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COVER STORY : Students Get Training for Tomorrow's World : Like Its Namesake, Jackie Robinson Academy Is a Trailblazer; Languages, Computers Are Stressed

October 13, 1994|EMELYN CRUZ LAT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jim Morin stands in front of a hazy chalkboard filled with scribbling as he surveys two lines of blue-and-white-clad fifth- and sixth-graders entering his classroom.

Fresh air wafts through an open doorway as the students burst into the sparsely decorated room, filling it with chatter.

"Kiritsu!" he says with voice raised, demanding their attention.

"Kyotsuke!" he commands.

The students, accustomed to daily ritual, quickly come to order. Then bowing, they greet their instructor with a "good morning."

"Ohayo gozaimasu, " they say in unison.

Meanwhile, students in other classes break into choruses of "buenos dias" or "bonjour. "

Welcome to Jackie Robinson Academy, the Long Beach School District's newest and arguably most radical school. Younger students spend up to 90% of their school day immersed in a language--French, Japanese or Spanish. Students in the upper grades receive up to half their instruction in a foreign language.

After five years of planning, the academy opened its doors last month to 572 students from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade. Another 425 students were turned away, an indication that the academy is one of the district's most popular schools.

And for ample reason.

The language immersion program is one of several efforts to help prepare students for a diverse, global, high-tech society. Officials said they selected French, Japanese and Spanish because those languages are used often in international business.

Each class has access to sophisticated computer systems to allow students to communicate and share assignments with children throughout the state and the country, as well as allowing them access to data around the world.

And it is the only school in the district that takes the Montessori approach, a private school technique in which children are grouped together by ability rather than age and encouraged to progress at their own pace. Some classes have children three years apart in age. Instructors say grouping children in this fashion encourages independence and fosters self-esteem.

At the school, children with physical or learning disabilities, rather than being placed in classes by themselves, are included in general classes and offered the same learning environment as other students.

Administrators have created an ethnically balanced student body that mirrors the racial and ethnic composition of the city. White students make up 23% of the enrollment; blacks, 27%; Latinos, 32%; Asians, 5%; Filipinos, 9%, and other groups, such as Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, 4%. The school received a $550,000 federal grant awarded to districts to help desegregation efforts.

By emphasizing a diverse enrollment, foreign languages and computer technology, "we're trying to start off early to give students skills they need to participate in the 21st Century," said area Supt. Dorothy Harper. "It's a new way of teaching and a new way of learning."

The school's only requirement for admission is that parents get involved in school activities. Before their children could be considered for enrollment, parents had to agree to devote at least 20 hours for the school year to school-related activities.

The requirement proved no obstacle as parents throughout the district scrambled to sign up their children for the new $7.6-million school on Pine Avenue across from Veterans Memorial Park on the west side of the city.

Parent Dilcia Francis said she signed up her two sons and drives them to and from school each day. Francis, a native of Honduras, said she wants her sons, Hiram and Zahir, to become fluent in Spanish. "I want them to have the language skills," Francis said. "It will keep them in touch with their roots."

*

During the first week, administrators and teachers encountered some rough spots as they labored to launch Robinson's ambitious academic programs.

In some classes, students initially resisted teachers' efforts to immerse them in a foreign language, repeatedly asking instructors to speak in English. In most cases, teachers work with the children if they become frustrated by rephrasing what was said or by asking a bilingual student to assist in translating for their classmates.

Then there were delays in introducing certain subjects as some teachers took extra time to plan lessons.

"This is new for all of us," said Morin, who is teaching for the first time.

Despite his lack of teaching experience, Morin was hired because he is fluent in Japanese. He learned the language during a two-year stay there as a missionary.

The school's teachers are relatively inexperienced--administrators placed a premium on recruiting teachers with strong bilingual skills, said Principal Erlinda Teisinger.

Of the 22 teachers, seven are teaching for the first time. Many are taking classes themselves to improve their teaching and bilingual skills. This is not particularly unusual since there is a shortage of qualified bilingual educators, Teisinger said.

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