The fourth-grade students at Anaheim Hills Elementary School turned their attention to the three women in red aprons standing at the front of the classroom.
The third 40-minute Monday afternoon session of Project Self-Esteem--an elementary school program that one parent's group alleges is a form of group therapy violating religious and privacy rights--was about to begin.
"Good afternoon class," parent volunteer Deb Johnson said with a smile. "Today we're going to talk about giving and receiving compliments."
But before getting into the day's lesson, Johnson said, the students would first be reviewing last week's lesson on the idea that they are in charge of their attitudes and that "attitude is the difference."
Johnson asked if the students had worked on changing any of their attitudes since the last session.
More than a dozen hands shot up.
"I usually get mad when my mom punishes me, but this time I didn't," one boy offered.
"My sister reads my diary and stuff," a girl said, adding that rather than getting angry at her sister the last time it happened, "I just came in and told her: 'Don't do that any more. I have some private things.' "
"OK," Johnson said, "so attitudes make the difference, and that makes you special when you can change your attitude. . . ."
Instilling a sense that each person is special, or unique, is the starting point of Project Self-Esteem, an elementary school program designed by two Newport Beach women eight years ago to "enhance the individual child's self-esteem" and, in so doing, "awaken the full scope of that child's learning potential."
The program, which for the past two years has been available to Orange County schools at no charge through the county Department of Education, addresses such topics as feelings, goal-setting, communication skills, friendship, peers and conformity, and the difference between tattling and cheating.
So far, an estimated 200 schools countywide have requested the Project Self-Esteem curriculum.
But supporters of the program in recent months have found Project Self-Esteem at the center of a controversy that has reached the courtroom.
Last June, a group of parents calling themselves the Capistrano Parents Committee for Academic Freedom filed a lawsuit against the Capistrano Unified School District, alleging that the district unlawfully implemented the program without school board approval.
The committee also charges that the school district is administering psychological treatment through Project Self-Esteem without the informed consent of parents, and that volunteers are being used to unlawfully provide instruction in the classroom.
"There are really a lot of issues in the case, and every one of them is really a major legal issue," said David Hosmer, attorney for the parents committee.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert Green recently denied the school district's motion to rule in its favor without a trial. Green has not yet ruled on the parent committee's motion for a preliminary injunction that would ban Project Self-Esteem in the district's schools until the lawsuit is settled.
The suit is scheduled to go to trial Jan. 21.
Pending litigation, however, apparently hasn't dampened enthusiasm for the program at Anaheim Hills Elementary School and at other Orange County schools offering Project Self-Esteem this fall.
In fact, more schools than ever have signed up for the program, according to Bert Simpson, director of the Peer Assistance League program for the county's Education Department. Project Self-Esteem is the elementary school component of PAL, which is a comprehensive program for substance-abuse prevention.
500 at Training Session
"The number (of schools) keeps going up by far," said Simpson. "It (the lawsuit) raised some concerns, but I can't say any schools have dropped out or any people have lessened their support of the program. In fact, it's probably gone the other way."
As evidence of that, about 500 parent volunteers and educators turned out for the recent annual Project Self-Esteem training session in Garden Grove.
Among the parents was Gaye Kelley. She said she was so impressed with the changes in her 8-year-old daughter, Jennifer, who participated in the program last year, that she decided to be a Project Self-Esteem volunteer this fall at Zeyen Elementary School in Garden Grove.
Kelley explained that her daughter had had self-esteem problems resulting from a clubfoot.
"When the program came in I saw a lot of changes in her," Kelley said. "Jennifer has just come amazing distances."
"It's an excellent program, and it's a shame to have all this controversy," said Lucy Farmer, another Project Self-Esteem volunteer at Zeyen Elementary School and the mother of two. "I've seen too many kids who don't have self-esteem. It's sad."