marries agriculture and small-town values with a natural beauty that's almost dizzying. Atop Table Bluff, cows graze and hawks swoop amid panoramic views of the Pacific, south spit and Humboldt Bay.

The region's roughly 1,700 people, rugged, friendly and idealistic, are spread across the land in tight-knit little sub-communities whose differences sometimes strain their bonds, like rivalries between cousins. The community hub is Loleta (pop. 783), where a rustic Main Street with a market, deli, bustling bakery and post office parallels a defunct railroad track and a narrow park with concrete picnic tables. On the north end of town is a trailer park, and up the hill to the east, past the cheese factory and the abandoned brick dairy warehouse, you'll find newer neighborhood developments scattered around the quaint elementary school. Surrounding these population grids, farms stretch from the highway to the coast, where the Eel River drains into the ocean.

Mostly white, the region's diversity is growing thanks to a burgeoning Latino population and two tribal Rancherias -- Table Bluff, with its tract homes nestled in the south bay flats, and Bear River (a branch of the Rohnerville Rancheria), with its towering hotel and casino on the hill.

While this mini-Humboldt is idyllic in many ways, the community often finds itself divided by crisscrossing fault lines formed by culture, language, geography and economics. "It tends to separate, that's all," said Marcus Drumm, general manager of the Loleta Community Services District and a former member of the school board. "It's a small town with a long history. ... Problems hang around forever, and people get attached to them."

But with help from local nonprofits and a series of grants, residents of 95551 have begun to better understand the contours of their divides and to form bonds across them. The Loleta Elementary School has been pulled into both processes, thanks to a community-building initiative that began last year, financed by a $75,000 grant from the St. Joseph Health System Foundation to the Redwood Community Action Agency.

 

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With its squat tan buildings and kelly green trim, Loleta Elementary School sits on a graded flat spot along Loleta Drive, which curves down the hill from Highway 101 to Main Street. The campus shares its plateau with a playground, a baseball field and, on the other end of the parking lot, the Loleta Volunteer Fire Department's red firehouse.

With 120 students spanning kindergarten through eighth grades, the school has a different demographic profile than the community at large. The 95551 zip code is more than 77 percent white, but Loleta Elementary School is about 65 percent Native American and 15 percent Latino.

Even more striking is how many students live near or below the poverty line. Roughly 92 percent of the school's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, with subsidies provided by the federal government and individual school districts. In his book Teaching With Poverty in Mind, author Eric Jensen points out risk factors faced by children raised in poverty, including emotional and social challenges, cognitive lags and health and safety issues.

With support from staff from RCAA and other area nonprofits, community members have started tackling some sticky school issues that have parents concerned. Early in the community-building initiative, volunteers conducted a series of one-on-one interviews, asking 150 residents what could make their community a better place to live.

Many parents expressed concern about Loleta Elementary School's disciplinary methods. Some said there was bullying going on. Others said teachers were playing favorites. The prevailing theme, according to a number of parents and members of a local organizing committee, was that discipline was inconsistent. And that perception was exacerbating feelings of injustice that have been around for years.

Renee Saucedo moved to the area about a year ago, and last summer she became the social services director of the Wiyot Tribe, which has members at both Rancherias. "I started in June of this year, and I've been receiving complaints and reports ever since then," she said, "... reports from Wiyot parents saying that they feel dissatisfied with the school's disciplinary system. They feel that historically [discipline] has been implemented in an unequal and arbitrary way."

Drumm, the Community Services District manager, said that many parents feel discipline is lax, generally, and many Latino and Native American parents in particular feel that their kids are treated unfairly.

"And perception counts for a lot," Drumm said. There may be small issues of bullying, roughhousing or teasing that don't get nipped in the bud, and when discipline is eventually meted out, it can appear amplified or distorted by cultural divisions. "You will have some communities that end up with more discipline than others," Drumm explained diplomatically. "That feeds the perception that there are cultural differences, whether it's charges of racism in the extreme case or just that teachers end up playing favorites."

Some parents have opted to take their kids out of Loleta Elementary School and enroll them in nearby schools in Ferndale, Fortuna or King Salmon. Aileen Meyer did just that with her grandkids two years ago. A resident of the Bear River Rancheria, Meyer serves on the Wiyot Tribal Council and works as the Rancheria's child care director and education coordinator.

"My grandkids, I guess, are kind of delinquent," she admitted, "and they got kicked out of school almost daily. So I had to move them about two years ago to Ferndale, and they haven't been kicked out since."

Earlier this year, the education subcommittee in the community-building initiative set about researching various behavioral models used by other schools in the area. The committee held eight formal research meetings in six months, interviewing area teachers, administrators and experts with an eye toward finding a comprehensive discipline policy to recommend to Loleta Elementary School's administration.

