Lori Lapointe of Project Ujima, a program of the Family Engagement Department of the San Diego Unified School District which caters to African-American families, at the Harold J. Ballard Parent Center on Wednesday, May 29, 2024, in Old Town, San Diego. / Photo by Vito di Stefano for Planetcob
Lori Lapointe of Project Ujima, a program of the Family Engagement Department of the San Diego Unified School District which caters to African-American families, at the Harold J. Ballard Parent Center on Wednesday, May 29, 2024, in Old Town, San Diego. / Photo by Vito di Stefano for Planetcob

It was about 5:30 p.m. when I arrived at Morse High School and the campus was, unsurprisingly, a ghost town save for two teens watching a video on a phone. I could hear their giggles reverberate as I walked through the empty halls.

Then, I reached the auditorium.

Young kids ran around the space excitedly, while families dug into plates of fried chicken, potato salad and Hawaiian rolls at long fold-out tables clustered near the auditorium’s stage.

This was a meeting of Project Ujima, a program run by San Diego Unified’s Family Engagement Department. The program guides parents through education-related issues, from how to navigate the world of individualized education plans to preparing kids for college.

At the meeting, resource teacher Lori LaPointe asked families to write down goals for their children. Many were similar: Happiness, safety, health and love.

“I want you to really take away that all of these are correct,” LaPointe said. “Whatever success looks like for our kids, that's what we want.”

Before they moved on to the next activity, which was to create a vision board for their family, LaPointe gave parents some homework.

“Write down your hopes and dreams ... and I want you to share them with your kids,” LaPointe said. “A lot of times we assume ... that our kids know we want them to be happy and healthy and successful and that may be true, but we have to tell them. We have to share that with them that ‘I have these dreams for you, I have these hopes for you, I believe in you.’”

The Progress Report covers innovative programs working to help students. In this case the students are the parents, who are often ignored but play a vital role in the success of kids. But despite working to support parents for years, this year’s budget cuts have put Project Ujima’s work at risk. San Diego Unified has cut a total of nine positions within the Family Engagement Department – including LaPointe’s. Advocates and parents now worry that the program won’t be the same.

Collective Work and Responsibility

Project Ujima’s name comes from one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration that, although created by African Americans in the 1960s, draws inspiration from African values. Ujima is the principle of “collective work and responsibility,” which calls for communities to come together and support each other to solve problems.

“Project Ujima was designed to focus on African American families,” said Elneda Shannon, who founded the program nearly a decade and a half ago. Even after retiring in 2017, she volunteers at every meeting.

“There weren’t any programs in the district that were focused on African American parents. The parents felt they weren’t being heard and didn’t have a place to speak about the frustrations and successes,” she said “But everyone is welcome. What’s good for one parent is good for all parents.”

That was evident at the meeting I attended. Though many of the parents were Black, there were also White and Latino families. Parents, grandparents and teens. What brought them all together was wanting to learn how best to support the children in their lives.

Project Ujima’s mission isn’t just to dump information on parents, it’s to remove barriers that prevent parents from participating.

So, after launching in 2009, the team hit the streets. They visited barbershops, schools, recreation centers, libraries – wherever they thought parents might be – to ask them what they needed out of a program. That input shaped their lessons and it’s the reason they provide food, childcare, a place for older kids to do homework and translation services at meetings.

“We wanted them to know they were valued, so we met them where they were at,” Shannon said.

Project Ujima wasn’t confined to San Diego Unified campuses. They’ve arranged college visits to show parents and students what schools have to offer. They also enlisted former San Diego Unified students now attending those colleges as guides so families had someone that looked like them leading the way.

But the program didn’t stop there. They also taught families what they needed to do to get kids into those schools. That included what classes to take, how to navigate applications and how to apply for financial aid.

Staff has also integrated Black history into the program. Project Ujima has brought families to explore Julian’s often-overlooked Black history, visited the California African American Museum and even hosted members of the all-Black Montford Point Marines

Over the years, the program has created a tight knit community. One boy at the meeting had been attending Ujima events with his mother for nearly a decade. He’s what organizers affectionately refer to as a Ujima baby. He’s not the only one.

