ABOVE & BEYOND

Principal Judy Magsaysay puts her bundles of energy to work - all devoted to helping the inner-city community surrounding Pio Pico Elementary School in Santa Ana.


Judy Magsaysay, principal and homeroom mother to the block, drives past her school and into the heart of the inner-city neighborhood that sends its children to Pio Pico Elementary.

"Get off the fence!" she shouts at a group of kids, beeping the horn for emphasis.

"Wait for the cars!" she tells a girl trying to cross the street.

She smiles, waves and rolls up the window.

Never mind school has been dismissed for almost an hour.

Magsaysay, the grinning, greeting, hand-shaking, kinetic blur that heads the school on Highland Avenue, seems oblivious to time and the property lines surrounding Pio Pico.

Though she lives in Yorba Linda, she founded the Pio Pico neighborhood association 20 miles from her home and sits as its secretary. When rats overrun, Magsaysay plagues vector control. She sweeps the streets, counsels parents, organizes neighbors, encourages mothers to learn English.

She has a problem sitting still.

In this poor corner full of memories of drug deals and the dead, Magsaysay seems determined to outlast the bleakness.

"All she's missing," says Carmen Segura, a Pio Pico parent who's known her for five years, "is a pair of wings."

Magsaysay, 40, is already something of a legend in Santa Ana schools: the woman who took over a school of poor Spanish-speaking children in a neighborhood known more for its drug deals and turned it into a model for change.

While most people sit home and wring their hands over inner-city problems, Pio Pico is slowly dismantling all the assumptions about poor schools. The school's army of involved parents and rising test scores among its students have drawn national attention.

In October, the Milken Family Foundation awarded Magsaysay $25,000 for her work with the students and community in Santa Ana. Last year, she won a $25,000 Peace Prize from the Wellness Foundation, one of only three community leaders in the state.

Magsaysay believes educating children isn't confined to the school grounds.

"She's part of the neighborhood," says Miguel Zamudio, an instructional aide. "There are a lot of principals who would say, `That's not my job.' Not Judy. I've never ever heard her say anything like that. She just goes in there and does it."

When Magsaysay became principal of Pio Pico, the school consisted of a motley collection of portables on another school's play fields.

Today it sits amid a square-mile area of Santa Ana that is home to 26,000 children and teens, the densest juvenile population in California. Pio Pico is surrounded by apartments, a liquor store and the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Ana.

Most of the families who send their children to the school live below the poverty level. Most of the adults have had less than four years of schooling. A third of Pio Pico's children have never seen the ocean, shimmering not 10 miles to the west.

The neighborhood is so crowded that the district couldn't wait for the permanent school to rise before starting Pio Pico. In August 1991, 330 students began attending portables at Martin Elementary School.

The school district already had cleared land for a permanent school on West Highland Street when the parents said they wouldn't move. They preferred portables to West Highland.

"Everyone was afraid of the gangs," Segura says.

Pio Pico, still just a concept, was careening toward a crisis. But Magsaysay refused to sit still. She promised parents their children would be safe.

And then she started moving.

Even before the school moved, she formed a parent safety committee to watch kids as they walked to school and to help parents work with the system. They met monthly with police and city officials.

"Together, they saw we could make the neighborhood safer for their kids," Magsaysay says.

In July 1992, Pio Pico moved to new portables on the Highland property while the school was being built.

By then, parents were coming around.

"They felt someone was listening," Magsaysay says.

Soon after the move, she persuaded the Police Department to assign a team of officers to the neighborhood for two weeks.

In the first month students moved to West Highland in the portables, police made 34 drug busts in front of the school.

Crime on Highland has gone down by 30 percent, according to some reports.

"I think it's no longer tolerated by the families in the area," Magsaysay says. Neighbors now keep a log of illegal activity, from cars parked in loading zones to drug deals conducted in the shadows.

"There's been a change because before people were reluctant to deal with the police," says John Teutimez, community liaison with the Santa Ana Police Department, who works a few blocks from the school.

