WHEN Thomas and Rozik Sarkissian, Armenians from Iran, moved to the United States last year, they had intended to live next to relatives in La Crescenta, Calif., who would help them get settled and learn English. Instead they ended up starting a new life several towns away, in Glendale, so their two children could attend the John Marshall Elementary School, which they had heard about from friends while overseas.
``It was very important for me to live next to my sister,'' says Mrs. Sarkissian. ``But the reason we came to this country was for our kids. The school was most important to us.''
At a time when American education appears in decline, the John Marshall Elementary School in this suburban community north of Los Angeles is one institution that seems to work.
The nondescript structure, shoehorned between apartment buildings and mini-malls in a busy section of town, consistently produces students who score well on tests and has won recognition from state and federal education officials.
Yet John Marshall is a school that shouldn't work. It is overcrowded, modestly funded, and faced with a student body as diverse as a Chinese menu. Eighty-five percent of the students speak something other than English as their primary language.
The school isn't a melting pot as much as an entire stove. Close to half the students are Armenian, with Hispanics and Koreans making up a large percentage of the rest, though pupils from more than 30 countries are represented. Many are recent immigrants from low-income families.
Nor are the facilities platinum plush. You won't see telescopes, a manicured baseball diamond, or a swimming pool. The playground, what's left of it (much has been taken up by portable, mobile-home-like classrooms while an addition to the main building is completed), is tar, the library a converted storage room in the basement.
``In spite of the limitations, they have done an exceptional job,'' says Vaughn Heinrich, a high school principal in Caldwell, Idaho, who evaluated the school for the US Department of Education. ``Many of these students can't speak English when they start. The fact that usually within a year they can speak it fluently is remarkable.''
In other words, Johnny can read here. So can Ivan, Ho, and Pedro.
The reason for the school's apparent success is some old-fashioned virtues: hard work, devotion, and community involvement.
The teachers' parking lot begins to fill up by 7:00 a.m. The staff is unusually cohesive. Part of this is out of necessity: With so many students from so many different cultures, no one teacher can meet all a pupil's needs.
But those who have taught elsewhere maintain that the esprit de corps at John Marshall, as well as the attention to student concerns, is rare.
``Kids do not slide through the cracks here,'' says Maral Guarino, a sixth-grade teacher who came to John Marshall from a private school five years ago. ``There is a lot more follow-up.''
A premium is put on order and consistency in a school where change is constant. Students and teachers know what is expected of them. Pupils are promptly in their seats by the sound of the second bell. Homework is given to students four times a week (including kindergarteners). Ground rules for discipline are clearly spelled out.
``We are firm but we smile,'' says third-grade teacher Marjorie Schafer.
The Apollonian tone starts at the top, with Nancy Jude, the school principal. Harboring a Swiss-watch attention for efficiency, she runs what one teachers calls a ``tight but fair ship.''
Dr. Jude, who looks in frequently on classes and greets parents picking up students after school, came to the campus 10 years ago, at a time when John Marshall was undergoing an enrollment surge and rapid ethnic changes. She set out to recruit teachers eager to work with minority students.
``When almost 90 percent of the students are limited English proficient, the focus of the school is on ESL [English-as-a-second-language] instruction,'' she says. ``Certainly the basics are the emphasis.''
Jude is sitting at a round desk in her temporary office. A whistle dangles from her neck. Outside, beyond two barred windows, children can be heard socking tether balls and traversing jungle gyms.
``This school spends a lot of time helping these people learn to work with each other,'' she says. ``Many of them come from countries where it is savvy to beat the system. We spend a lot of time on values - waiting in line, honesty, being considerate of other children.''
ENGLISH-LANGUAGE and bilingual instruction are strong here. While many schools give students only a few months of English before putting them in the regular classroom, John Marshall has eight levels of ESL classes that can extend over several years.
The main part of the school standing today was built in the 1930s with Works Progress Administration money. Crowded and compact, it has the look of buildings of the era - sturdy, blocky, the type that if you didn't check the nameplate on the door you might mistake for the local department of water and power.
Until 10 years ago, the school was largely Anglo with a few Hispanics. But the ethnic composition has changed dramatically since then, reflecting the influx of immigrants to southern California, America's new Ellis Island.
First the Hispanic population surged. Then came a large infusion of Vietnamese refugees in the early 1980s. Now Armenians from the Soviet Union and Iran are pouring into this community, which already has one of the largest concentrations in the United States.
With each wave, the school has had to adjust, like a parent who has just found out there will be more kids coming to the birthday party. Currently the school is short of Armenian teachers and assistants.
Different expectations arise with different cultures. Some Armenian parents, used to rigorous schools in Iran, want to know why their children aren't getting more homework. Some Armenian children, used to discipline with a stick, find rules lax here.
``It is kind of easy,'' says Eric Ganrazian, a sixth-grader from Iran who takes a break from looking at onion cells under a microscope.
Tarick Ahmed, in high-top tennis shoes, pauses while building a rhombus.
``This school teaches you in a nice way,'' says the son of Egyptian parents. ``I call my friends and tell them they should move here.''
Most find the cultural mix enriching. Many teachers spend time after hours learning a new language or about Armenian dance. Students reared on burritos make Korean fans. Even parents become more active in the school: John Marshall holds several meetings a year in which school officials explain how they teach.
``Because a lot of the students are immigrants, many parents are even more concerned about finding out about the school,'' says Carol Shareghi, president of the local Parent-Teacher Association.
If John Marshall has adjusted well to the racial diversity, the number of students poses another problem. The population of the school has doubled in 10 years, to 850. Twelve portable classrooms have been set up on the playground to handle the overflow while the school is enlarged.
Even with the addition, however, the student-teacher ratio will remain high (more than 30 to 1). Students are funneled through the lunchroom in five shifts so all can be served.
``The teachers here deserve so much credit,'' says Mrs. Shareghi. ``But even the most brilliant teachers can get discouraged when there are so many children in a classroom.''
Through it all, John Marshall seems to turn out students who understand fractions and how to locate the Philippines. The short answer to how the school does it, if there is one, says Jude, is staff. ``Just dumping a lot of money on a school doesn't mean it will work. It is the attitude of the staff. Here, they don't give up.''