SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO : Tolerance in a 'World of Difference'

Lynn Takacs was concerned when she arrived at San Juan Elementary School this month from another school district and found parents of white students angry because their children were sharing classrooms with Latinos.

With that introduction to the Capistrano Unified School District, where Latinos make up 70% of the student population, the sixth-grade teacher was one of the first to sign up for training in a classroom-based race relations program.

Although the tensions she first sensed have "mellowed," Takacs said she needs the training offered in the program entitled "A World of Difference."

"I need some more tools so that I can put my best foot forward to make a difference," said Takacs, who taught in the Santa Ana Unified School District for eight years.

The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith created the program six years ago to increase tolerance among people of diverse cultures and races. The district began offering the program two years ago at Marian Bergeson and San Juan elementary schools.

This year, district officials are offering credit through the University of San Diego to teachers who take the three-part training course next month.

District Associate Supt. Bill Eller said the training is "as much staff development" as a tool to teach students racial tolerance. "We expanded the curriculum so that teachers can see the value of the training themselves."

Teachers receive instruction from league officials in six- to eight-hour workshops during which they evaluate their own attitudes and learn to avert crises among students, using role-playing and reading exercises.

In 37 lessons, teachers are trained to expose students to the meaning and impact of prejudice, stereotyping and "scapegoating," a term used for violent behavior directed at a person or group of people whom the aggressor blames for his or her own failure.

One of the first lessons explores the way different races and cultures influence the differing interpretations of the American dream. Part of the lesson directs teachers to have students examine the contents of their wallets, the premise being that the contents reveal what Americans hold dear and which helps define their values and their interpretation of the American dream.

Students in Mark Rivadeneyra's sixth-grade class at San Juan Elementary School are too young to carry wallets. So, during a recent class they drew what they hope to carry one day--pictures of family, cash and credit cards.

Rivadeneyra, one of 18 district teachers who were trained to pilot the Anti-Defamation League program, has made the exercises a separate subject, while other teachers incorporate them into social studies or history.

Eller said administrators used San Juan and Bergeson for the pilot program because they reflected opposite ends of the district's racial spectrum. Although Bergeson in Laguna Niguel is seeing more Asian and Polynesian students, it remains predominantly white. Conversely, Latino students are the dominant group at San Juan.

Still, tolerance is a lesson that students at both schools need to learn, officials say.

"It's an important part of education to find out that California is largely a little United Nations," said San Juan Principal Michael Hoy. "And it's important that (students) find that out before they get to a UC campus."

Eller was hesitant to say how well the program was doing in schools, but he did say that it had not progressed enough to reach the district's goal--"total acceptance of everybody for their uniqueness."

"To assume that a curriculum is going to make a . . . difference is too great an assumption. I think it helps and raises people's appreciation for other people's culture and their diverse background, but a curriculum is not enough."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World