"She's broken barriers for us. She's gotten people to report crimes, which is a huge step."

It is the last Monday before the holiday break. It's already dark outside; school has been out for three hours. Magsaysay is power-walking outside her school, working the crowd for the night's posada, the traditional Mexican Christmas celebration.

Magsaysay blows her whistle and launches into flawless Spanish.

"Amigos en las bicicletas!"

Friends on the bikes, she shouts, "Where are your helmets?"

The boys look at the floor.

"Walk the bikes home, and get your helmets," she says. "Go!"

She blows her whistle, and the boys obey, heads still slung low.

Then she's off before John Brewster, director of the Boys and Girls Club, can get in a word.

"She's a hummingbird," he says. "You have to take your vitamins to follow her around."

"Hi, I'm Judy, the principal," Magsaysay says, extending a hand to Steve McFerson, the father of one of the few black children in the overwhelmingly Hispanic school. "I love your son. He's a kick."

"This is a great thing you guys are doing for the kids," McFerson says before Magsaysay darts off on another mission.

"When you meet a principal that's so involved, as a parent, you want to be involved, too," McFerson says.

Magsaysay, already yards away, picks up a potato chip bag and walks to a group of boys.

"Amigos," she says, can you put these in a trash can for me?"

Like everyone else, they do as Magsaysay says.

"She never stops," says her husband, Ron. "Even at the mall, she's yelling at kids to get down from there."

Magsaysay (pronounced "Mugsighsigh") was born Judy Doty in Lynwood and grew up in North Long Beach, along the border with Compton.

Her optimism, she says, comes from her parents, especially her Italian-born mother, whom she refers to in Spanish as a "metiche-positiva," a benign busybody.

Temi Acone Doty and her husband, Roy, were active in the civil rights movement and the Catholic Human Relations Council, which at the time was involved in the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. Roy traveled to Alabama as a freedom rider, and the entire family marched with Cesar Chavez through California, pounding in lessons in activism that the six children never forgot.

"They were just with us all the time," Acone Doty says. "They knew this was the world and they had to do something about it. You can't sit back and let someone else do it or let it happen."

Says Judy Magsaysay: "She taught us to act on our beliefs."

At Long Beach Jordan High School, Judy met Ron Magsaysay. She was a sophomore, he was a senior, and both were in student government.

Like Judy, Ron was the fifth of six children. The activism ran deep in Ron's family as well: His great-uncle was Ramon Magsaysay, president of the Philippines in the 1950s and generally regarded as the islands' liberator.

Judy and Ron married in 1978, right after Judy graduated from California State University, Long Beach, with degrees in education and Spanish. Judy worked a few years as a bilingual education teacher in Los Angeles before moving to Santa Ana, where she worked her way up to principal, eventually getting a master's degree from California State University, Fullerton. The Magsaysays have two sons, Ronnie, 12, and Thomas, 10.

Ron Magsaysay works as a firefighter in charge of a firecamp crew of juvenile inmates in Los Angeles. His job allows him three to four days off every week and makes Judy's long workdays possible.

"I'm home a lot, so I do the shopping, and I usually do the cooking," Ron says. "If she were to cook -- with all her late nights -- we'd never eat."

It is Wednesday, and Magsaysay is holding a meeting in her office. Professors from the University of California, Irvine, sit with Brewster of the Boys and Girls club discussing a grant application that would bring Pentium computers and job training to the neighborhood.

The grant would go to the Boys and Girls Club; Pio Pico has nothing to do with it, at least not directly. But then Magsaysay doesn't believe her school ends at the playgrounds.

"You don't teach in isolation," she says. "You can't be with these kids for six hours a day and think the other 18 aren't going to affect them."

Activism, Magsaysay believes, can be learned.

"Unfortunately many of our immigrant families are reticent to make waves or speak up, but when they know it gets results they get involved," she says. "The kids are seeing that when you write a letter, you get a response. I see the neighbhorhood starting to see the impact they can have on a small level."

