More Than ABC’s

Long before your child was even able to hold a pencil, it’s a good bet that you were keeping a brain file tucked away about the best education opportunities for your future scholar. Is the neighborhood school OK? Is there enough parent involvement? Do the teachers have enough resources? Should you transfer or “go private”? Should you move to a “better” district?


Certainly, the current recession and California’s budget crisis have slammed the state’s public schools, and it’s tougher than ever to ensure that your child is getting the educational opportunities you feel he deserves.


Still, the Bay Area is home to many outstanding schools – public and private – that offer a variety of unique classes and programs that will enrich and excite your child. Camping trips to Tilden Park, an outdoor classroom in Pleasanton, and reading wonders in Pleasant Hill are just a taste of what is happening in – and out of – local classrooms. In our Back-to-School issue of Bay Area Parent, we look at several of these programs, and meet the folks in charge who deserve an A+ for their efforts.


A Reading Dream Team Strandwood Elementary School – Pleasant Hill

On the last Friday of every month, it rains books at Pleasant Hill’s Strandwood Elementary School. That’s when Suzie Silva and her fellow reading team coordinator, Noga Kessler, visit classrooms to deliver books earned by students on the Read & Dream team.


Funded and operated by the school’s PTA, Read & Dream takes the concept of required reading and bumps it up a notch: By logging reading minutes each month, students who meet grade-level requirements can make the team, earn awards and, ultimately, fill their home libraries with new books.


“The program has been at Strandwood since 1987,” says Silva, who has managed Read & Dream for several years. Her oldest daughter, Caleigh, entered middle school this year; Caleigh’s younger sisters, Cassie and Courtney, are in fifth and second grades at Strandwood.


Grade-level standards determine the amount of minutes each child should read per week. With those guidelines, the Read & Dream team awards prizes to students who meet or exceed their grade-level goals.


“The first month they make the team they earn a certificate and a ribbon that can be used as a bookmark,” says Silva. “Then every month thereafter they get to earn a book.”


At least 75 percent of the student body joins the Read & Dream team per year, says Silva. “We’ve reached the point where the kids are asking us for (specific) books.”


Kessler, who has two children at Strandwood, applauds teacher support of the Read & Dream team. “Reading is part of the daily homework requirement. Some teachers are so supportive that year after year their classrooms have 100 percent participation.”


As the program evolves from year to year, the coordinators develop new and interesting ways to continue the excitement. “One thing we’re hoping to do is offer incentives for entire classrooms that make the team,” says Silva.


With approximately 75 percent of Standwood’s student body on the Read & Dream team at some point during each school year, Kessler and Silva shop for book bargains and award thousands of books per year. Kessler’s latest mission, therefore, is to form a book-swap program for Read & Dream team members.


“We’re hoping to kick it off at the holidays,” she says. “The book swap will also be a real opportunity for the children to recycle and reuse.”


Teamwork at 2 a.m. Black Pine Circle School – Berkeley

At Black Pine Circle School in West Berkeley, fourth- through eighth-graders took two to seven-day outdoor trips this past school year, learning leadership skills and the importance of teamwork.


They tromped through the Marin Headlands to learn about marine biology and science, visited Sacramento to study past and current civic leaders, trekked to Yosemite National Park to study geology and went on an overnight camping trip to Tilden Park, where they had a campfire, went on nature hikes, did “geocaching” – a GPS assisted treasure hunt – and were startled by a furry pre-dawn raccoon.


The final trip of the year was for the seventh graders, who will be at the top of the school next year and need to have a good grasp on leadership, said Principal John Carlstroem.


So, they headed off to Tilden Park – a 14-minute drive from the West Berkeley school – for an overnight camping trip.


The most exciting part of the trip might have been the raccoon that appeared outside two boys’ tent at 2 a.m. But it might have proved to be an important lesson, too. At first, they thought it was a snake, but Parker Denison and Sebastian Moraga, both 13-year-old Berkeley boys, worked together to stay calm and figure out their next move while the masked bandit rooted around for a bit and then ambled off. There was a lesson in teamwork there – even at 2 a.m., Carlstroem says.


About half the youngsters had never been camping before and didn’t know what to expect. Where will we sleep? What will we eat? But the students braved the world without their Sony Playstations and Nintendo Wiis and headed into the great outdoors, where they chomped on miner’s lettuce and wild oak grass, learned about non-native eucalyptus and found out how to avoid poison oak.


“We learned a lot about nature and what’s edible and what’s OK to touch,” said 13-year-old Sheridan Loney. “We also worked on trusting each other and how to rely on each other.”


Success in Any Language Stonebrae Elementary School – Hayward

At Stonebrae Elementary School in Hayward, it’s not always a bad thing to end up in the principal’s office. “They love showing off that they can speak Mandarin to me because they know I don’t understand it,” says Principal Linda Nolting.


This is the second year that the Hayward Hills elementary school has been teaching Mandarin Chinese through dual immersion. Most of the students come in knowing nothing of the language but after just a couple months can understand and speak a few words.


The Mandarin program was launched last year after a community survey in 2007 of what parents wanted in school.


It started with kindergartners and moved this past school year to the first grade.


The students are taught all subjects in Mandarin for the first half of the day, and in English the second half, Nolting says.


They are responsible for learning the standard English curriculum as well as Mandarin, to write and sing in traditional Chinese, and are expected to know all of Mandarin's 37 phonetic symbols. They are taught to understand and respond to simple questions like “may I close the door?” and say simple phrases such as “I like ice cream,” says first-grade teacher Cindy Lin. The goal is to have the students be bilingual and biliterate in Mandarin by the time they graduate from high school. But Lin says many will be able to understand and answer many questions by the second or third grade.


