“Sonoma….we have a problem”

Steven L. Pease

“Houston……we have a problem.”   Who can ever forget those words, delivered at the head end of a radio message to Mission Control from the crew of Apollo 13 as the seriously endangered space capsule hurtled silently toward a possible crash on the surface of the Moon.

I’m here today to send a similar, though less dramatic, message to my friends, neighbors and fellow residents of Sonoma Valley. Like Apollo 13, we face a crisis of our own, one that could over time destroy for future generations the quality of life we enjoy in the Valley today.  Fortunately, like Apollo 13, good people are at work on the problem.  There’s significant progress to report. And the prognosis is good if we all pitch in and pull together toward a solution.

The Trigger

A terrible and shocking occurrence took place in our community in the fall of 2007. A 17 year-old Hispanic boy named Luis Roberto Miranda was shot and killed at Maxwell Park in Boyes Springs.  The murder, which was gang-related, utterly stunned Sonoma Valley.  People were asking each other how could this happen here? What has gone wrong with our kids?  What do we have to do to fix things?

Responding to these concerns, Sonoma Valley Fund, an affiliate of Community Foundation Sonoma County, established a Youth Initiative Committee composed of Barbara Young, David Stollmeyer and me to explore the forces behind the murder and make recommendations for dealing with them.  We drew on some 60 local leaders in education, government, charitable organizations, law enforcement agencies and other groups directly involved with local youth, and we also met with students. We spent nearly a year discussing these matters. As a Board member of Sonoma Valley Fund, I was privileged to take part in this effort and to serve as lead author of the final Youth Initiative Report in December of 2009.

The Setting

The SVF Youth Initiative Committee quickly found that Sonoma Valley has a huge and complex education problem – as, in fact, does the United States of America. Nationwide, literacy, math and science skills are dropping across the board. Less than 70 percent of ninth graders are expected to graduate from high school. Fewer are going on to college and still fewer actually graduate.

The challenge in Sonoma is compounded because an increasing number of children lack basic English skills. We are in the midst of a dramatic demographic shift as Anglo populations age, have fewer kids, and have them later in life, while in contrast, documented and undocumented Latino populations have large families much earlier than Anglos. This disparity has had a dramatic impact on our student population and created new challenges for our educational system.

Coupled with these demographic changes, the “drive” to get a great education is diminishing, just as the need to have one to succeed in an ever more complex and competitive global economy is increasing.  Mid-level-skills jobs are going away, and they’re not coming back. This means that the coming labor market will be comprised of high performance jobs, with high pay, versus low skilled jobs with low pay, and ever fewer jobs in between. There is, and will continue to be, a dearth of well-paying opportunities for those who don’t finish high school.

Findings and First Steps

Unless positive academic proficiency trend lines can be restored in an atmosphere of healthy cultural values in the short-term, the long-term outlook for most of our youth and the overall health of our community is bleak.

As a result of the Youth Initiative Report, the Sonoma Valley Fund partnered with Sonoma Valley Unified School District in 2010 to launch several programs that would keep kids engaged academically and off the streets.  The programs were targeted at the most sensitive times for at-risk youth, during the transition from elementary schools to middle schools and from middle schools to high schools.  At these points, healthy, stimulating after-school and summertime programs can motivate academic curiosity, proficiency and healthy values to reverse the momentum now pulling so many kids in the wrong direction.  And this can be accomplished at a very modest cost.

Sonoma Valley Fund’s programs augmented and enriched classroom studies with off-campus experiences well beyond anything most of the kids had ever seen. Many had their first opportunity to leave Sonoma Valley with visits to the State Capitol in Sacramento, the University of California campus at Davis, and Santa Rosa Junior College. Those slated to study Asian history and culture the next year visited San Francisco’s Chinatown and Asian Art Museum. Still others journeyed to Point Reyes seashore for ecology orientations. Additional off-campus summer experiences and after-school activities and programs have been added. Since its launch in 2010, roughly 500 children – a significant proportion of Sonoma’s at-risk student population – have taken part in this special curriculum.  And the metrics are overwhelmingly positive. (You can read the Sonoma Youth Initiative Report in its entirety at sonomavalleyfund.org/youth_initiative_findings.

Whither From Here

Last month Sonoma Valley Fund announced that the Sonoma School District will take over management of these programs, beginning this year. Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s Superintendent of Schools Louann Carlomagno has vowed to build on the successes and continue to reshape the program in ways that make it even more impactful in the fragile young lives and aspirations of our at-risk Sonoma youth.

Valley residents can help the program directly by sending a check, of any amount, to the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation. Sonoma Valley Fund and Community Foundation Sonoma County have announced a Matching Grant, in which they will contribute one dollar for every dollar raised in the community for this program up to $25,000!

The educational challenge for Sonoma Valley will continue for the foreseeable future. The good news is we have a great team in place.  In addition to a superb school system, we have a large population of motivated parents and other adults who support Sonoma’s youth. We have more than a dozen top-notch, non-profit organizations geared toward our youngsters. And we have a privileged citizenry with demonstrated concern and ability to step up to the plate when financial resources are needed for important community purposes.

To draw upon the Apollo analogy once more, Sonoma’s future largely depends on a successful collaborative effort between that fragile and special cargo on its way toward a solid education and the rest of us here in Sonoma Valley.  For our part we need to put our time and money to work ensuring that each and every one of our youngsters reaches this important destination safely and effectively. Our future depends on it!

A number of us at Sonoma Valley Fund have already taken the opportunity afforded by this Matching Grant to help our kids.  Please join us in this important work.  Contributions to this effort can be made by sending a check to: Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, 17878 Railroad Avenue, Sonoma, CA 95476, Attention: Youth Initiative.


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