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Educating Maria

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"The classroom is the teacher," Stern says. "The child is driving the questions."

Reggio Emilia was created in an affluent Northern Italian city of that name by teacher Loris Malaguzzi, who believed a child must have some control over his learning and that his surrounding "environment" acted as a "third teacher." A teacher is a "co-learner" and the child "self-guides" his curriculum. It's not "traditional education," says Stern, describing it as "avant-garde."

Stern says students at the Para Los Niños charter school take weekly field trips to the garment and flower districts. "They're learning about textures and smells," says Stern. Andrea Purcell, director of new schools at Para Los Niños, notes that teachers have a less prominent role. They don't stand before students, imparting information.

Purcell says elements of Reggio Emilia will be used at the new middle school at Ninth Street, and she expects the elementary school operated by LAUSD to also use aspects of it. Diekmann says the district hasn't discussed it yet but says a "partnership" will definitely exist.

Para Los Niños will also bring to Ninth Street its firm belief that young students should gradually learn English — not be immersed in it — with the first emphasis on Spanish.

At Jardin de la Infancia, things couldn't be more different. Teachers lead students through a carefully crafted instruction plan for learning English literacy and math skills. "The teachers have a model to follow," says Zuzy Chavez, "and the children have to receive the information and build upon what they're learning."

Ronni Ephraim, a veteran educator and now a private consultant, credited with key improvements in some of LAUSD's troubled schools, has never heard of Reggio Emilia. But its theories don't jibe with her philosophy on instruction, especially for young Spanish-speaking students who need to be fluent readers and writers of English, particularly if they are heading to other good schools. Says Ephraim, "The kids need a really good curriculum and teachers who are prepared. That's key."

For Jessica Fuentes, the former student at Ninth Street Elementary who took part in the 1996 boycott, talk about a "self-guided" curriculum where a teacher is a "co-learner" doesn't sound all that realistic or effective.

"It makes me wonder what the slackers will do if the teachers aren't keeping them in line and making them move forward," she says. "For elementary schoolkids who are learning English, they need even more guidance from teachers."

On a recent late afternoon, seventh-grader Fernando Salinas waits for his mother, Maria, to pick him up at Las Familias del Pueblo. Salinas, a handsome boy with a quick smile who was born in the United States, went to Callaghan's charter school and now attends Paul Revere Middle School in Brentwood. At first, he was nervous about that but then took it on as a personal test.

"I like to challenge myself," he says. "If there's not a challenge, I get bored in school. I compete with kids who like a challenge, too."

Salinas took a detour from Callaghan's plan for him, briefly attending John Adams Middle School near USC, but the students were not nearly as motivated. "Sometimes kids didn't care if they did the work or not," he says.

Salinas has big plans — to study to be a doctor or teacher at USC. But he knows he can't accomplish this without a quality education. "I need a good school," Salinas says, "where I'm learning something every day."

Callaghan, who stands only a few feet away, smiles at what she hears. "Our experience is that when our children are offered the same education as their affluent peers, they can achieve in school," she says. "The real hope for the Latino community, and anyone in this country, is a good education."

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at [email protected]m.

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Patrick Range McDonald

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