She sits at the end of a table filled with fresh fruits and vegetables and watches as the kids peel off from their parents and run to class. Left alone, the mostly Latino, mostly female parents enter the cafeteria and walk up to her table to hold their bags open and wait as the green apples, oranges, onions and other staples tumble inside. When the parents reach the end of the line, the woman who has been watching their arrival and trip through the line checks their names off her list. This is Norma Govea’s school, and her show.

“Most of our parents are here for us when we need donations or fundraising, so this is a way of giving back to them,” says Govea, referring to the food pantry program she oversees every Thursday morning at Moscone Elementary.

Nearly 85 percent of Moscone’s 342 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, so with today’s rising food prices, the gift is much appreciated. In its second week of operation, more than 60 parents attended, an increase of 30 percent in only one week.

“With the economy, a lot of people are being laid off, this is just a little bit of help,” Govea says. After 22 years at Moscone, the 44-year-old who started by serving breakfast and working as a teacher’s aide, knows well what the school’s families need.

In a school system of 3,800 teachers and 55,000 students, Govea, in dark-rimmed glasses, a Bluetooth earpiece and her hair pulled back tightly in a ponytail, is one of the administrative assistants who keep things running at Moscone. In her humbly titled but wide-ranging position, Govea answers the phones, helps to balance the school’s budget, and brainstorms new fundraising ideas. Like much at this school, the food pantry arrived after she took the initiative.

“She is the foundation of the school,” says Moscone Principal Susan Zielinski. “She does it all.”

Govea sensed that shelves at home were not getting replenished, so when the San Francisco Food Bank phoned last April to suggest the idea, she went into action: she organized volunteer crews, trained them, and spread the word. Now she can be sure her students have the fresh fruits and vegetables they need.

Life at the school imitates that of a small village, as students graduate, become parents themselves, and send their own children there in turn.

“She was always a volunteer,” said Maria Raygoza, who attended Moscone from 1979 to 1985 and is now a parent volunteer. In those days, Raygoza said, Govea, whose son and daughter also attended the school, volunteered with Raygoza’s mother to hold bake sales and help with a student folk dancing program. Govea’s younger brother and sister also graduated from Moscone.

Her typical day starts at 6:30 a.m. when she leaves her Oakland home to drive to the Mission. When her family moved there from 20th and Bryant Streets in 1988, she didn’t think twice about finding a job with a shorter commute.

“The Mission and the Moscone community, it’s like a second home to me.”

She’s seen that home change too, noticing developments such as the proliferation of sparkling new coffee shops and cafes.

“I know it’s for the better, but it doesn’t feel the way it used to be.”

When a student wanders into the office, wide-eyed and lost, she’s quick to notice.

“¿Que paso mi amor? ¿Que te duele?”

“Estomago,” the student says softly.

Minutes later, Govea, also the school’s nurse, kneels in front of the boy with a thermometer. Christian has a 100-degree fever.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Govea’s family came to San Francisco when she was five years old.

“Being new to this country, I know it’s a whole different environment,” she says, her rings clinking as she moves about the office.  To ease the transition, she helps with advice, translations, anything they need.

“You want them to learn how to access different services, you want them to feel at home,” both here in the country and in the school community, she says.

They have become a sort of extended family.

“Now that my kids are all grown up,” she says, referring to her daughter who is a second-grade teacher at Flynn Elementary in the Mission and her son who works at ACORN in San Francisco, “All these are my kids.”

Lita Blanc, a teacher at the school, agrees.

“She’s part of our family and we feel we’re a part of hers.”

Her husband too. She brings him in to help with after-school activities and any handiwork that needs to be done around the school.

Reflecting on her years at the school, Govea is encouraged by Moscone’s rising status in San Francisco’s public education system. The school has scored above an 800 in California’s Annual Performance Index for the past five years, and a comparison score of 10 out of 10 when compared with other schools with similar low-income populations.

“The academic growth of all the kids just keeps getting higher and higher.” The school first scored an 802 on the Index in 2003 and its latest score, for 2007, was 831.

Of course, like most, she’d like to see more funding available for the school to pay for more materials and teachers.

In the office, Govea struggles to find the right person to contact for Christian, calling his parents and his sister, who drops him off at school.

Asked how often she cares for sick children, she sighs. “This happens every day.”

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Armand is a photojournalism and multimedia student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and is originally from Baton Rouge, La. His work history includes being a paper pusher in Los Angeles and a youth program coordinator in Ramallah, and is currently a student editor at Mission Local, which means he gets to read a lot of news and tell people what to do.

He also waits for the day when bacon and buffalo sauce combine on one plate.

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  1. Norma… I was looking for you on Facebook.
    I am so proud to hear such wonderful news about you & what you are doing. I’m going to copy this News clipping and send it to Toni. She would be very proud!
    Tell Fili & your family Hello for me!


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  2. Norma. i think we used to live right by each other on bryant street. i have a sister named cami and my brother had the same name as your brother, filbert. your brother wAS named filepe and my brother mark. we used to ride bikes round the block & do you remember my mom had a whistle that we could hear round the block? I have actually looked for you on line cuz you left such an impression on me.

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