At last month's school board meeting, members of the subcommittee stood before the school board -- a nervous first for some of them -- and presented their three-part recommendation.

First they suggested adopting a proprietary system called Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports. Recently implemented at Eureka and Del Norte County elementary schools, PBIS combines a proactive and encouraging approach with data tracking to gauge its effectiveness.

The second recommendation was for the school to develop its own "code of conduct," starting by brainstorming with students in the classrooms as a way to encourage ownership and buy-in.

And third, they suggested Montessori-like guidelines for how to treat students who violate that code of conduct. Advice includes, "Set firm limits in loving ways" and "Focus on relationships and respect, not punishment."

Committee members say their policy recommendations have the support of every teacher in the school.

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"I'm gonna be a little blunt."

Sallie Hadden is both principal and superintendent of Loleta Elementary School, an enormously challenging job. The last two people who held it lasted just one year apiece. Hadden is now in her third year, and the demands on her run the gamut from submitting an endless stream of reports to the state to helping make lunch when the cook calls in sick. But still, while she could certainly use some more adults on staff, she didn't ask for help from the local organizing committee. And she wasn't terribly impressed with their suggestions. Hence her warning about being blunt.

"They're concerned about the disciplinary [process] but they have no kids in our school, so that'll end that story right there," Hadden said testily during a recent phone conversation.

Many committee members are, in fact, parents of Loleta students. Last Friday, the Journal stopped by the school to follow up on this point. It was just before lunchtime, and Hadden was in the cafeteria helping prepare lunch. The cook had called in sick, and just like she'd said, here she was, heating up little burritos for kids' lunches.

"No no no no no," Hadden protested when we told her about the parents on the committee. "I said the local organizing committee is not made up of a majority of parents." A woman handed her a plate from the pass-through window in the kitchen and Hadden set it on the lunch table. "OK," she continued, "what you have to understand is if you look at the local organizing committee, you'll find it's a specific nationality."

What nationality?

"Oh, they, a lot of, several of them are Hispanic parents," Hadden said. "You know, good people, but, you know."

Just then, an adult walked through the cafeteria door followed by a line of chattering young kids, maybe first graders. Hadden called out to them, "OK, burritos!" She smiled at the first kid in line and pointed to the pile. "This one's got your name on it."

She did not amplify on how having Hispanic members might affect the committee's actions or its collective wisdom.

During our first phone conversation, Hadden said the committee's recommendations are impractical.

"They did a nice investigative session with this; then they turned around and presented their findings, which is fine," she said. "But then, in presenting their findings, they said, ‘We'd like the board to reply on this next month.' So obviously they don't know how the school system works, because you can't stop in the middle of the field and say, ‘Okay, this is what we're going to do.'"

In order to implement the PBIS system someone would have to pay for the curriculum, the materials and a four-day staff training. The price tag is $4,000, "and who's gonna pay for it?" Hadden demanded. She also argued that the three parts to the committee's recommendation aren't necessarily compatible with one another. And furthermore, she said, Loleta Elementary School has been working with a different proprietary behavior program called Second Step, which it purchased two or three years ago.

As the conversation continued, Hadden's demeanor softened. While she disagrees with the premise that discipline at her school has been arbitrary and random -- and she thinks that society has blown the bullying issue out of proportion -- she said she appreciates the work being done by the local organizing committee. And she acknowledged that she and her fellow staff members like a lot of the elements in the PBIS program. Along with other schools in the county, she said, Loleta is waiting to see what kind of results Eureka city schools have with it.

But newly emboldened community members seem unlikely to sit back and accept the status quo.

"There's a discipline problem in the school that needs to be dealt with," said John Oswald, president of the Loleta Chamber of Commerce and recently appointed president of the school board. Two of his children attend the school, and they've complained to him that sometimes it's hard to learn in class because other students are acting up. "When you hear that from your kids you're like, ‘Wow, that's nothing I would have told my parents.'"

In Oswald's opinion, adopting the committee's recommendations should be a "no-brainer," and as president of the board his opinion carries a great deal of weight.

Much of the push for change has come from the local Latino community, many of whom felt too nervous or ill-prepared to address the school board until they got help and encouragement via the community initiative.

Marcelina Mejia de Castillo, for example, has a daughter in first grade at Loleta. A non-native English speaker, she called the St. Joe's grant and RCAA-led initiative "a blessing, because oftentimes we as parents have concerns, but we might not necessarily be ready to put in a word or have the knowledge of who to contact about the issues we have."

Over the past year, Mejia de Castillo has taken a leadership role on the organizing committee. At last month's school board meeting, she got up before the board as chair of the school opportunities team and introduced its recommendations.

