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Ventura County

School Grows From New 'Core'

Education: Moorpark campus is county's first to try curriculum that uses six subjects, each building on the other through grade levels.

January 28, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At Peach Hill School in Moorpark, first-graders can tell you all about the life and work of artist Georgia O'Keeffe. Kindergartners can name the seven world continents. Second-graders can rattle off details about the Civil War.

These and other concepts in history, geography and fine arts--often not taught until middle or high school--are being devoured by children at Peach Hill under its new "core knowledge" curriculum.

Developed by University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch Jr., the curriculum is an outline of specific lessons in six subjects, each building on the others through the grade levels.

Supporters say the approach reduces repetition in teaching, levels the playing field among students from varying backgrounds and sparks a thirst for learning.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday February 1, 2002 Ventura County Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Moorpark student--A photograph that ran Monday in the California section incorrectly identified a student at Peach Hill Elementary School in Moorpark. The student pictured is Siera Strumlauf.

Although the curriculum is popular on the East Coast and in the South, Peach Hill is the first school in Ventura County--and only one of a handful in Southern California--to embrace it.

"The kids are so excited, and they're applying a lot of what they're being taught," Principal Donna Welch said. "In order to really learn anything, you have to make those kinds of connections."

And at Peach Hill, where the percentage of students who speak little or no English and come from poor homes is twice the district average, educators say the curriculum has done even more. It has reinvigorated a school community that has long struggled against negative perceptions.

The K-3 campus was at the center of a controversial desegregation plan a few years ago, and then scored lowest among elementary schools in Moorpark Unified School District on the state's standardized tests.

As those factors increasingly translated into decreased enrollment, district officials, teachers and parents decided to take action.

A committee spent months researching various programs, holding public meetings and visiting schools around the state before choosing to make Peach Hill a core knowledge school.

One of the biggest selling points, teachers and parents said, was the curriculum's promises to bridge the well-documented student achievement gap between haves and have-nots, and to cater to a wide spectrum of learners--from those struggling to speak English to the highest achievers.

Because most of the concepts in history and art are new to such young children, all students come in at the same knowledge level. That is not true with subjects such as reading or math, in which knowledge can vary depending on English-speaking ability or whether a child attended preschool, teachers said.

"Everyone is hearing it for the first time, so we present it with pictures and explanations that bring complicated topics to their level," said Linnea Brecunier, the school's reading specialist. "The sky is the limit for the really bright kids, but the lower-level kids get it too."

Another facet of the curriculum is a long list of sayings that children learn in each grade. These expressions and proverbs, such as "fish out of water" and "great oaks from little acorns grow," are a part of American culture that everyone should know, according to Hirsch.

"The sayings help the English-language learners a lot," said kindergarten teacher Irma Barragan. "They hear these things everywhere, but they don't make sense when you try to translate them literally."

Hirsch's 1988 book "Cultural Literacy" is what inspired the sequenced curriculum, said Cyndi Wells, director of teacher development for the Virginia-based Core Knowledge Foundation.

The theory evolved after Hirsch discovered that many students in his college classes lacked general knowledge, including basic principles of constitutional government, important events in world history and widely acknowledged masterpieces of art and music, Wells said.

At Peach Hill, the core knowledge sequences have given a focus and inspired teachers to be more creative in devising lesson plans, Welch said.

Children are still learning language and math skills required by the state, she said, but they are doing so while being engaged in rich and interesting subjects.

For example, because second-graders now study the history of America's western expansion, teacher Carol Hartnett has them practice their writing skills by composing letters from the perspective of pioneer children and deliver them in a reenactment of the Pony Express.

"In the past, we might have them write a letter to grandma or a pen pal," she said. "This is so much more motivating."

Parent Kim DiCecco can attest to that. Three of her children went through Peach Hill before the new curriculum began, and her daughter is a second-grader now.

"She comes home just spilling over with enthusiasm and excitement from what she's learned," DiCecco said. "That didn't happen before."

Most appealing to her, DiCecco said, is the way the lessons build on each other, and that every classroom in each grade level is teaching the same thing.

"There's no reinventing the wheel," she said.

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