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SAN CLEMENTE : Students Get a New View of Education

The ocean proved to be a great classroom this week for 66 sixth-graders from a gang-ridden Anaheim neighborhood who came here to learn more about Mother Nature.

High on a craggy bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the students from Francis Scott Key Elementary School filed out of a school bus at San Clemente State Park on Tuesday and looked in awe at the panorama of blue below them.

A welcoming committee of five dolphins bobbed in the waters, bringing gasps of delight from the children.

“I can’t believe we saw dolphins,” said Emma Gallo, 11. “This is lots better than school.”

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But it was school--without desks, construction paper or cafeterias. For three days, the 66 children from a rough Anaheim neighborhood are camping out and learning about the ocean environment from teachers and San Clemente State Park rangers.

“Some of these kids have never been to the beach before,” said Jim Caros, a Key teacher who organized the trip. “I’m hoping the kids will see how the rest of the world lives.”

For the third year, the school will benefit from a state parks program that encourages schools to educate their children at the ocean.

“You can’t beat it,” said Rich Gililland, park spokesman. “This is an experience these children will probably remember for the rest of their lives.”

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Through binoculars, children see seals and pelicans lounging on rocks. They watch squids and sharks dissected by their instructors and take hikes through the heavy vegetation growing in the ravines near the beach.

Like a swarm of sand crabs, the students hit the beach shortly before noon on Tuesday and wasted no time plunging into the ocean and digging holes in the sand--"all the usual things kids do at the beach,” Caros said.

After the initial excitement burned off, students settled into organized activities.

They made sand whales, although some of the crumbly sculptures looked more like misshapen clams. After ocean art class, teachers dissected a squid, accompanied by groans, moans and giggles from the children.

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It’s a far cry from the Ponderosa Park area where most of the children live, a place where “we have gangs, you know,” said Jesse Hernandez, 12. “Sometimes the guns fire all through the night, and it’s hard to sleep.”

Caros, who teaches one of four sixth-grade classes at the school, said their neighborhood is so rough, many parents don’t let their children play outside.

“I’ve lived at the beach all my life,” he said. “I wanted to show them what a wonderful place this is and maybe encourage some of them to become ecologists or bring their parents down to the beach more often.”

A few children said this was their first visit, while a few others said they thought they had been to the beach a few times.

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But whether it was their first or 15th excursion, “we love it here, there are no parents,” Mai Nghien said with an impish grin. “We don’t have to sit in the classroom reading books.”


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