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Rites of Passage Signal End of Fifth Grade : Education: Visits to Catalina and to a middle school campus they will attend help Lincoln School students look ahead.

MAKING THE GRADE: A Year in the Classroom. Third in an occasional series. About This Series: "Making the Grade" is a series chronicling life in two Ventura County classrooms this school year. In today's articles, fifth-grade students at Lincoln School in Ventura and sixth-graders at Park Oaks in Thousand Oaks venture out of the classroom for excursions revolving around science. The Ventura class travels to a camp on Catalina Island--and closer to home, samples a day in the life of nearby Cabrillo Middle School. The Thousand Oaks students head to Malibu for a weeklong wilderness camp. Both classes, meanwhile, are advancing through the curriculum as they near the end of elementary school.


The lessons of fifth grade can't always be taught in the classroom.

For students at Lincoln School in Ventura, sometimes those lessons are learned miles away, in the tide pools and on the copper-colored beaches of an emerald island.

And once a year they are discovered just down the street, at a middle school where the bulk of Lincoln's fifth-graders will end up next year.

So it is, with the school year racing to a close, that Mary Elsenbaumer's fifth-grade students abandoned the classroom recently to learn a little something about the sixth grade and a lot more about the world outside of their downtown elementary school.

Since September, the school year has advanced inexorably toward this point.

From Day 1, students have asked about Lincoln's annual fifth-grade trip to Catalina Island, a three-day affair dominated by sun, snorkeling and scientific reasoning.

And as the year progressed, even as the cast of characters kept changing at the tiny campus known as much for its transiency as for its dedicated teaching staff, many of the fifth-graders eagerly anticipated their preview of Cabrillo Middle School.

These are the rites of passage in Elsenbaumer's class. They culminate the transfer of a tide of new ideas and signal that the end of the school year is near.

More important, the two field trips serve as a launching pad for Elsenbaumer's 27 fifth-grade students, who are gearing up for the often rocky transition from the security of elementary school to the uncertainty of middle school.

"It's time for us to let them know that we know they are responsible, and that when they leave us they'll be OK," Elsenbaumer said. "They have to learn to rely on themselves and they are doing that."

Still, on the day last month that students marched the few blocks from Lincoln to Cabrillo, Elsenbaumer figured a gentle reminder about appropriate behavior couldn't hurt.


"They don't know you and love you like I do," she told her students. "They're going to be forming an opinion about you."

Nervousness ruled the day. All of the lessons of fifth-grade--the math quizzes and reading circles and science experiments--meant little now. Much of the anxiety was social, with students worried about how they would fit in and whether they would be separated from their friends.

"I've never been to any other school," 10-year-old Dillon McCarthy confided. "I'm kind of scared."

When Elsenbaumer's students arrived at the Cabrillo campus, they joined about 200 fifth-graders from other schools in the auditorium. Together, the students formed a squirming and chattering mass of preteen energy until Principal Kris Bergstrom took the stage, speaking in a voice so soft that the students had to quiet down to hear.

"Rule No. 1," she told them. "When Mrs. B talks, you don't."

After a short welcome, Bergstrom turned the program over to student leaders from Cabrillo, who talked about sports and music programs, the student council and even the cafeteria food.

But it was Nikki Silverman, the sixth-grade student body vice president, who had the most impact.


"I know a lot of you are probably nervous about going to middle school," she told the students. "Well I know how you feel. When I first came to Cabrillo, I was so excited, confused and maybe a little nervous. OK, I was really nervous."

Afterward, the fifth-graders broke up into groups of 10 and toured the oceanfront campus, peeking their heads into classrooms and checking out the library and ball fields.

Back at Lincoln, the students dissected the day.

"Cabrillo has nachos," 11-year-old Sandra Jenkins shouted. "I love nachos."

Jordan Harris, 11, said he was too embarrassed to ask a Cabrillo student about one of his concerns, so he had classmate Ben Cressy ask for him.

"I told him to ask if Cabrillo had pretty girls," Jordan said grinning.

Ten-year-old Tyler Welbourn was one of the few who would readily reveal his deepest concerns: "I'm going to be like the smallest kid there, so I have to get used to it."

Elsenbaumer said many of the same anxieties are expressed year after year. The leap from one-room instruction to the pace of changing classes six times a day can be daunting.

Students don't know what to expect, so they worry. Or they expect that middle school will be all bullies and bad times, so they worry more.


Next year, Elsenbaumer's students will go from being the oldest and biggest students at school to being the youngest and smallest. But she is quick to point out that she does not teach fifth grade with those sixth-grade anxieties in mind.

Instead, her mission is to inspire independent learning and thinking. She wants to stir their interest in education, to plant a seed of curiosity and understanding that will grow well beyond next year.

"I don't like to teach them just so they will do well next year," she said. "I teach them to learn for the sake of learning."

That's why, six years ago when she started teaching fifth grade at Lincoln, she pushed the idea of a year-end excursion to Catalina Island.

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