'It's Playtime' : Final Dismissal Bells for the Year Ring Out in 8 School Districts

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Perched on a set of monkey bars, his last day of kindergarten nearing a close, Josh Fraka recounted the most valuable lesson he learned in his first year of formal schooling.

"When you get attacked by a shark, you have to hit them in the nose and poke them in the eyes and then they'll swim away," said Josh, 6, a Pierpont Elementary School student.

Sara Phelps, a graduating eighth-grader at Anacapa Middle School, also came away with a survival lesson: "Don't chew gum in Mrs. Mittelholtz's class."

On Thursday, the last dismissal bell of the year sounded in eight Ventura County school districts, with the remainder to close by Wednesday.

"That's music to my ears," said Mary Sipes, a Ventura High physical education teacher, upon hearing the 12:26 p.m. school's-out bell. A summer of cross-country travel awaits her.

Students in the Ventura Unified School District marked the day with classroom parties, awards ceremonies, auditorium dances, song-and-dance recitals and faculty-student games. Ventura High students were among the few required to do mental exercises until the last minute, namely, completing final exams.

Having cleared out their desks and lockers, many students exchanged signatures on everything from yearbooks and T-shirts to sneakers and bare thighs before departing for summer camps, summer jobs and summer fun.

"Every year I do this so I don't forget my friends and the people I've gotten really close to," said Kaleena Thomas, 9, a Lincoln Elementary School fourth-grader whose Girls Club T-shirt was covered with dozens of her classmates' signatures.

Kaleena and her fellow students at Lincoln Elementary School on East Santa Clara Street left their classrooms at 10 a.m. for a tug of war, foot races and a softball game between graduating fifth-graders and faculty members. Younger students swarmed about the baseball diamond at the toss of the first pitch.

"The kids really get excited about creaming the faculty," Principal Jeffrey C. Nelsen said of the traditional year-end contest. "They really go after us."

For Tara Drew, the close of the school year is an even more ascendant moment than celebrating a birthday. "No more school is a lot better than a birthday party," said Tara, 9, who will enter the fifth grade in September.

Catherine Cormack, 8, said she grew more interested in science and math during the last year. Though fascinated by the mathematical concept of borrowing--"You can't take a 3 from a 0, so you have to borrow from the next neighbor over"--she said the most intriguing thing she learned in second grade was that beavers eat their food twice.

"Bark doesn't digest very well, so they go to the bathroom and eat it again, and then it comes back out again," Catherine said.

Fifth grade gave Joey Hanson a more esoteric education, mainly outside the classroom.

"I learned a lot about people and how they act," said Joey, 11. "I started to learn that if I was nicer, I would have more friends. Now I have a girlfriend."

Kindergartners at Pierpont Elementary School staged a variety show for their parents, many of whom captured the performance on video. The children stepped in time in a group square dance and sang a medley of songs.

Katie Garrett, 5, was among the most vocal singers in the 60-member choir. But when asked later what she learned in kindergarten, she said, "Not to talk to strangers."

"You have these children for 174 days, and you really become a family," said Katie's teacher, Georgann Olson.

Tears ran down eighth-grader Lisa Black's cheeks as she embraced classmates while clutching a yearbook on her last day at Anacapa Middle School.

"All my friends are going to different high schools," Lisa said between sobs.

Her emotional outpouring caused a nearby seventh-grader to ponder what his reaction might be when he must depart for the hallowed halls of high school.

"I just hope I don't get like that next year," said Jason Destito, 12, of Ventura.

Though circumspect about the prospect of entering Buena High School in September, Bobby Sentinella, 13, has set his sights for now on water-skiing in Northern California and roaming the beaches of Hawaii.

Said Bobby: "It's playtime."

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