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Mastering the Secrets of Success

May 31, 1987|TERRY SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

I can if I think I can! Be a success!

--poster in Joe Van Pelt's classroom

at El Segundo Middle School.

Jason Kramer remembered almost perfectly his favorite success story. The only thing that escaped the 12-year-old's memory was the name of the person involved.

"I forget the name of the man, but when he was a little boy he wasn't very good at anything," said Jason, a sixth-grader. "But he worked hard and learned a lot about cars, and when he grew up he became president of Chrysler."

That man, of course, was Lee Iacocca, and Jason and the other students at El Segundo Middle School have learned about him and other business people, athletes and celebrities as part of a new ethics program, "How to Be Successful."

For 10 minutes a day during fourth period, the children are told about these modern Horatio Alger heroes and try to memorize a personality trait they share. The teacher and the students then discuss the trait.

Qualities for Success

Don't procrastinate. Be polite. Be prepared. Be a listener. Be on time. Be friendly. These are some of the qualities the program hopes to instill.

"I am convinced these things are learnable," said Joe Van Pelt, a math teacher who coordinates the program. "There is no reason that if we can teach math, we can't teach these things, too."

One recent day, Van Pelt's lesson was about the obstacles some famous people overcame in their youths.

"Pablo Casals made a crude cello out of a gourd until his family could afford to buy him a real one," Van Pelt told the children. "Pele practiced soccer by kicking anything, including rolled-up rags."

Search for Moral

Lively banter then ensued among the students as they tried to find the moral of the stories.

"They didn't have the things to do what they wanted to do," one boy said. "But they kept on trying."

A girl interjected that Casals and Pele "set a goal and fulfilled it."

Designed by the Thomas Jefferson Research Center, a nonprofit organization in Pasadena that specializes in raising the behavior standards of children, the program was implemented at the school in February and is being financed by the Hughes Aircraft Corp. The foundation says it has similar programs in nearly 1,000 schools throughout the country but the El Segundo Middle School program is the only one in the South Bay.

The program is too new at the El Segundo school to determine its effects, but the principal believes it is having a beneficial impact.

"My gut feeling is that we are going to realize some pretty positive results from the program," said Principal Robert Kingston, who has been at the school since it opened four years ago. "When, however, I don't know. Maybe we'll see it when report cards come out."

Kingston said his school has always scored in the top third in the state in both reading and math and has no major discipline problems.

Students say they have noticed some changes in their attitudes and behavior.

Aware of Kindness

Sarah Tebbs said one of the things she has learned is not to take the kindness of others for granted.

"When my mom would do something nice for me, I used to say 'thanks,' " Sarah said. "Now I don't just say thanks, I mean it."

Her classmate, Rachel Scheumann, said she has learned she can do anything she wants if she puts her mind to it.

"You try to do what you want to do and then you'll achieve your goals," Rachel said.

Greg Hargengrater, Jason's friend and classmate, said the program "has been a real learning experience, even though it takes up a lot of time from math and that's my favorite subject."

He said he has learned to analyze his mistakes.

"Now when I do something wrong, I don't just say I was stupid," Greg said. "I try to look at it so the next time I can be successful."

Kingston said time has been the only problem with the program.

"Even though it's only 10 minutes a day, that adds up to one class period a week," Kingston said. Because sixth- and eighth-graders are now being tested by the state in more conventional subjects such as social studies and English, some teachers are not happy about the lost time, Kingston said.

Karen Prough is one of them.

"It's a very positive program and nobody disagrees with that," said Prough, who teaches math and honors humanities. "But it's supposed to be 10 minutes a day and it's almost impossible to do it in that short . . . time, with passing out the journals, writing the day's saying on the board, having your short discussion and then re-collecting the journals. What happens is that one class is 15 minutes shorter every day."

Prough said she continues to participate in the program, however, because if she didn't it might give the wrong message to her students.

"By stopping, it would almost be saying that I'm opposed to what the program is teaching," Prough said, "and that's not the case."

"I can understand their concern," Kingston said about Prough and other teachers with misgivings. "But the pluses the program has outweigh the minuses."

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