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SNAPSHOTS

Zero the Hero counts for a lot with schoolchildren--even if he's nothing.

March 03, 1988|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

A super-hero appeared at Fremont Elementary School last week.

Not Batman, not Superman, not even Captain Marvel.

Zero the Hero materialized Feb. 22 on the Alhambra campus.

Zero the Hero, Principal Susan Sato-Tenorio explained, is the school's own special super-hero, a cartoon-like character who is helping Fremont youngsters learn the importance of 0 in the number system based on 10.

Since the beginning of school, kindergarten through fourth-grade classes have been keeping track of the number of school days in a classroom log. On each day with a 0 in it--the 10th, the 20th and so on--the students have received a treat, left for them, their teachers say, by Zero the Hero.

Like other super-heroes, Zero is magical. By himself, he's nothing. But he has the power to multiply numbers in a single bound, turning 1 into 10, 10 into 100. "Zero makes an enormous difference," Sato-Tenorio said. "If I had more zeroes in my paycheck, I wouldn't complain."

Zero's recent visit marked the 100th day of school. It was Zero's second trip to Fremont. His first was on the 40th day of classes. Until then, Sato-Tenorio said, some of the older children thought that their teachers were supplying them with the periodic gifts of raisins, loose-leaf paper reinforcers and candy worms that arrived in Zero's name. They didn't believe he was real, the principal said, until they actually saw him in his T-shirt, black spandex biking shorts and multicolored striped stockings.

To greet Zero on Monday, the children had made collections of 100 items of their choice.

One student made a display of 100 fake fingernails. Another gathered together 100 school pictures of herself. One painted 100 little pretzels and arranged them on piece of cardboard in a salty rainbow. One made a tree decorated with 100 apples fashioned from red rubber bands. One gathered 100 pieces of trash and stuffed them into a clear plastic trash bag labeled "Recycling Makes Sense."

Zero gave red cards to the 100 children whose collections he liked best. The students exchanged the cards for red balloons. At a signal from Zero, they released the balloons and everybody cheered.

Three Fremont teachers--Lorna Mae Nagata, Janet Lees and Maria Elena Ipsen--heard about Zero the Hero at a workshop they attended last summer on teaching mathematics in elementary school. They don't remember who had the idea first, but they thought it would work for their school.

Nagata, the 1988 California Teacher of the Year, said: "For kindergarten children particularly, it teaches them the pattern of numbers and how zero makes numbers grow. For older children, it's more motivational. It's to make math more fun and to reinforce their understanding of patterns and place value."

Nagata is reluctant to reveal Zero's non-arithmetic identity. "We want to keep our myth," she said. However, it is a fact that no one has ever seen Zero the Hero and Victor Sandoval in the same room.

Sandoval, 42, is an administrative intern for the Alhambra School District. While Zero turns small numbers into larger ones, Sandoval's job is writing grant proposals and substituting for administrators who are on leave. Sandoval is a friend of Nagata's husband, Carl.

On Monday, Zero told students who asked how he got to the school that he thought himself there. Sandoval, on the other hand, always drives his car.

Zero said he loves his super powers.

"It's fantastic to go into a bilingual kindergarten class and see that the kids know their numbers. It's working!"

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