‘How Are We Going to Support Parents?’

When LaPointe found out about the Family Engagement positions being eliminated, she was shocked and disappointed. All told, she said six positions within the department are being eliminated. That takes the total staff number down to three. San Diego Unified Spokesperson Maureen Magee wrote in an email that five filled positions and four vacant positions were cut. She also wrote that the department plans to add four new positions.

“The Family Engagement Department continuously works to assess the needs of families and school communities, while aligning its work with the vision and values of the district,” Magee wrote. “Project Ujima remains an important part of that work, which includes providing culturally focused learning sessions with families, caregivers, and community partners that can help strengthen school relationships.”

LaPointe, who’s worked for San Diego Unified for more than 30 years and has been with Project Ujima since the beginning, will be shuffled to another position within the district because of her seniority.

“They're trying to keep the cuts away from the schools, I get that, and though I might not directly work with the students every day in the classroom, what I do does affect the teaching that goes on there,” LaPointe said.

She loves teaching, she said, so she wouldn’t mind returning to the classroom. But she’ll miss working with parents. She’s also worried about what Project Ujima will look like going forward, despite the department’s pledge to keep it going.

“How are we going to support parents? Support families?” LaPointe asked. “I'm not saying it's not going to happen... but I don't know how my families will be able to seek support when there's only three total people in the department.”

That support was much more than the Ujima events. She's accompanied parents to meetings about their kid’s individual education plan or to speak to administration about instances of bullying or just to support them during conferences about student performance. Over Memorial Day weekend, she had three families reach out to her for help.

“Just like we teach students, we work with families. My job is to help them feel empowered and valued and like they’re able to advocate for themselves and learn the system, because we have this edu-speak that can be intimidating,” LaPointe said.

While she plans to continue to attend the monthly Project Ujima meetings, she knows she likely won’t be able to offer that same level of support. She’ll have a new classroom of kids to pay attention to.

Shannon felt similarly shocked when she heard about the cuts. The Family Engagement Services department was already much smaller than it was when she started, so to see it further stripped down was baffling.

“I was just completely blown away that they would tear apart department down like that. It almost seemed like parents were an afterthought,” Shannon said.

That’s especially frustrating, Shannon said, because the program has made a difference and even caught the attention of other districts looking to create something similar. Despite having rarely received visits from San Diego Unified officials, Shannon said she’s fielded calls from districts as far away as Tennessee curious about how the program worked.

“I just don’t think the district realizes what a gem they have in Project Ujima,” Shannon said.

‘Trust Doesn’t Happen Overnight’

Shannon said it’s not just people who are being lost, it’s the hard-won trust that Project Ujima’s staff has earned. Ultimately, those trusting relationships are why the program has continued to thrive years later, she said.

“That trust makes parents go out and tell other parents about this program. They say, ‘these people really care, you can come here and talk to them. They respect you and they can help you. They can get you connected. They can teach you how to advocate,’” Shannon said. “That trust doesn’t happen overnight.”

It was on full display at the meeting I attended. Volunteers passed out cards to families so they could write some words of appreciation for LaPointe. Then, parents and co-workers bid her farewell. It was a tearful affair.

This isn’t the end of Project Ujima. Family Engagement Department manager Pamela King has pledged to continue the program. But it certainly is the end of an era. And while both LaPointe and Shannon trust King, they feel the work in front of her seems daunting given her team’s size.

“I know she's going do the best she can. I just don't know what that's going to look like with just her there,” Shannon said. “I just don't know. I am fearful.”

Jakob McWhinney is Planetcob's education reporter. He can be reached by email at jakob@vosd.org and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

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3 Comments

  1. Sounds like a good program to be run by a charity, but not with education funds

  2. It sounds like a racist program paid for by taxpayer dollars. It should go away. Black families can use the same programs provided to all the other children.

  3. I'm sure SDU received their share of the $billions from the state for ‘Community Schools'....

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