Debra Smith, 55, has watched over Thousand Oaks Elementary for 16 years. As cafeteria supervisor, she keeps the school’s kitchen and dining area polished to an immaculate gleam. She also teaches a cooking class to kids in the after-school program, and puts flowers on the tables in the warmly elegant, oak-paneled cafeteria.
“We dress it up,” she says. “We decorate for all the holidays and special occasions. I plan to put plastic tablecloths on all the tables. That’ll make it more homelike.”
Making the school more homelike is a passion Smith shares with staff, teachers, and parents at Thousand Oaks.
The campus, rebuilt in 1999 with Measure AA earthquake safety funds, is an architectural welcome mat, bright and open. Students have free access to the sch ool’s garden, which overflows with pumpkins, sunflowers, and tomatoes.
Thousand Oaks occupies a block of Colusa Avenue in North Berkeley, one block off of eastern Solano Avenue, with its shops, restaurants, and historic theater. But many students commute from other Berkeley neighborhoods to take advantage of the school’s Transitional Bilingual Program.
The program is unique in the district because it allows children to study exclusively in Spanish from kindergarten through the third grade. By the fourth grade, they make the transition into English-speaking classes. The Transitional Bilingual model is based on the idea that strong literacy in a child’s first language provides a solid foundation for second-language learning.
Of the 429 students who atte nded Thousand Oaks in 2003, 38 percent were still learning English, five percentage points higher than the state average. Of these students, most were Spanish-speaking. When first enrolling a child in the Berkeley Unified School District, parents whose ch ildren have limited English proficiency may choose three of Berkeley’s four bilingual programs for placement consideration.
Le Conte, Rosa Parks, and Cragmont have dual-immersion programs, in which Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students attend cl asses together from kindergarten through the fifth grade, and are taught in both languages.
Thousand Oaks third grade bilingual teacher Andra Tom supports both types of programs. The Transitional Program is not perfect, she admits; ideally, it would extend into the upper grades. And it separates native Spanish-speaking kids from other students.
“One of the benefits of dual-immersion is that it blends different kids,” Tom says. But, she added, English- and Spanish-speaking classes interact several times a week for activities like cooking, gardening, physical education, and art classes.
More than anything, Tom says, the strong support of the staff at Thousand Oaks makes the Transitional Bilingual program successful.
“We look at all of the kids as our k ids,” she says.
Before coming to Thousand Oaks four years ago, Principal Jesse Ramos, 42, was an administrator for the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, where he watched a budding bilingual program die after voters approved Prop. 227, which required schools to switch from bilingual programs to English-only immersion in 1998.
Parents may request waivers that allow children to participate in bilingual programs in spite of the proposition. Still, “a traditional bilingual program like we have at Thousand Oaks is unique even at the state level,” existing in large part because of community support, says Ramos.
“The community aspect is very good,” agrees PTA president Cherry Van Meurs, in a telephone interview, although she says the PTA could better represe nt the racial and ethnic diversity of Thousand Oaks’ students, an issue she plans to address this year. Van Meurs, who has had children enrolled in Thousand Oaks on and off since 1994, also hopes to make meetings more accessible to Spanish-speaking families.
“Of course, we’re always looking for ways to improve,” says Principal Ramos, as he knelt down to scrape with his fingernail at a bit of graffiti in pink grease pen on one of Thousand Oaks’s broad elevated walkways. “But we have a fabulous team here. We’re very fortunate.”
This is the fourth in a series profiling the Berkeley elementary schools. The reports are written by students of the UC Berkeley Journalism School. m