 

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Emily Sinkhorn, projects coordinator with RCAA's natural resources services division, explained that the community-building initiative is intended to empower residents of low-income communities. It aims to help them collaborate with each other, engage with local decision makers and develop their own leadership skills.

This region fit the criteria for the grant because it's relatively diverse and low-income, with reduced access to health care, but also because St. Joe's already had a community resource center on the campus of the elementary school.

RCAA partnered with the Humboldt Area Foundation and First 5 Humboldt, nonprofits with shared values around healthy communities, and in a series of community meetings recruited volunteers for the local organizing committee. Then, in a yearlong listening campaign, organizers and residents helped the region to identify some of its own virtues and challenges.

In addition to the school discipline issues, the interviews yielded a number of other suggestions for making 95551 a better place to live: Community meetings could be more accessible for working parents; Spanish interpretation services should be expanded; minorities should be encouraged to pursue leadership roles; the park could use some better amenities; and the town needed a communication hub.

The local organizing committee achieved an early victory last year when it rallied the community to speak out against eliminating the seventh and eighth grades at Loleta Elementary School. With space constraints and a pathetic public-school budget, the tiny school -- which last year had just under 100 students -- had proposed downsizing. But parents resisted, and they rallied behind a common cause.

"Talking about getting rid of seventh and eighth grades -- that really brought the community together, across all cultural divides," said Oswald. "Everybody was unanimous: We love the school the way it is."

With support from the local organizing committee, which had formed subcommittees, each working on its own initiative, the community gathered at a meeting last year and pressured the school into finding a way to keep the seventh and eighth grades. (Hadden described the meeting as "aggressive.") This year, the average class size has increased from about 15 to 22, with grades combined to fit all the student into the school's six classrooms.

This achievement -- saving seventh and eighth grades -- helped to galvanize the community and inspire the local organizing committee, according to Ed Ramos, a committee member and tutor for the Bear River Rancheria. "When the community saw how much of a voice they had -- because they'd made an impact -- they kept coming together," he said. "We saw that if we stick together we can overcome some of these issues."

More than a year into the community-building initiative, RCAA has been awarded another grant from St. Joseph Health System Foundation -- $100,000 per year for three years to help implement the initiatives that have been started or identified. About a third of that money will directly fund community projects, according to RCAA projects coordinator Sinkhorn. Roughly half will go toward salaries for staff working on the initiative, with the rest going toward training, materials and other incidentals.

A couple of notable improvements have already been made. Several residents said that Latinos now feel more empowered at community meetings, thanks to interpreter services and encouragement from the local organizing committee.

More tangibly, there's now a kiosk downtown, a four-sided, pagoda-shaped bulletin board across from Main Street where fliers announce upcoming community events. A couple of weekends ago a calendar on one board included Bear River tribal council meetings, a church service schedule and open hours for the food pantry. On the adjacent corkboard, a chamber of commerce newsletter reported on a recent antique show raffle and a community picnic, and a flier announced an opening on the Loleta School Board.

 

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The most recent meeting of the local organizing committee was held inside the Loleta Community Church during a torrential downpour. With the National Weather Service advising people to stay home if at all possible, the deluge kept a number of regulars from attending. But about a dozen enthusiastic committee members braved the storm. Each grabbed a plate of free food (a meeting tradition) and plopped down in one of the chairs arranged in a circle on the linoleum floor.

They began by recounting and analyzing their presentation at the last school board meeting. What went well? What didn't? What did people learn?

"I learned that it's uncomfortable to talk about money," said committee member Nicole Coyn. The PBIS system's $4,000 price tag had come up at the meeting. The grant from St. Joe's is written in such a way that it can't cover the expense. Now the committee talked about possible other grant sources to cover the cost.

Helen L'annunziata, a senior planner with RCAA's natural resources division, chimed in, saying that she learned the value of "really thinking about our audience and what resonates with them." When addressing the school board, she explained, they like hearing how the committee can help them find funds for programs like PBIS.

They brainstormed on how to stay on message at the school board's next meeting, which will be held on Dec. 19: Be heartfelt rather than accusatory or backward-looking; use "I feel" language. While members spoke, L'annunziata wrote their ideas down on paper sheets clipped to an easel.

After debriefing, the committee members looked to prioritize future initiatives. A list of issues and projects had been written in multi-colored felt markers on sheets of butcher paper taped to the walls. Heather Equinoss, a program manager with the Humboldt Area Foundation, gave each committee member three circular green stickers and told them to place each one next to their top three priorities. Among the popular candidates were "Transfer ownership of park to a community group," "support language and cultural activities" and "improve access to park."

This was clearly a group that had become addicted to improving their community.

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Bio:
Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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