Education, civic engagement and community building are the top three priorities for residents of Solana Beach’s Eden Gardens community, according to a recent report from the National Latino Research Center at Cal State San Marcos.
The research center released its results during a June 3 meeting at the La Colonia Community Center, more than a year after it launched the study to learn how to improve the quality of life for community members in La Colonia, a small but historical neighborhood that’s largely Latino.
“The report is historic from the perspective that we have never done this before in La Colonia, let alone, as I understand it, in Solana Beach,” said Manny Aguilar, president and board chairman of the La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation, at the start of the meeting. “This is very unique. I want to thank everybody for being here and for giving us your feedback.”
The community assessment aimed to help create a shared vision and build relationships between residents and local decision makers to improve the quality of life in La Colonia.
In partnership with La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation, researchers at the National Latino Research Center at Cal State San Marcos conducted a baseline community assessment in collaboration with community stakeholders to identify, document and prioritize community needs and opportunities in the neighborhood.
Starting in spring 2014, researchers conducted multiple interviews, held focus groups and led community forums to gather feedback from La Colonia residents and service providers from local public and private schools, organizations and parent groups. The data-gathering portion of the project continued through the summer.
Led by Research Director Arcela Nunez-Alvarez and Faculty Director Bonnie Bade, the assessment profiled the community and identified three distinct areas of opportunities for improvement: children and youth; family and civic engagement; and social capital and community identity.
“We were able to listen to what many of you had to say about what life is like in this community,” Nunez-Alvarez said. “It is always a privilege to be able to do that. Now, it is with great pleasure that we’re able to come back and let you know what we heard.”
Researchers assessed the resources and opportunities for children and youth in education, after-school programs and youth leadership.
“Education, unanimously, was brought up as the No. 1 priority for the community, from adults, decision makers, school administrators, parents,” Nunez-Alvarez said. “Everyone is looking at education.”
Families viewed educational institutions as a “safe haven” for new immigrants, established immigrants and longtime residents, Nunez-Alvarez said. Still, parents expressed several concerns for their students.
English language proficiency was a top concern. Close to 24 percent of Solana Beach residents speak a language other than English at home, according to the report. Of those, 68 percent speak Spanish.
Latinos who speak Spanish make up the majority of the English learner population at the elementary school level, reaching 92 percent at Skyline Elementary, according to the report.
“Parents know that language proficiency is key in their preparation for college and university success,” Nunez-Alvarez said.
In addition to language proficiency, parents expressed concerns about low graduation rates, low participation in college preparatory courses, high dropout rates, lack of academic rigor and a sense of alienation in local schools.
Only 49 percent of Latinos in the La Colonia region, for example, are graduating having completed required courses to go on to the University of California and Cal State University systems. That’s compared with 79 percent of whites and 86 percent of Asians, according to the report.
To address these concerns, the report recommended the community continue to work with local organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Dieguito, Casa de Amistad and Mano a Mano Foundation, which provide educational support services.
The report also recommended that community organizations partner with local colleges and universities to create an interest in higher education and encourage college students to serve as mentors and tutors to local youth.
Researchers also assessed the resources and opportunities for parents and families to actively participate in education and civic affairs.
La Colonia residents believe the community is thriving because many are longtime residents with a strong sense of civic responsibility. According to the report, many residents are immigrants from Mexico who came to live in the United States 10 to 30 years ago.
Residents also believe they play an important part as direct agents of change in finding solutions to address community problems.
“You all care, you’re here and you want to make a difference,” Nunez-Alvarez said.
To become more engaged in the community, the report recommended educational and leadership development activities and programs for adults and youth.
The report also recommended that residents create community-based parent committees that work with local schools and organizations to advocate for better education opportunities. Another recommendation is that the city offers internships or public service positions for youth, encouraging education, leadership development and civic engagement.
Last, researchers assessed the resources and opportunities for celebrating and preserving the community’s culture and history.
According to feedback, La Colonia residents value the community’s culture and history and want to foster respect for diversity. Residents are proud of their heritage and value cultural celebrations.
To celebrate diversity, the report recommended creating a cultural center or community space to feature and preserve local history. In addition, cultural events and festivals should continued to be held in the community.
“In your community, you’re ahead of the game,” Nunez-Alvarez said. “Hopefully, this assessment starts to bring people together.”
Although the report was completed in October, the foundation has since worked with community stakeholders to identify issues in the report and ways they could work individually or together to address them.
“We will continue this conversation, because it is a conversation,” Aguilar said.
He thanked the city of Solana Beach, specifically Mayor Lesa Heebner, Councilman Mike Nichols and City Manager David Ott for their support, as well as a number of local schools and organizations, including San Dieguito Union High School District, Solana Beach School District, Santa Fe Christian Schools, Boys and Girls Clubs of San Dieguito, Casa de Amistad and Mano a Mano Foundation.
“This is just the beginning,” Aguilar said. “We have work to do.”
For information about La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation or to view the report, visit lceg.org.
For information about the National Latino Research Center, visit www.csusm.edu/nlrc.