Sixth-graders Faustino Aguilar and John Yao are good friends at Boone Elementary School in Paradise Hills. Tom Healy, Anuyell Goodwin and Robert Rabello are classmates from Silver Gate Elementary on Point Loma.
Last week, the two groups met for the first time when their sixth-grade classes went to Palomar Mountain Camp, run by the San Diego city schools. Faustino became a bunkmate with Anuyell, John quickly got over some initial homesickness, and Robert and Tom found out that they weren't nearly as uncomfortable meeting kids from different ethnic backgrounds as they had thought they might be.
Through a packed schedule of hikes, rock and wood crafts, stargazing and bedtime fright stories--all part of any all-American outdoor experience--the 235 students from Boone, Silver Gate and the smaller Muir Alternative School were pushed, challenged and cajoled to meet new people and learn that getting along with others is something to be enjoyed, not feared.
The time in the pine forests 70 miles north of San Diego, like the trips made by almost all of the district's 7,000-plus sixth-grade students, culminated a special three-year program intended to promote better race and human relations.
Each week during the last four school years, schools with different ethnic mixes as well as special education and disabled students have been bused to Palomar Mountain, where the students bunk, eat, shower, hike and work together. The specially trained staff readily acknowledges their emphasis on instilling the ethics of pluralism and of conservation, promoted through a discipline system that emphasizes positive reinforcement.
"We let the boys and girls know that they are here to deal with people as people, to talk about citizenship, self-esteem and how to become better citizens, all while doing the many camp activities," said camp Principal Helen Dillon.
"And you have to teach values to do that."
It is an unusual program, and Dillon and her staff worry about its vulnerability. Recent budget cuts eliminated some race/human relations staffers, and Dillon fears what she believes is a trend in American society toward de-emphasizing human relations.
"If we let go (of the issue) in society, then we might let go of the programs in the district," Dillon said. Neither the school board members nor the superintendent has ever visited the camp despite repeated invitations, the teachers said. And at an open house last week, only the camp's administrative director came up from San Diego.
"That's what makes the work hard," said teacher Karen McCulley, who taught for 16 years in various city schools before coming to work at Palomar this year. "In a way, you're fighting (society's) system and you've only got a week to instill different values."
"Gentlemen, you must be on a bunk with a student from a different school," teacher Alexis Dixon screamed over the din of 62 Critter Cabin sixth-graders scrambling to throw their sleeping bags or sheets and blankets onto crowded cots soon after their Monday arrival.
"Remember, you are here to meet new friends," added Bob Forthun as a counter to the moans and groans that greeted the edict of colleague Dixon. Forthun also had the duty of collecting all gum and candy, the most serious contraband teachers find week after week. (Drug-related problems are almost unheard of because of strong advance warnings made at the schools.)
Boone student Eddie Popperwill hesitantly looked for a new face, and asked a Muir student if he would like to bunk with him. "Nah, I don't want to," the other kid replied.
As Eddie's self-confidence quickly waned, Alvaro Santos from Silver Gate came over. "Hi. How about rooming together?" Alvaro asked with a smile. While that match was born, the Muir student ended up bunking alone, with no friend, new or old.
After getting set up in the cabin--one of four, two for girls and two for boys--the students assembled for their first interaction, a group dialogue to learn about themselves, about nature, and often about both.
"Remember, gentlemen, this is a school, admittedly with no desks or blackboards, where we hope you have fun while we learn about how we relate to others and to nature," Dixon said. "And while we are here, you are no longer from Boone, or from Muir, or from Silver Gate. We are now Palomar School and you are Critter Cabin."
Dixon, a slender native of Guyana studying toward a career in psychology, asked the cabinmates what they understood the term "civil rights" to mean.
"People's rights," Arnold Magpayo answered.
"Rules so we don't get into trouble," Paul Silva added.
"A way to avoid war, or things nasty or dirty," Brian Anderson said.