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NEXT L.A. | Ideas: Education

Schools Offer Curriculums That Are Not Textbook Cases

November 26, 1996|TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Students in one Orange County school district are venturing well beyond the three R's. They are being groomed to become foreign investors, future ambassadors, even avant-garde film directors.

At Concordia Elementary, all students study Japanese language and culture weekly. Las Palmas Elementary runs a "diplomacy" program in which students from various language backgrounds study in English and Spanish. And at Bathgate Elementary, the arts are woven through everything from math to history.

These are a sampling of the specialized "academies" created in the Capistrano Unified School District. It is a rare approach to learning that requires each of 38 schools to adopt an academic theme.

"Parents wanted choice," said Capistrano Unified's deputy Supt. Barbara Smith. "So we offered them a banquet of options."

So-called "themed" schooling was launched in 1993 amid the statewide movement for school choice. Legislation passed in May 1994 enabled parents to choose which schools within their district to send their children.

Themes were developed to enhance the teachers' talents at each school and package them in a way that would be attractive to parents, Capistrano Unified Supt. Jim Fleming said.

"For years, I noticed teachers and staff had special interests and skills, and they often shared a common philosophy in education," Fleming said. "This was a way for them to pull together their resources and build a school of their own."

While most parents praise the innovative programs, themed schooling comes with some challenges, administrators said.

Some parents expressed reservations about the Japanese classes, for example, saying they want English to be a top priority, one principal said.

And it's difficult to make enrollment projections when parents can choose to send their children to a school outside their local boundaries. More than 90% attend their local school, however.

On the positive side, parents tend to be more involved when they choose a themed school for their children. And establishing themes help schools in their application for special grants, officials said.

Through a federal grant called Project Japan, Concordia Principal Kathy Oshima George was able to hire three Japanese-language instructors to teach once or twice a week, depending the grade level.

When Japanese teacher Bonnie Hamm orders her rowdy class to "Shizuka ni" (please be quiet), the youngsters fall silent. When she tells them "Suatte kudsai" (sit down), they obediently plop in their seats. And when asked what his favorite color is, Luis Sandoval, 8, blurted, "oka," or red.

"I was surprised how quickly he learned the language," said Luis' mother, Gabriela Sandoval. "The kids picked it up like a sponge and they use it at home all the time."

Why Japanese?

"It's a business language," George said. "Much of the world economy is in the Pacific Rim."

Studies have shown that younger children are more apt to master a foreign language. And the course gives some students who have trouble in traditional subjects a chance to excel, she adds.

"We've noticed that very often, our Spanish-speaking students are at the top of the Japanese classes," teacher Hamm said. "Because they already have been forced to study English as a second language, they've already passed that hurdle and become receptive to another foreign language. They become leaders in the classroom."

George said she plans to expand the program by putting the school online to connect students with their peers in Japan. She's also pushing for Japanese studies at local middle and high schools so that interested Concordia Elementary graduates can continue with their study of the language.

Las Palmas Elementary's diplomacy theme is also partly funded by a federal program. But this is not the same as bilingual education, Principal Douglas Kramer said, because students of a variety of language backgrounds are choosing to study traditional subjects in English and Spanish.

"Language is really a bridge to people," Kramer said. "When you walk into these classes you see two languages firing throughout the classrooms. The kids create their own social system to teach each other language tips. It's a social language, an informal way of instruction."

The immersion program is optional and about 250 of the school's 630 students are enrolled. Offered at all grade levels, about half of the students are from English-speaking households. The rest of the students speak another primary language.

Building on the diplomacy theme, Las Palmas officials hope to send students on field trips to Washington where they can tour Congress, museums and other landmarks in the nation's capital.

"America is a country made up of people from all over the world," Kramer added. "We have a strong understanding of that . . . and we're trying to prepare our students to be world citizens," Kramer said.

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