Los Angeles Times
February 20, 2008
Developer and philanthropist Donald Bren on Tuesday reached beyond the Orange County communities he helped build and define, announcing an $8.5-million donation to benefit after-school programs in Santa Ana and east Los Angeles County.
The gift will bolster Santa Ana-based THINK Together, an after-school program that extends the school day for children who need extra coaching with classwork or homework help, often because their parents are working or lack English skills. The program provides an additional hour of schooling, homework assistance and physical education.
Bren, whose Irvine Co. and Donald Bren Foundation have contributed more than $200 million to public schools and universities, was motivated to choose THINK Together after a January speech by state Education Supt. Jack O’Connell challenged listeners to “imagine if every school had access to a successful business partner to provide mentors, materials and opportunities for students.”
Natalie Rangel, 8, listens to a friend on a string-and-cup telephone during after-school classes.
The donation is Bren’s largest outside the boundaries of the old Irvine Ranch, which included Irvine, Newport Beach, Tustin, Orange, Laguna Beach and Anaheim, said John Christensen, Irvine Co. spokesman.
Beyond having shaped the identity of cities like Irvine and high-end enclaves such as Newport Coast, the Irvine Co. owns about 400 office buildings, 40 retail centers, 90 apartment communities, two hotels, five marinas and three golf clubs.
“My goal is for this funding to help close the achievement gap and truly make a difference by providing resources that otherwise would not be available,” Bren said in a written statement.
THINK Together, which has a $25-million annual budget, already operates in 13 Santa Ana schools. The funding will allow the program to expand to each of the 36 grade schools in Santa Ana Unified School District, said schools Supt. Jane Russo. Programs in Los Angeles County are just beginning.
The infusion of funds could play a role in improving test scores in a district where they have traditionally lagged, Russo said.
At Monte Vista Elementary School, where the program has been in place for a year, the Academic Performance Index jumped 97 points to 724 during the 2006-07 school year. Principal Paulina Jacobs said part of the credit went to THINK Together. Santa Ana students “not only have to learn the California standards, which are the most challenging in the United States, but they also have to learn a new language as well,” Russo said. “This donation gives our students a leg up to do both.”
In a Monte Vista Elementary School classroom in Santa Ana on Tuesday, about 20 children gathered to get homework help from Ernesto Nodado, a THINK Together instructor. Third-grader Jairo Peralta struggled to understand adverbs.
Students in a THINK Together program go to their next class. The program received an $8.5-million donation.
“Does it describe how something is done?” he asked.
Peralta got the nod of approval and continued his homework. Nodado went on to explain that many adverbs end in “ly.”
“My parents really can’t help me,” Peralta explained to a visitor. “They were born in Mexico. So this is a good way for me to do better in school.”
Randy Barth, a one-time stock broker, founded THINK Together in 1997. The nonprofit organization now serves 20,000 students at more than 180 sites in school districts throughout Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
The gift Tuesday includes $150,000 that will be used for a leadership program that will eventually expand nascent programs in eastern Los Angeles County cities, including Whittier, Azusa and Baldwin Park.
Parent Rafaela Cruz predicts that the expansion of the organization’s efforts in Santa Ana will help children like hers.
Cruz said her son, David Peñalosa, 8, “couldn’t read well before he got into the program. Now he can recognize more words, and he’s helping his brother,” a kindergartner, to recognize words.
“What they gave my son was a gift that I couldn’t,” said Cruz, 28, who picks strawberries. “I never made it past second grade myself.”