Carmen Segura, who has kids in the school, says three years ago she was destitute, no money, no food and no presents for the kids. Not only did the school provide the customary gift basket, but Segura remembers Magsaysay brought her a box of laundry soap.

"She worries about each family," Segura says. "It's a good example for the kids, so they see she sacrifices. The kids see simply that she wants a future for them. And they adore her and want to please her."

Several times a week, parents who cannot read or write even in their own language come for literacy classes at the school. A group of mothers meets several times a week to learn English.

Pio Pico provides child care for the mothers. The Boys and Girls Club provides space for the classes, now overflowing with 60-85 students a week.

Maria Meza arrived from Mexico 10 years ago. She's been taking English for a year and a half and refuses to talk to Magsaysay in Spanish.

"Judy inspires anyone," she says. "She makes you feel important as a person. She encourages us to learn so we can help our children."

For Christmas, the women in the class wrote Magsaysay letters in English.

"I give you the most sincere thanks for supporting the program," one read.

"A hundred thanks," another read.

Denise Dowling, who teaches level 1 and 2, asked Judy to find a way to add a third level. Many of the women have outgrown the program.

"But a lot of them won't continue elsewhere because of transportation and child care," Dowling says.

Magsaysay promised to make some calls.

"In other places I've worked, they always make you feel they're doing you a favor allowing you to be there," Dowling says when Magsaysay veered out of earshot. "She's the only person who says, `We're excited to have you.' That enthusiasm carries over, even to me."

Lillian French, the vice principal, says she's seen teachers go into Magsaysay's office swearing that this time they will say "no" to her. "They come out saying `yes' to three other things."

It is Thursday, and Magsaysay is doing her afternoon rounds of the classrooms. She pops into each class to say "hi" and learn how students are progressing. She does it every day.

"It gives me a pulse of the school," she says.

Magsaysay enters a second-grade class. The teacher is asking students to find the rhyming words in "Frosty the Snowman." They're stuck on "found" and "around."

The teacher persists.

The class is silent.

The teacher persists.

"I think it's too hard for them," Magsaysay says finally.

Outside the classroom, Magsaysay says: "She is a first-year teacher, and she has high expectations, and that's very, very good. But sometimes it's just better to stop the agony."

Walking that line between agony and achievement, Magsaysay and the teachers of Pio Pico have accomplished something many people think impossible in inner-city schools: rising test scores.

When they entered kindergarten, Pio Pico's kindergartners scored below the district average in reading and math. By the time the same group entered fifth grade, they were scoring above the district average in both subjects.

"We've always said if you set high expectations, the children will meet them," says Emily Wonk, the school's grant coordinator who compiled the statistics this year. "So it was a real shot in the arm to see that the numbers proved us right. We believe in the kids, and they sense that."

Friday afternoon and the students have finished their Christmas party. Each classroom is partnered with an area business, and the gift exchange goes off without a hitch. The students behave.

Magsaysay has another meeting for the grant application, then decides to go home at 3:30. By the time she climbs to the top of the hill in her Nissan Altima and walks into her two-story Yorba Linda home, Ron already has a pot of boiling water on the stove for her tea.

"Thank you, you are so nice," she says and collapses into a chair in the kitchen.

Where is the boundless energy?

"You don't see her at home," Ron says.

"I've seen her tired and frustrated," he says. "She's beat when she gets home. She sounds a lot of stuff on me, and I bring her back to reality. I have to say step back and take a look."

Judy cuts in.

"I like to stay positive and not let the frustrations get me down, but I share a lot with Ron."

Over Magsaysay's head, on the kitchen wall, hangs a bronze sun.

The house, it turns out, is packed with them. There's a golden sun from Guadalajara over the couch. A silver sun, an Aztec sun, a Haitian sun of tin, a Mexican sun with a mustache, a gelatin mold bronze sun, an African sun with an orange face.

Magsaysay gives the sun tour. Then she smiles.

"I really find them very cheery and warm and welcoming," she says, just as you would expect her to.