January 24, 2017

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This weekend’s Alpha Class 2017 Orientation in San Diego is pretty special. As you may know, each class’s Orientation takes place in a different city, but this time, for our 20th Orientation, we are returning to San Diego, where we held our first ever Orientation back in 2012. Since then we’ve developed a lot of momentum and sustained service there. This class of Fellows and Platoon Leaders can look forward to spending a day helping the San Diego service platoons’ efforts with some of the city’s public schools.

San Diego has over 1 million residents, and over 100,000 of them are veterans. We’ve worked hard to establish a strong presence through the San Diego 1st and 2nd Platoons, both of which have dedicated members who are totally rockin’ it. They concentrate on City Heights, a densely populated area where 85% of K-12 students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

We work with the San Diego Unified School District to help enact community-based school reform so that City Heights can have the kind of quality schools every student deserves. Our goals are to help improve literacy, overall graduation rates, and to make the schools safe and attractive. So far the platoons have renovated and beautified a community garden, added playground features to Rosa Parks Elementary, and more.

Alpha Orientation attendees will work with Wilson Middle School, a school that people in the neighborhood have said looks more like a detention facility than a center for learning. However, despite its looks, Wilson is doing some pretty cool things. Its exterior character is one of Wilson’s challenges, one that its principal, Dave Downey, will use The Mission Continues to help overcome.

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The San Diego 2nd Platoon doing a revitalization project at Rosa Parks Elementary.

To help us fully appreciate what this means for Wilson Middle School, Principal Downey explained to us that he has created many resources for students to help them succeed. He has a parent liaison to help engage parents, a full STEM curriculum, student leadership clubs, orchestra, jazz band, and a myriad of other after school programs — there are just too many to list. He also made sure students can go to tutoring and homework help in the mornings and evenings.

Wilson is turning around for the better. Unfortunately, despite all the improvements he has made, some families still “choice out” of sending their children to his school, and attend other schools like charters instead. Downey said, “being able to bring those families back and trust how the school has transformed is a huge part of my work.”

Part of the problem is that people judge books by their cover. While Downey has put together flyers and reaches out to elementary feeder schools, the building’s appearance proves discouraging to parents and students. Downey explained, “It’s a fairly dated school that was monotone in color, and has a prison-like sense to it.”

This is a case where a fresh coat of paint can outwardly reflect all the work that Downey and his staff have poured into the curriculum within the school’s walls. Alpha Orientation attendees will be beautifying the school’s exterior alongside its students. When we say “alongside” we mean that both literally and figuratively. We invited the 7th and 8th graders to design the mosaic mural that we will put along the sides of the school’s staircase, and have those same kids help us during the prep days to make their design come to life.

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The San Diego 1st Platoon working alongside students on a community garden.

Both Downey and the superintendent for his district, Fabiola Bagula, told us that they’ve had many disappointing experiences with organizations. But they soon realized our model was different from what they’d seen before. Downey explained, “I scrutinize heavily the people who come in, to see if it’s value added for us or for them.” After vetting The Mission Continues, he concluded, “It was clear it was going to bring something to the school and the kids.”

After working with Tristan, our City Impact Manager in San Diego, Bagula said, “I really appreciate this organization. What I like about them is they’ve been active partners who do their work with enthusiasm and ask, ‘What can we do next?’” She describes the process as “Very outcomes based, action oriented, and fast — and the principals don’t have to take on the projects themselves.”

Bagula reflected on why she found our mission compelling, “I believe children and education can provide a really solid purpose for veterans coming back, to ensure that our country is a beautiful country. They served in the military and I served in the schools, so we are both committed and invested in it.”

Indeed, Tristan, the San Diego 1st and 2nd Platoons, and our Fellows, are all committed to strengthen and revive City Heights’ public schools. Together, with the help and guidance of principals like Downey, and superintendents like Bagula, we can help empower veterans and the next generation of Americans.

See you at Alpha Orientation!

 

Report for duty in your community with The Mission Continues. Serve with a Service Platoon at an upcoming service event near you or apply for a fellowship. You can learn more about our programs on our website and stay updated on the latest news and announcements on Facebook and twitter.