From the city to Yosemite: students learn to write on site

WHEN the Steller's jays break from their dawn screeching, you can hear the murmur of the Merced River and Yosemite Falls on the valley's far side. But at 5:30 a.m. on a recent morning, another set of wake-up sounds shattered the quiet beneath the time-scarred walls of Half Dome and Glacier Point. ``Time to wake up,'' says journalism teacher Steve O'Donoghue, pounding on a cabin door. ``You've got 10 minutes to be out here dressed, with your writing materials.''

Groans are heard within. It's the same at door after door as the Oakland teacher seeks to rouse 42 students from the Media Academy of Fremont High School. They are on a field trip to Yosemite National Park, and the day's first assignment is to describe the sights, sounds, and smells of dawn in this national treasure.

By 5:50 a.m., most of them have made it to the riverbank and are taking notes, although many are still groggy. Later they will write essays describing the chorusing of the jays, the tumbling icy water, and the colors of the oaks, cedars, and pines catching dawn's light.

Sights and sounds such as these are a revelation for youths who live on some of urban Oakland's meanest streets, amid drug pushers, gang warriors, and poverty. Many of them have never before seen snow, been in the Sierra, or visited a national park.

Their urban frame of reference is revealed in essays such as Shala Chester's, which compares the river's sounds with those of the freeway: ``Like the cars pass by other cars, the water passes by the rocks. The sounds of the city are loud sounds and the river's are so soft.''

Another, Shonvette Jones, observes that the ``water sliding and bumping into the rocks'' sounds like gunfire.

That these are city kids is also evident in their comments: During an evening stargazing session, with satellites and shooting stars streaking across the blackness, one student asks: ``How come all these stars aren't in Oakland?''

The annual three-day field trip includes rigorous hikes to such Yosemite highlights as Mirror Lake and Vernal Falls, three writing assignments in two days, and time for teachers and students to socialize, bringing the group closer together.

``You have a group of students who get more individual attention, so that lets them know somebody cares,'' says Lanita Jacobs, a student who was in the mountains for the second time. ``It gets us away from the same environment that we have in Oakland. It also serves as a reward.''

Something remarkable also occurs back in the classrooms of this unusual school within a school, thought to be the only academy in the country focusing on print and broadcast journalism.

Many students in the two-year-old program get better grades, improve their writing, and increase attendance in response to the academy's smaller classes and real-world career orientation. Significantly, for educators struggling to reduce the number of dropouts by creating a bond between inner city youths and schools, the program also builds a sense of community and attachment.

A year-long evaluation of the Media Academy by the National Center on Effective Secondary Schools at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, concluded that it was a model anti-dropout program, with a challenging curriculum, a supportive atmosphere, and a hardheaded career orientation. Evaluations of half a dozen similar California academies have reached the same conclusion, and the state is planning to set up 60 more, focusing on a variety of fields, in the next four years.

The bond between Media Academy students and their teachers means that lunch hours will find many of them in their journalism classroom rather than out on the streets. Many also put in extra hours producing the school's national-award-winning newspaper, a community newspaper in Spanish, and a daring new magazine that will cover such subjects as teen-agers who get pregnant on purpose and teen-agers who choose to live away from their parents.

For all the successes, Mr. O'Donoghue, the Media Academy's lead teacher, says the program does nothing that is particularly revolutionary.

``The foundation of the program ... is that we have a team of teachers working with a small number of students,'' he says. ``Most American high schools are too unwieldy, too large, and students get lost in them.''

He says Media Academy students get ``more personal contact, more positive educational reinforcement, and more positive personal reinforcement.''

The students represent the full range of Fremont students: Nearly half are black, 30 percent are Hispanic, and about 10 percent are Asians. Their test scores run the gamut as well. But what distinguishes them from their peers is their desire to study print or broadcast media.

``We are really willing to gamble on kids if they say they want to give this a shot,'' O'Donoghue says. ``Some haven't worked out, but some have worked out great.''

Media Academy English teacher Michael Jackson says: ``The best thing we've done is getting students excited about themselves and excited about school. There are some kids who wouldn't be here if they didn't have this hook.''

O'Donoghue, Mr. Jackson, and the other teachers know that the personal and emotional attachments formed in the classroom and at Yosemite, although valuable, are often less powerful than what happens to students beyond the classroom. And this year has seen more than the usual tragedies associated with drugs, violence, pregnancies, and even death for Media Academy students.

``Some of these kids have no self-esteem,'' O'Donoghue says. ``People talk about building up programs, but the message of `Stand and Deliver' [a movie about a Hispanic math teacher whose inner-city students win national awards] is that you have to build up kids. That's harder to do.''

At Yosemite, however, achieving that seems within reach.

``As I sit on a tree stump looking at the flowing motion of the river and look up and see the trees, mountains and sky, it gives me a peaceful feeling,'' writes Art Boissiere, a gregarious sophomore lineman on the football team. ``I'm free of the city's problems here, my surroundings are beautiful. I feel next to God and myself here. I wish more people could appreciate the forest, or what I'm feeling.''

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