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.

Jennie Navarro, who sent six children through Murphy schools and has lived in the neighborhood for 31 years, says it's still difficult to get people involved.

She recalls that she and a handful of other neighbors joined the efforts because drugs and violence had made the community a desperate place. "The killings and the drugs made it hard for families to stay here."

Navarro notes that another obstacle to community involvement has been the political divisiveness that erupted in the area in the mid-1990s. In 1996, three members of the Murphy school board were recalled from their posts. Ever since, a vocal minority led by Elena "Helen" Madrid, one of the recalled members, has been lobbing charges at Donofrio and the district. Among other things, Madrid and her allies say that Donofrio intimidates people.

Victoria Hobein, Zayra Herrera and Karessa Rodriguez (from left) at Kuban School.
Paolo Vescia
Victoria Hobein, Zayra Herrera and Karessa Rodriguez (from left) at Kuban School.
Clay McAllester, principal at Kuban School.
Paolo Vescia
Clay McAllester, principal at Kuban School.

The federal grant allowed the school district to bolster police enforcement efforts and to initiate neighborhood cleanups of trash-strewn alleys and vacant lots.

The grant also bought the district numerous after-school and summer programs.

"We told the grant administrators, 'Look, we've got all these drug education and just-say-no programs in school. What about giving kids structured, supervised activities after school?'" says Donofrio. "It seemed obvious to us that one of the reasons young people get involved in drugs is that they don't have anything to do."

When the federal money ran out in 1993, the Phoenix Parks, Recreation and Library Department started its own after-school programs.

Around the same time, Ed Eisele of Holsum Bakery, located not far from Garcia School, approached Donofrio about the idea of forming a business partnership to help the district.

Eisele, who is a member of Greater Phoenix Leadership, the group of influential business and corporate leaders formerly called the Phoenix 40, says the 1992 Los Angeles riots had made him wonder "what the flash point was going to be for us. I wasn't sure what we should be thinking about in the way of prevention."

Eisele says that, up until then, he was the personification of the Detached Businessman. His company had donated lots of products to charities that feed the poor. But he had driven in and out of the neighborhood around the bakery without ever paying much attention to it. When he finally took a good look, he saw an area that was suffering from severe neglect. Even stop signs and other basic items were missing.

On a recent tour of the neighborhood, Eisele pulls his car over on 23rd Avenue -- the access road beside I-17 -- at Lincoln Street, and points to a dirt-covered strip beside the road.

"That may not look like much. But it took four friggin' years to get the city and SRP to fill in the ditch that had been there. Four friggin' years.

"I used to watch people in these little motorized wheelchairs having to roll out into the street to get by there."

Eisele says that in addition to rousting criminals and tearing down dilapidated dwellings that had become nests for illicit activities, the area badly needs more safe places for children to go.

"That really hit home one day," he says, "when folks from the Maricopa County Juvenile Detention facility, one of the business partners at Garcia School, told us that the preponderance of juvenile crime occurred between 3 and 8 p.m. And by the way, that's also the time when most unwed teenage mothers become mothers."

Eisele called Rick Miller, then director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix, and broached the idea of the organization opening a satellite club at Garcia School.

Miller says it wasn't difficult to see the logic of it. The facilities are already built and paid for. Schools provide ready access to children -- minimizing the problem of transportation which often prevents kids from getting to after-hours programs.

The arrangement also saves money.

Boys and Girls Club officials say it normally takes about as much as $2 million to build a stand-alone club and another $400,000 a year to operate it.

The Garcia Club, which opened in the summer of 1995 and averages 100 children in its daily after-school program, costs only $73,000 a year to run because it shares expenses with the school.

That compares to the $54,000 a year it costs to detain one juvenile in a detention facility.

It's a comparison that has particular relevance for Murphy schools.

Eisele notes that the number of juvenile complaints against kids at Garcia began falling the year the Boys and Girls Club opened. The year before, in 1995, there were 38 complaints against children. In 1996, that total plummeted to 16.

Over the past decade, complaints against juveniles throughout the district have dropped from about 225 to as low as 124 in 1997.

The delinquency rate drifted upward in the past year -- to 151 complaints. It's something that Donofrio and others are watching closely; they don't know why it went up.

Such statistics aren't lost on the children or parents of Murphy schools. Before they talk about the fun and educational benefits of after-school activities, they commend the schools for keeping children safe and out of trouble. The schools are seen as neighborhood oases for children.

On almost any afternoon, one can find former Murphy students who have moved on to Carl Hayden and Central high schools hanging around the field house at Garcia School.

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