There's a school in Salt Lake City that goes out of its way to find children who appear doomed to fail.
The Guadalupe Early Learning Center, in fact, will admit only children who have two strikes against them - parents who did not complete school and family income below the poverty level, said Suzanne Weiss, director. Children who already know the alphabet when it is time to go to school don't qualify at Guadalupe. The school puts its resources into those with serious educational deficits."These children would be at high risk in the usual school system," Weiss said. Family background is a consistent factor in how successful children are in school. Poverty, the parent's low educational achievement and cultural differences can mean failure for many children from the outset of their schooling.
Among the nearly 25 percent of students who drop out of school nationally, these factors emerge constantly as determinants, Weiss said.
The Guadalupe program, housed in an old church at 129 N. Sixth West, attempts to give such children a better start in school, to overcome their particular learning problems and, hopefully, to provide impetus for breaking the poverty cycle by continuing their education in the regular system.
"It's a dramatic problem in this country," Weiss said. "In Utah, 25 percent of our children live in poverty."
The center operates partly with Salt Lake School District funds and partly with donations from the community. It receives United Way funds. Originally, the program was sponsored by the Catholic Church, and the church continues to provide the use of the church building for the school program.
Children who come from educationally deprived homes lack several advantages that children reared in homes with educated parents have, Weiss said. They don't understand letter and number concepts that most 5-year-olds have developed. They don't recognize their own names in print.
"They have no idea what reading is. Their adult role models don't read. It is not a part of their value system."
For some reason, these children do not have the capacity to visualize things, Weiss said. They require a different approach to teaching, constant repetition and heavy emphasis on phonics.
The rules are stiff. The Guadalupe students must attend classes regularly or relinquish their spot to a child who will, Weiss said. When attendance falls below 96 percent, a parent conference is called.
"There are 2,000 kids in this area who could benefit from this special attention," Weiss said. It is too valuable to waste. Approximately 60 children are involved at any given time.
For many of the parents, school is a symbol of failure in their own lives, but many of them believe that success in school will help their children escape the poverty trap in which they find themselves.
Classes are small - about 15 children with two teachers and two aides - plus volunteers. (The school is always looking for volunteers. Anyone interested may call 531-6100 for information).
Children may attend Guadalupe through fourth grade, but they are shifted to regular schools as they seem ready, Weiss said.
The special school is, in one sense, a laboratory to learn how best to teach children who have not been prepared for school. Although funding hasn't allowed for significant tracking of the Guadalupe students once they leave the center, Weiss said she hopes to do more of that, to determine how much difference early intervention can make toward keeping these children in school.
She hopes it is the difference that keeps that third strike - failure in school - from putting these youngsters "out." Out of society's mainstream, out of the job market, out of productive contribution to themselves and others.