September 14, 2007

Turning Troubles into Exquisite Stone

Charter school builds foundation for student success through ‘Stone Worx’ program

Shaping the life of a troubled young person can be a lot like working with stone. You must have the right materials, a solid foundation and the proper support. The finished product, whether a mantel for the fireplace or a young man with just plain fire in his heart, can be a sight to behold. An inspiration even.

That’s what Robin Garland sees in the young people who she helps mold as a supervisor at MAAC Community Charter School in Chula Vista. The alternative education school takes in many of the most hardened youth in the South County, kids who were more prone to destruction than construction.

“For many, we’re their last best chance,” Garland said.

So what does Garland do? She hands them some concrete mix, tools and a large dose of hope. MAACreate Stone Worx is an innovative program involving the school, a local company and YouthBuild, a youth and community development group. Through the Stone Worx program, the students are getting an education and learning a trade. They’ve created everything from fireplace mantels to stone columns, tile pavers, fountains, planters and benches. Stone Worx’ student-built products—designed and sold by Custom Cast Stone—have ended up in some of the finest homes in San Diego County. The students’ decorative planters are even part of the landscaping in downtown San Diego’s Little Italy.

“This is one of those true feel good stories,” said Arlie Ricasa, the Sweetwater District’s Board President. “The students at MAAC have been able to overcome serious challenges in their lives. They’ve shown what tremendous potential they have and what the value of hard work can bring. The quality of their products is exceptional.”

Craig Frederickson, chief operating officer of the MAAC school, said the program grew out of the need to set up a small company that could be youth run and generate money back into the campus.

“It helps employ young people,” Frederickson said. “We think it’s real important that young people get that sense of what it’s like to work and have cash in their pockets.”

A majority of the students come to the program while on probation from the justice system. Many are transitioning back into a classroom after having dropped out of more traditional schools. Some students have a history of drug or gang problems. Others no longer live at home.

Garland notes that students initially were drawn to the program as a chance to earn extra money. Pretty soon, their school attendance and achievement improved as well. Students must attend school in the morning in order to be able to work in the afternoon. No longer content with just completing high school or obtaining a General Equivalency Diploma, some students even started thinking about college.

“Many of the students didn’t really reach for the stars before, or have goals in their lives,” Garland said. “They bounced from job to job, school to school or even home to home. What is exciting here is that we are able to distract them enough to be able to stay in school. They’re here at MAAC, between going to class and working, about 8 to 9 hours a day. Sometimes they are just too tired to get into trouble.”

MAAC provides a factory/workshop where students work under the guidance of experienced professionals. The students learn key elements of operating a profitable business while also earning an hourly wage. Many of the students are part of a Department of Labor Re-Entry program, which allows students on probation to learn important life skills through education, mental toughness and work experience. Since the program began, Stone Worx has created about $105,000 worth of products that have retailed for more than $263,000. But it has created something far more valuable within each of the students.

“I was going in the wrong direction,” said student Josue Velarde, 19. “But ever since I came here, I’ve been on track. I’m a better person now.”

Said Tony Perez, 18: “It takes us off the streets and occupies our time. Right here, we’re working all day. …It makes us responsible. I guess it has matured us in a way.”

MAAC Community Charter School was established in 2001 and is chartered under the Sweetwater Union High School District. Its mission is to provide low-income, “at-risk” students in grades 9-12 (and through age 24) a high school diploma in an educational environment where they are challenged and differences are valued. The school opened with 55 students and over the years has increased enrollment to more than 300 students.

Through the Stone Worx-YouthBuild partnership, students who graduate from the program earn an $1,800 scholarship from AmeriCorps, excellent job experience and a new outlook on life.

Perez recalls the heartache he used to cause. Now, he says he brings a smile to his mother’s face.

“I never thought of thinking about going to college, but now I am,” he said. “I never thought about school much. This program has helped me a lot. …I just want to keep making my mom proud.”

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