It doesn’t take long to figure out that something different is going on at this Camarillo elementary school.
There are the playgrounds, which remain mostly empty all day.
There’s the teacher who speaks to her young students solely in Spanish–even the ones who don’t yet know the language.
And there are the college professors milling about the campus and peering into classrooms–as if they were visiting a research laboratory. That’s the idea behind University Preparation School, which opened Tuesday to 350 students at the former El Rancho Structured School campus on Temple Avenue. About 200 students came from the surrounding neighborhood and the remaining 150 from schools countywide, from Port Hueneme to Simi Valley.
The charter school, closely affiliated with Cal State Channel Islands University, will serve as a training ground for new teachers while providing an innovative educational environment for hundreds of Ventura County youngsters.
It’s an experiment that’s been years in the making. Last week, for the first time, teachers and professors got to see it in action.
“Everything has been so awesome,” said Judy Crenshaw, one of 16 veteran teachers handpicked for the school from districts across the county. “It’s all a big adventure, and it’s so exciting.”
Barbara Thorpe, head of academic programs at the nearby university, said professors are encouraged by what they have seen.
“Everyone who visited came back so amazed and thrilled,” she said.
Crenshaw is one of two teachers in the school’s dual-language program, which helps children become fluent in both English and Spanish.
Both classes include 10 native Spanish speakers and 10 English-only speakers. The format was chosen by a committee of teachers and university staff, said Linda Ngarupe, the school’s principal.
The students have both English-only and Spanish-only classes. This gives the classmates the opportunity to help each other, while boosting their own self-esteem.
One week in, it appears to be working, said Carolyn Bernal, who teaches in Spanish.
“I have four or five children who are very bright, and you can see that the biggest challenge for them right away is the Spanish,” Bernal said. “I could see them look to the Spanish-speaking children for help. I think it’s going to be a very valuable experience for all of them.”
This year’s dual-language program includes 40 students, but over time more classes will be phased in, Ngarupe said.
All other children at the school get 30 to 60 minutes of Spanish lessons each day.
Many students said Spanish instruction was a highlight of their first week.
“I like to say, ‘Adios, amigos!’ ” beamed 9-year-old Tanner Jacobson.
Classmate Katie Kitay, 9, said, “This way I can talk to my mom so my little brother doesn’t know what I’m saying.”
Unlike traditional schools, University Preparation students are grouped in multi-age classes: early years (kindergarten and first grade), primary years (second and third grades) and intermediate years (fourth and fifth grades).
The day’s schedule is also different, with uninterrupted class time each morning, a 45-minute lunch break and another block of classes in the afternoon.
While some students grumbled about the lack of formal recesses, Ngarupe said every teacher has incorporated several “brain breaks” for snacking, stretching and socializing.
“This way they take breaks when the children need it and when it ties best into the curriculum,” she said.
Students also will have the opportunity to spend time in different specialist classes each week, including physical education, music and movement, art and drama.
Such varied scheduling is easier to implement at charter schools, which are publicly funded but free from most state curriculum restrictions, Ngarupe said.
The school’s unique approach has drawn broad interest from parents across Ventura County, with 140 children on a waiting list for future enrollment.
Michael Cote, who has two sons attending the school, said he feels as though he hit the educational jackpot.
His family lives a block from the school, within the school’s local attendance area.
“We looked at it as a real blessing,” Cote said. “It’s an awesome opportunity.”