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Studio Helps Provide an Academic Debut : Education: Paramount Pictures turned over a park for use by a Head Start program that helps neighborhood children.

April 25, 1993|CONNIE BENESCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HOLLYWOOD — Wielding a toy flashlight, the white-coated doctor peered into the eyes of her patient. She then gave the boy a shot--on his wrist, of all places--and barked, "Get up!"

Another doctor cornered a reporter. "Lie down," she commanded, before administering a blood test, tuberculosis test and a shot smack in the middle of the chest.

"Gotta get another one Monday. Check and come back and call me," the doctor ordered. Then she scribbled something illegible and handed the reporter a slip of red paper.

The bedside manner of the young physicians, Tatiana Castanon and Charde Gills, was, frankly, a bit brusque. But that was forgivable; after all, they were 5 years old.

They were enacting scenes from their own improvisational dramas; fittingly, they were doing so in Hollywood, right across the street from a company that does the same sort of thing on a grand scale, Paramount Pictures.

Such creative endeavors are all in a day's play at Gregory Park's Head Start program, administered by the Foundation for Early Childhood Education with a big assist from Paramount.

The unlikely marriage of Head Start and Paramount came about with some help from staffers in Councilman Michael Woo's office, who arranged a first meeting a year ago.

According to foundation director Shirley Cloke, Paramount Studio Group president Earl Lestz jumped at the chance to help launch the across-the-street educational program.

"He asked, 'Who are you going to serve?' " Cloke recalled. "I said, 'Poor families.'

"He said, 'Where are the families coming from?' I said, 'The neighborhood.' "

That clinched it, Cloke said. Lestz was convinced, and Paramount soon gave the go-ahead.

Last summer, the studio turned over Gregory Park, a little neighborhood park situated on property owned by Paramount at Gower Street and Gregory Avenue, for $1 a year to the Foundation for Early Childhood Education. Next, workers built the large classroom bungalow.

Meanwhile, teacher Maria Neira and assistant Felicitas Arambula rang doorbells and handed out flyers in the neighborhood to spread the word about the program that would soon serve the community.

The Head Start classroom opened its doors in January to 17 low-income children ages 3 to 5. Enrollment will double in September.

The foundation now operates an action-packed morning program for students, who learn to develop a variety of social and cognitive skills--such as listening, reading, using their imagination and improving self-esteem--designed to help them be ready for kindergarten next year. The children also receive medical, dental, nutrition and mental health services. Parental support and education are offered too.

The start-up expenses of about $200,000, including construction and annual operating expenses of about $2,900 per child per year, are covered by the federal government's Head Start program.

The 17 children are an only-in-L.A. mix. They or their parents come from Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Laos, the Philippines, Jamaica, India, Libya and, of course, the United States. Neira helps the children explore their diversity from time to time with classroom discussions of skin color and customs.

Mornings pass quickly at Gregory Park. As Tatiana and Charde staged their medical dramas one day recently, Melanie Magante was playing the role of grocer, selling plastic peas, corn, a grapefruit and something that looked like a butter-topped potato or roll. For currency, she took what Alex Brown called "egg money"--colored slips of paper in the shape of Easter eggs. Her take for the day: $10,521, according to the colorful cash register.

Later, the children sang "Little Peter Rabbit" and "Los pollojos" ("Little Chickens"). They looked at books. They played with blocks and toys. They whipped up works of art. And they ate a balanced breakfast and lunch.

By now, the 4-month-old program has become a source of pride for both the movie studio and the Foundation for Early Childhood Education.

Paramount's Lestz applauds the work across the street and shows off the facility to civic leaders and legislators whenever he can.

"I think this program . . . is the secret to turning things around," he said. "We've got to get these young people when they're 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and get them started properly. And if we do that, we have a great opportunity to do wonderful things."

Cloke praises Paramount for its donation of the land, and says she hopes other Hollywood businesses will follow the studio's lead by donating land or resources for Head Start programs.

The foundation serves 1,030 Head Start children in the greater Los Angeles area, but Cloke said that Head Start is now reaching less than 10% of the eligible children in Hollywood. Nationwide, 30% of the children eligible for Head Start are served.

The Gregory Park facilities would be hard to duplicate, however. For instance, the bungalow, at 60-by-36 feet, is one of the Foundation's largest. And the 19,000-square-foot park is ideal.

"This is heaven compared to other sites," said Geri Pineda, the foundation's child development supervisor. "A lot of teachers envy these teachers for being able to be here," she continued, noting that the building contains exemplary bathroom and kitchen facilities, as well as a special room for sick children.

Twenty-four-year-old Lisa Castanon, Tatiana's mother, also praised the site, pointing out that a previous location was small and "all concrete. Here, they can play in the yard."

Prime site and space notwithstanding, teacher Neira still has a wish list. A sandbox, swings and a jungle gym are in the works.

And she would like to take the kids on a tour of the neighboring movie studio.

Actually, some of the preschoolers already are hip to what goes on across the street.

"My mom told me. They make movies," said 5-year-old Linda Santillan. "They make comedy shows," added Tatiana.

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