Rites of Passage Signal End of Fifth Grade : Education: Visits to Catalina and to a middle school campus they will attend help Lincoln School students look ahead.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The lessons of fifth grade can't always be taught in the classroom.

For students at Lincoln School in Ventura, sometimes those lessons are learned miles away, in the tide pools and on the copper-colored beaches of an emerald island.

And once a year they are discovered just down the street, at a middle school where the bulk of Lincoln's fifth-graders will end up next year.

So it is, with the school year racing to a close, that Mary Elsenbaumer's fifth-grade students abandoned the classroom recently to learn a little something about the sixth grade and a lot more about the world outside of their downtown elementary school.

Since September, the school year has advanced inexorably toward this point.

From Day 1, students have asked about Lincoln's annual fifth-grade trip to Catalina Island, a three-day affair dominated by sun, snorkeling and scientific reasoning.

And as the year progressed, even as the cast of characters kept changing at the tiny campus known as much for its transiency as for its dedicated teaching staff, many of the fifth-graders eagerly anticipated their preview of Cabrillo Middle School.

These are the rites of passage in Elsenbaumer's class. They culminate the transfer of a tide of new ideas and signal that the end of the school year is near.

More important, the two field trips serve as a launching pad for Elsenbaumer's 27 fifth-grade students, who are gearing up for the often rocky transition from the security of elementary school to the uncertainty of middle school.

"It's time for us to let them know that we know they are responsible, and that when they leave us they'll be OK," Elsenbaumer said. "They have to learn to rely on themselves and they are doing that."

Still, on the day last month that students marched the few blocks from Lincoln to Cabrillo, Elsenbaumer figured a gentle reminder about appropriate behavior couldn't hurt.

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"They don't know you and love you like I do," she told her students. "They're going to be forming an opinion about you."

Nervousness ruled the day. All of the lessons of fifth-grade--the math quizzes and reading circles and science experiments--meant little now. Much of the anxiety was social, with students worried about how they would fit in and whether they would be separated from their friends.

"I've never been to any other school," 10-year-old Dillon McCarthy confided. "I'm kind of scared."

When Elsenbaumer's students arrived at the Cabrillo campus, they joined about 200 fifth-graders from other schools in the auditorium. Together, the students formed a squirming and chattering mass of preteen energy until Principal Kris Bergstrom took the stage, speaking in a voice so soft that the students had to quiet down to hear.

"Rule No. 1," she told them. "When Mrs. B talks, you don't."

After a short welcome, Bergstrom turned the program over to student leaders from Cabrillo, who talked about sports and music programs, the student council and even the cafeteria food.

But it was Nikki Silverman, the sixth-grade student body vice president, who had the most impact.

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"I know a lot of you are probably nervous about going to middle school," she told the students. "Well I know how you feel. When I first came to Cabrillo, I was so excited, confused and maybe a little nervous. OK, I was really nervous."

Afterward, the fifth-graders broke up into groups of 10 and toured the oceanfront campus, peeking their heads into classrooms and checking out the library and ball fields.

Back at Lincoln, the students dissected the day.

"Cabrillo has nachos," 11-year-old Sandra Jenkins shouted. "I love nachos."

Jordan Harris, 11, said he was too embarrassed to ask a Cabrillo student about one of his concerns, so he had classmate Ben Cressy ask for him.

"I told him to ask if Cabrillo had pretty girls," Jordan said grinning.

Ten-year-old Tyler Welbourn was one of the few who would readily reveal his deepest concerns: "I'm going to be like the smallest kid there, so I have to get used to it."

Elsenbaumer said many of the same anxieties are expressed year after year. The leap from one-room instruction to the pace of changing classes six times a day can be daunting.

Students don't know what to expect, so they worry. Or they expect that middle school will be all bullies and bad times, so they worry more.

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Next year, Elsenbaumer's students will go from being the oldest and biggest students at school to being the youngest and smallest. But she is quick to point out that she does not teach fifth grade with those sixth-grade anxieties in mind.

Instead, her mission is to inspire independent learning and thinking. She wants to stir their interest in education, to plant a seed of curiosity and understanding that will grow well beyond next year.

"I don't like to teach them just so they will do well next year," she said. "I teach them to learn for the sake of learning."

That's why, six years ago when she started teaching fifth grade at Lincoln, she pushed the idea of a year-end excursion to Catalina Island.

After spending two summers working at the Catalina Island Marine Institute, she decided that the marine science-based program was exactly the experience her fifth-graders needed before graduating to middle school.

Elsenbaumer said the program challenges all of her students in one way or another. Some are away from home for the first time. Others learn to take chances, whether by stroking the underside of a sea slug or going on a night dive in the blackness of the Pacific Ocean.

"You get to learn a lot about science and stuff," said Ruben Luna, 11. "There could be a lot of things kids could learn outside of the classroom."

All of Lincoln's 50 fifth-graders--including 23 from the classroom of Aleta Lepper, the school's other fifth-grade teacher--made the Catalina trip.

They broke into groups, each with its own instructor. They went out on boats, testing the depth and temperature of the ocean. They toured laboratories, some swimming with marine life, others set up with high-tech microscopes to magnify the tiniest of sea creatures.

It was in the plankton lab where Chris Newman made one of the biggest breakthroughs of all.

He is one of the students Elsenbaumer is most worried about, an 11-year-old kid with a ton of potential but a penchant for playing the tough guy and getting in trouble.

During the tour of the Cabrillo campus a few weeks ago, for example, he hung back from the others and appeared disinterested.

But on Catalina last week, the search for plankton turned Chris on. So much so that when the instructor asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he ignored the verbal jabs of fellow students who encouraged him to answer "trash man."

"I want to work here," Chris answered. Elsenbaumer cracked a wide smile.

That's how this place is supposed to work. About 15,000 students a year visit the marine institute, established 15 years ago on a private beach near Avalon. It costs $131 per student for transportation and three days of instruction.

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Students travel from as far away as Minnesota to take part in the program.

"This affects them more than anything else they will ever do in school," said Chris Bartel, program director of the nonprofit institute. "It's a whole new world to them. They may not remember anything else from the fifth grade but they will remember coming to Catalina."

At Lincoln School, teachers, parents and students gear up all year for the trip. They sell chocolate and gift wrap. They beg funds from parents and the PTA to subsidize the excursion.

For Cody Griffith, the trip was her last activity with Elsenbaumer's class. The 11-year-old moved to Florida upon her return. Cody sold a lot of chocolate to pay for the trip, said her mother, Gayle Ryan, who also tagged along.

"We would have moved sooner, but after she worked so hard there was no way I was going to let her miss it," Ryan said. "I think this is wonderful."

Tim Welbourn, Tyler's father, also served as a chaperon on the trip. Tyler has attended Lincoln since first grade and has been looking forward to Catalina since then.

Tim Welbourn knows there is much more to the trip than just sun and fun.

"It's a gentle push, where the chains kind of fall off a little bit," he said. "They get a little more space to kind of find their own way. That's cool. I think that's the way education should be."

In the end, Elsenbaumer knows that some of her students won't find their way. That no matter how hard she tries, some inevitably will get lost in the middle school shuffle.

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But she is not fazed. Instead, she talks about motivating students to learn by whatever means necessary. And she takes every opportunity she can to teach life lessons.

On the night dive, when half a dozen wet-suit-clad youngsters were preparing to march into the ocean, Elsenbaumer pumped up those with the greatest fears of the sea.

"You know, it might be a little bit scary," she told them. "But you're going to come out of the water a bigger person. You're going to say, 'If I can do this, I can do anything.' "

Times correspondent Catherine Saillant contributed to this story.

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