At El Camino Real Elementary School in Irvine, youngsters are sent to the principal's office for being good. It is an office principal Gene Bedley shares with a pair of child-sized teddys, Huggy Bear and Bionic Bear. B-I-O-N-I-C, Bedley explains, as in "Believe it or not, I care."
Officially, the school mascot is the mustang--or, as one of the staff put it, "We're stuck with that old horse." But for all intents and purposes, the teddy bear is king.
A poster in a first-grade classroom offers this prescription: "For relief of tears and nervous tension, one teddy bear, taken as needed. No side effects, but the love may become addictive." Here and there, one might spot a child clutching a mini-teddy that wears an "I Love Mr. Bedley" T-shirt.
For if this is the Hamelin of elementary schools, Gene Bedley, 46, is the Pied Piper of principals. The national PTA, recognizing him as "uniquely innovative" and a man "whose relationships with students, parents and teachers have developed positive attitudes about the public schools," will honor him as its Outstanding Educator of the Year at its convention, which opens Saturday in Washington.
An El Camino Real student, Kenny Lamb, 11, put it a little less elegantly, but the sentiment was similar: "Instead of scolding us, he talks to us. If there's a guy you're fighting with, Mr. Bedley finds out both sides of the story. Instead of hating the guy's guts even more you feel you can work it out."
And fourth-grade teacher Leslie Frazier, 26, who's been at the school three years, said, "He helps you expand your thinking, gives you lots of support. Everyone says this is the Disneyland of schools."
By 8 a.m. Gene Bedley, a motivator in saddle shoes, is on the job at El Camino Real, a year-round alternative school that serves a North Irvine population including affluent developments such as Turtle Rock and, across the freeway, wall-to-wall tracts where, Bedley noted, "a few years ago you could have brought in your MasterCard and made a down payment."
There are 700 students and fewer seats; a waiting list is accommodated on a first-come basis. And, where many schools beg for more parental involvement, ECR's active PTA has recruited 100 parent volunteers who have been trained in classroom skills such as computerese.
Parental participation appears to be infectious at ECR. Claudia Klett, for example, checking in with Bedley on a recent morning, has been a parent committee chairman for three years. "We (the parents) tried to get the bylaws changed so we could stay longer," she said.
Bedley, who believes that education is "a shared responsibility," said, "We administrators almost program ourselves for failure. Every parent values his kids' education but we can't get parents involved by writing in our newsletters, 'If anyone would like to meet with me, please give me a call.' "
Rather, he said, "You meet them in their homes, with puppets in your hands." The Bedley puppet box includes a fanciful creature named "Diz"--"His last name is Astor," Bedley explained--as well as Tom Turtle and Disco Duck. First-graders giggle with delight when Mr. Bedley brings Rover the Red-Nosed Dog for a classroom visit, elicits a ventriloquist's bark from Rover and then admonishes Rover for barking.
File for Every Student
For each of ECR's students, there is a file card in Bedley's Rolodex with the child's photograph and family data. "I know where they all live," he said, "and who they live next to." And he doesn't hesitate to call and ask, "Would you be interested in setting up a coffee in your home?"
Bedley doesn't buy the idea that in schools where virtually every parent is a working parent, his formula is unworkable. "It's a matter of saying, 'We want you, we need you,' " he contends. "Working parents in our community may be making (school) buttons at home, or working on legislative action."
Picking up the receiver of his wireless telephone, a gift from his PTA, he asked, "Do you think in the inner city schools if the principal walked around and offered the students a chance to call home as a reward for being industrious and working hard that the parents' perception of that school would change?"
The call-home reward is one of the incentives established by Bedley during his 10 years at ECR to reward outstanding scholarship and citizenship. Others include "Bedley bucks," a sort of Monopoly money given for writing skills, and cards ready for plucking from Huggy Bear's shirt pocket that are "good for one hug . . . from any participating human being." Bionic bear goes home overnight with an especially good child. And on Fridays Bedley drives his Model A in and offers spins around the schoolyard to those who have set goals and met them.
The bear boom began at ECR in 1978. Bedley remembered, "A parent came in and said, 'My son doesn't like school,' which floored me. Every 6-year-old should love school."