“Their brains are like sponges, they absorb everything. I have confidence in them that they will build up all the vocabulary (in the next two years),” said Lin.


Lin, a petite, spunky teacher, uses pantomime, singing, clapping and flashcard pictures to teach her 19 students how to ask and respond to questions such as, “may I use the bathroom?” and “may I borrow your crayons?”


The youngsters also learn how to identify places such as a restaurant, an amusement park a movie theater and a supermarket.


Lin said about 80 percent of her students are very interested in learning the language and participate with gusto. The challenge is getting them to speak more, she said. “They don’t often practice.”


One who does practice is Audrey Miyoshi, 7, said her mother, Linda Miyoshi of Hayward. “My husband and I do not speak Chinese, but thanks to our little first grader, our preschooler has been picking up the language through osmosis,” she said. “We hope the program is still going strong when she starts kindergarten in two years.”


Weaving a Web of Life Skills Hearst Elementary – Pleasanton

From killdeers, hummingbirds and butterflies to blue-bellied lizards, aphids and ground squirrels, none of the critters in the Outdoor Classroom at Hearst Elementary in Pleasanton arrive by human hands. The welcoming environment of the Outdoor Classroom enables nature to build its own ecosystems, lifecycles and microclimates, all while children witness some of earth’s wonders.


Science teacher Kim Lounsbury insists that students are learning about more than food webs and ecosystems here. “We’re teaching life skills,” Lounsbury says about the Outdoor Classroom, which is nicknamed the “Monarch Garden” for the school’s symbol, a native butterfly whose population is dwindling. “The kids are getting this awareness, literally, that food doesn’t come from the grocery store.”


Lounsbury, along with local botanist and substitute teacher Robyn Battaglia, began the Outdoor Classroom project less than two years ago with little more than a pile of dirt. The project now is funded entirely by grants Lounsbury writes annually.


In one year, the Outdoor Classroom blossomed into an 82-square-foot space complete with three designated areas for plants and animals to thrive. First is the butterfly garden, which includes both native and non-native plants. “If it attracts butterflies it goes in there!” says Battaglia.


The next section is filled with native plants that thrive in the valley’s hot, dry summers or cool, damp winters. Finally, several raised garden beds are each intended to hold a specific crop.


Battaglia and Lounsbury hope that the Outdoor Classroom provides live demonstrations of science, social studies, and even art curriculum.


While mapping out the food web in class, for example, fourth-graders can witness the web in action. “They see the ants protecting the aphids because the ants love the nectar the aphids make,” Lounsbury says. “Then they see the blue-bellied lizards eating the ants and the whole lifecycle of the ladybug. They know a ladybug larva from others.”


Battaglia adds that after learning how the Ohlone Indians used native plant life long ago, third-graders can touch and feel the actual native plants in the Outdoor Classroom. And beyond copying a famous impressionist painting during art studies, students might create their own “impressions” of their school garden.


“This is a respect-nature type of space. It’s less about farming than it is about habitats, lifecycles and conservation,” says Lounsbury. While irrigation was necessary to build the garden, the team keeps watering to a minimum by planting drought-tolerant summer plants. Plus, students provide food waste from school meals to be used as compost; in the process, they witness the value of compost and the benefits of preserving resources.


An Age-old Love of Learning Civic Corps Elementary School – Oakland

For the youngsters enrolled in the Experience Corps tutoring program at Civic Corps Elementary school in Oakland, it’s the one-on-one time they get with their adult mentors that they enjoy the most. But new research from Washington University in St. Louis shows significant academic gains from the national service program, which trains Americans 55 and older to help low-income children in urban public schools. The central finding: over a single school year, students who have Experience Corps tutors made more than 60 percent more progress in reading skills and reading comprehension than those without the tutors.


In the Bay Area, the program is active in 23 schools, including seven in Oakland. It’s run by volunteers with an average age of 66. They put in more than 7,500 service hours at the seven Oakland campuses in the 2008-09 school year.


But it’s not the positive research or the hefty number of volunteer hours that matters most to Rayahna Dickens-Moore, an outspoken fourth grader who works with tutor Ed Oberholtzer (Mr. O) on her reading. “I get to have alone time instead of having all the kids around me,” she says. But that’s not all. “He’s fun. He likes to play games and he gives us stickers for being good,” the 10-year-old says. “And I’m up two (reading) levels.”


Oberholtzer, a librarian who moved to the Bay Area and is looking for work, said he decided to volunteer three days a week to stay active and involved with younger children. “The benefit is just being able to talk to children,” the Oakland man says. “It’s nice sitting with kids who are going to be the next generation.” The two read books together but also talk about “anything that comes up,” Oberholtzer says.


While the two-year study of 800 first-, second- and third-graders (half with Experience Corps tutors, half without) at 23 schools in three cities showed positive results for the students, the program also offers benefits for the tutors. Lucy Scott is a retired college professor and psychologist who has authored books and taught junior high school. But the Berkeley woman says she was having a tough time finding a volunteer program that fit with her background and desires. “It’s not so easy to find a place when you are older,” she says. She enjoys the Experience Corps program for its diversity and organization. But it’s the children she enjoys the most.


“The words I always listen for are ‘Now I can do it myself,’” says Scott.


Kristin Bender is a writer at the Oakland Tribune and a frequent contributor to Bay Area Parent. Writer/blogger Cameron Sullivan lives in Pleasanton and is the mother of three school-age children. Check her out at




Does your child’s school have a unique program or curriculum? Let us know about it! Log onto our discussion at and click on the discussion for “Great School Programs.”

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