Murphy's Law

Year after year, Murphy school district officials watched their students die in a hail of violence. They decided to take matters into their own hands.

Robert Donofrio, Murphy's superintendent since 1986, says that schools and districts saddled with problems similar to his don't have much choice: "Our kids don't drop their emotional baggage at the schoolhouse door. They bring it right in with them.

"Some of the narrow thinkers said that all we were doing with the DES office was putting in a welfare center. But the fact is, if you can't stabilize a family in crisis, you can never teach the kid.

"So let me have the food stamps and bring in a job-training component. That way families can get emergency assistance and food stamps. They can get AHCCCS [state-funded medical care]. And their kids can get on with their education."

Robert Donofrio has been superintendent of the Murphy Elementary School District since 1986.
Paolo Vescia
Robert Donofrio has been superintendent of the Murphy Elementary School District since 1986.
Paolo Vescia
Rosaria Castaņeda finishes lunch at Kuban School.

On any weekday afternoon, the rooms and playing fields at the district's four schools are usually hopping with some of the district's dozens of after-hours programs. They range from the extracurricular sports and clubs found at other Valley schools to the kinds of things usually found at a social services agency: English classes and family-development workshops and parenting classes. Sometimes in the evenings, the district offices become meeting rooms for neighborhood organizations. On Friday nights, the field house at Garcia School (27th Avenue and Buckeye Road) draws kids and adults alike from all over the area for "midnight basketball." And it isn't unusual to find the campuses open on weekends for other community workshops or events.

Over the past 10 years, school attendance rates and test scores in the district have been edging up, and the number of complaints against Murphy children to the Maricopa County Juvenile Court overall have been falling.

As good as his district's efforts have been, says Donofrio, they amount to just a patchwork attempt to fill the area's most glaring educational, cultural and social holes.

Patchwork or not, the district's commitment to community involvement, say many gang-prevention experts, is a model of what schools can and should do to ease the conditions that feed gangs and juvenile crime.

"If somebody could dissect what they're doing and make a template out of it," says McCort, "it would be one of the best approaches we could put together."

On a recent Saturday morning, while the gates to many other schools in high juvenile-crime areas of the city are closed and locked, Murphy's Garcia School is open. About 20 Hispanic families are gathered among the tables in its cafeteria. They are talking, eating and playing with one another as part of a two-day workshop sponsored by a family-service organization called Creciendo Unidos (Growing Together). The organization, which operates under the umbrella of Safe Haven Inc., a private nonprofit community development corporation in the Murphy neighborhood, brings Hispanic families together to learn to get along.

Guille Sastré, director of the program, says she developed it about five years ago to fill a gap in many prevention and intervention programs.

Manual Avitia, who lives in the area and came with his wife and two young children, says he heard about the program through the school. Sitting in the school's courtyard during a break, he says that the area has too much violence and too many drug dealers.

"I thought this would be good for many families in my neighborhood, so we can get along better and learn how to control our children without using violence. That's important for us now."

Sastré's organization is one of dozens that use the Murphy schools after hours. She comes here partly because of the need in the community, yet also because her shoestring budget can afford it. The Murphy district doesn't charge her a dime.

That isn't the way it works in other districts. This past summer, the Alhambra Elementary School District, which also covers parts of west Phoenix that have high rates of juvenile crime, charged the City of Phoenix more than $3,600 to run a summer recreation program at Westwood Elementary School.

Like Murphy, Alhambra has numerous after-school and prevention programs and is benefiting from a $348,000 federal education grant. But the district draws its purse strings tight when it comes to the community.

"We give community organizations free usage of the facilities," says Alhambra district superintendent Carol Peck. "But I don't think you could expect the school to pay for custodians' overtimes for weekends and evenings."

Donofrio has little patience for such thinking.

"We're talking about reaping millions of dollars in community resources and services for a couple thousand dollars of additional custodial time. What here at our schools doesn't already have to be cleaned? So what if there's some extra cost on the weekends?"

He says groups like Sastré's are as essential as teachers to the district's work. "They're helping us overcome these social, economic and educational barriers our kids face. They're assets. We need them here. They're helping me develop my mission for young people."

In the late 1980s, Donofrio discovered that former Murphy students were dropping out of Central and Carl Hayden high schools because the Phoenix Union High School District didn't -- and still doesn't -- provide transportation. City buses didn't come frequently enough to get them to school on time. He started his own bus service with district funds.

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