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Pampas Style of Learning Down USC Way

La Escuela Argentina, held Saturdays at the university, attracts a multiracial enrollment of youths who want to expand their cultural outlook and language skills.

December 05, 2000|Alex Abella | Special to the Times

9:25 a.m.

Here they come, as on nearly every Saturday morning, dozens of cars and vans driven by cultural need and pride, streaming through the gates of the USC campus, to unload their precious cargo--the students of La Escuela Argentina de Los Angeles.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 7, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Misspellings--In an article about La Escuela Argentina de Los Angeles Tuesday, the name of Elba Bonini, the school's director, was spelled incorrectly. Also, student Danae Ellison's name was misspelled in some editions.

They're here to pursue an academic program conducted entirely in Spanish by this unusual nonprofit organization, which is both recognized by the state of California and by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Argentina. While other kids are watching Saturday morning cartoons, getting ready to play ball, or blissfully enjoying a few extra hours of sleep, these bright-eyed kids--white, brown, black, Latino, Asian and Anglo, of many origins and nationalities--are dressed in their blue and white uniforms, and are lugging their books, backpacks and lunches, setting out for what amounts to a sixth day of school.

It's a school with a difference, of course--all instruction is in Spanish, and these kids are learning the curriculum of an Argentine school. It's as though they have been magically transported to somewhere down Argentina way, to the land of the gauchos, pampas and hot mate tea, a subversive notion in these anti-bilingual times, and the kids seem to enjoy knowing they are at the forefront of a cultural movement. But still, it is Saturday, and, boy, going to that practice sure would be good . . . or another round of "Scooby Doo" . . . or just kicking it in bed . . .

"We try for them to become bilingual and bicultural," says Edgardo Spik, one of the school's administrators, speaking in a borrowed classroom in the university's Von KleinSmid Center, where La Escuela holds its classes. With an enrollment of 130 students and an average student-teacher ratio of 10 to 1, the school takes children from preschool through high school and follows the curriculum mandated by Argentine law. Upon graduation, students are considered to have graduated from an Argentine high school and can apply for admission to universities throughout Latin America and Spain. Though Escuela teachers have, as a minimum, a certified teaching degree from Argentina, many also have the California equivalent.

"We concentrate on the humanities," adds Spik, speaking in the peculiarly cadenced accent of Buenos Aires. "We don't study science, since science is studied in English in their other schools. Fifty percent of the time is devoted to language, and the rest to geography, history, politics, sociology, philosophy."

9:35 a.m.

Most of the students are now in their classrooms, although a few will continue to trickle in for the next half an hour.

"We know that coming here on Saturday morning is a hardship for the students and the parents," says Elsa Bonini, La Escuela's director. "But they come because it's very important for them. We had a doctor who drove his children every weekend from south Orange County. It took him two hours to get here and longer to get back, of course."

The hallway's once-barren concrete walls have been adorned with posters, prints and symbols of native culture--drawings of 19th century heroes Gen. San Martin and President Domingo Sarmiento, the baby blue-and-white-striped flag of Argentina. At Maria Nella Hermosilla's first-grade class, the room is alive with the sound of 6- and 7-year-olds chattering away in Spanish as they color and cut out figures. Incongruously, three older kids sit at the far end of the room--they are new students, ages 11 and 12, who speak no Spanish.

"You learn stuff and it helps," says Shariah Barendi, a 12-year-old of Iranian descent who speaks Persian and English. "In the Californian population, Spanish people are growing more and more, so I think it's helpful to communicate with them."

Sitting next to him, Danae Ellison, 11, is also a fan of the school, even if she does miss soccer practice. "It's kind of hard, but it's going to be good in the long run because I'm going to learn Spanish. It's really important to me."

"My mom and dad were born in a Spanish country," says Victoria Calix, sitting next to Danae. "And they really want me to come here so I can communicate with my family so I can go visit them during Christmas time. I'm really enjoying it."

In the second-floor hallway, Michelle Garcia, a single mother, sits at a school desk filling out a registration form for her two children, ages 9 and 5. A native of Guatemala, Garcia has lived in the U.S. for 18 years and works as a secretary. "I would like my children to learn Spanish as well as some Latin American culture. The more that children know, the more opportunities they have. Here they teach them the culture, while in other schools they just teach them the grammar."

This particular mix of cultural pride and language skills has other parents singing the praises of the school. "If they come here, they get peer pressure that it's kind of cool, you know, to speak this other language that about 170 million other people speak," says Roberto Calix, whose five children attend La Escuela.

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