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California Elementary in Costa Mesa Saluted : This School Goes to the Head of Its Class

January 21, 1987|BILL BILLITER | Times Staff Writer

For the budding playwright, Tuesday's experience could have been unnerving.

Surrounded by her peers, the young author listened as they read her play aloud. Her mentor, Barbara Echternach, sat at the center of the circle as "The Little Leprechaun" received its first reading in Costa Mesa.

The reading went smoothly, and playwright Jenny Dowd, 7, soon found she had authored a critical success.

"Let's read it again," said Michael Toledano, 7. The other second-grade students around the little table nodded enthusiastically. Instructional aide Echternach also smiled warmly, and Jenny confided to a reporter that Echternach had encouraged her to write the play.

"I got help from Michael, too, because he suggested one of the characters," Jenny said.

The scene was the Learning Center at California Elementary School in Costa Mesa. Visitors said they were surprised to see second-grade students writing a complete play.

School of the Month

But editors of Instructor, a 280,000-circulation national education magazine, this month said there are many such unusual learning incidents that go on in the yellow-stucco public school at 3232 California St. And for that reason, the editors said, they picked California School as the magazine's "A-Plus School" for January.

"The editors select one A-Plus School for each of the nine issues we publish annually," Mary Harbaugh, associate editor of Instructor, said in a telephone interview from her New York City office.

"We estimate that we get about 700 schools as nominees each year, and from that we can only pick nine. So it's a big deal. The elementary teachers in the nation know what an honor it is to be picked as an A-Plus School."

No one had to underscore the honor at California School on Tuesday. Signs were everywhere proclaiming: "We're an A-Plus School."

Principal Scott Paulsen stopped and chatted with three boys, asking them, "Why do you think we have a photographer here today?"

Responded Stephan Appell, 6: "Because we're an A-Plus School!"

In its story about California School, the magazine said: "The school's can-do spirit produces some impressive results. . . . The Learning Center, which is separate from remedial-reading and resource-room programs, is a showcase for what well-trained volunteers can do."

"The Learning Center is the heart of this school," Paulsen said.

Cafeteria Converted

About 15 years ago, the faculty decided to convert the school's big cafeteria with the high ceiling to another use, since Costa Mesa's weather allows the children to eat at outdoor tables on all but a few days.

Books, tables and computer terminals were moved in. The room now resembles a combination library and family room. Parent-volunteers and paid instructional aides work one-on-one with students who come to the Learning Center for special instruction.

"We send children to the center who are having special problems," Paulsen said. "We also send very bright children there for enrichment."

The second-graders who were reading Jenny Dowd's original play Tuesday were from an above-average reading group. But at other tables, parent-volunteers were working individually with students on reading, writing or math problems.

"The Learning Center is a major reason I'd never leave this school," said Suky Reilly, of Newport Beach, who is designated "a teacher on special assignment." Part of Reilly's assignment is to supervise a paid intern teacher, Diana Mickler, of UC Irvine.

In addition to heavy emphasis on student writing, the school stresses leisure-time reading. "Any student who reads 100 books gets to go out to lunch with me," Paulsen said. "And we often go on trips, such as to Marineland."

Help From Volunteers

In the Learning Center, parent-volunteers work to make sure that the children understand the books they read. A child gets credit for reading a book only if he or she passes an oral test.

"We don't make this a situation of where we say, 'You flunk,' " said Laura Rakunas, a parent who was helping children Tuesday. "If they don't seem to understand, we suggest that they read the book again or take another book."

Instructor magazine said that parent-teacher involvement is an example of the "spirit" at California School. The overall school, the magazine said, "reaches out to achieve and maintain excellence."

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