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EDUCATION / SMART RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS AND PARENTS

Learning to Speak the Language of School

August 06, 2000|RENEE MOILANEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Four weeks ago, Stephanie Ramirez clutched crayons awkwardly, struggling to form the alphabet letters already familiar to most preschool children.

Nursery rhymes easily recognized by other 5-year-olds made little sense, spoken in a language she rarely used. Simple counting exercises baffled her.

With little ability to speak English and no preschool experience, Stephanie was already behind in a kindergarten class she would not start for another few months.

Now, things have changed.

Having just completed Saddleback Valley Unified's prekindergarten summer program for children who speak little or no English, Stephanie has a solid foundation for starting school in the fall--a leg up that may ensure academic success, district officials said.

"These students are starting from ground zero. They're always catching up," said Olivia Yahya, who oversees the program at Lomarena Elementary School in Laguna Hills. "The earlier we can get the gap reduced, the better it will be for all of them."

This summer, Saddleback Valley Unified expanded the program it started three years ago, doubling enrollment and adding classes to three elementary schools, rather than one. The district spent about $10,000, patching together federal grants and district funds.

About 75 children, many of whom had never attended preschool, participated in the four-week program at Lomarena, or at Gates or Olivewood elementary schools in Lake Forest, where nearly one-third of the pupils speak little or no English.

The district also added a weekly child development class for parents, so they could learn about discipline, find out how to help with their child's homework and become involved in the school--keys to student success, said Ysabel Delperdang, who oversees the program at Gates.

"A lot of Hispanic parents don't have the tools because they haven't gone to school," she said. "We're giving parents a little helping hand."

Skills that by now come easily to most youngsters are milestones for children in the prekindergarten program.

"I'm really happy, because now she can write her name," said Norma Ramirez, Stephanie's mother.

The Mission Viejo resident, who speaks mostly Spanish at home, could not afford to send her daughter to preschool and worried about Stephanie's fate in the English-speaking schools.

"Her English was OK, but I notice now that she really knows her ABCs; she knows about animals; she knows new words," Ramirez said. "She feels more secure."

Although the prekindergarten classrooms looked like any other preschoolers' space--with sloppy, hand-painted rainbows drying on easels and molding-clay stains on the tables--the lessons were academic.

The instructors taught their students songs, told them nursery rhymes and read them stories. Children pasted dried beans over outlines of their names and traced wiggly lines with crayons to build strength in their fingers.

Although four weeks is not enough to fully prepare these children for school, it helps, Yahya said.

"The teachers saw a big difference with the kids [who] had exposure to prekindergarten," she said.

The children also gained an appreciation for school life and learned the rules and behaviors expected of them in class, said Gloria Roelen, the district's second-language coordinator.

"These kids who have this prekindergarten experience will do better than those who don't. They understand what school is all about. They're excited to be there," she said.

Ramirez agreed.

Stephanie chats eagerly about attending Mission Viejo's Del Lago Elementary School in fall.

"She's more outgoing, more friendly, more happy that she's going to Del Lago. She knows what it is now. It's not going to be a surprise," she said.

"Everything is exciting for her."

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