By Yvette tenBerge
Two-dozen sixth and seventh graders focus their attention on a television monitor at the front of the classroom. They watch as Peruvian children paint colorful pictures of gods and goddesses, whispering to one another as the children halfway across the world wave to the camera, answer questions about their country and describe their dreams.
Thanks to the curriculum flexibility provided by King Chavez Academy of Excellence Charter School, located at 735 Crosby Street in Logan Heights, and to the dedication of a group of local Chicano artists, these Southeast San Diego children are participating in a Discovery Channel-like adventure, right here in their own backyard.
Brian Sheehy, 25, is a Washington D.C. native who began teaching mathematics at King Chavez Academy this fall. He sits quietly as the group of local artists shows his students a slide show of Peru, and follows-up with a lesson on the county's culture and religion. They then pass out letters that the Peruvian children have written in answer to letters written by King Chavez students.
"These students are putting more care into this writing assignment than they ever would put into studying for a standardized test, and it does just as much, if not more, good," says Mr. Sheehy, who also notes the contribution such a lesson makes to social studies, and other subjects. "It's obvious that these kids know they are in a special place."
In December of 2001, six representatives of FUERZA, a group of Baja California and San Diego artists, embarked on a two-month long journey to Lima and Cusco, Peru. Before leaving, they packed two handfuls of earth from Chicano Park and two murals painted by King Chavez students. They also brought photos of, and letters written by, these 25 students.
Once in Peru, the San Diego-based artists gifted the earth to local spiritual men and then made their way to Fe y Alegria, a community-focused school in Cusco. Over a one-day period, they repeated the four rotating workshops that were held at King Chavez: a mural workshop, a letter writing workshop, an interview workshop and an educational component, which consisted of a hands-on display of information on both countries. Portions of the entire process were captured on videotape.
Berenice Badillo, 27, is a local muralist who supplied the materials and traveled throughout Peru with a large backpack filled with paint, brushes, envelopes, a video camera, an instant camera and canvases. Despite the fact that the Cusco school was off-track, the teachers recruited dozens of "excited, dedicated and grateful" students to participate.
Back at King Chavez, Ms. Badillo helps students translate the Spanish-language letters of their Peruvian counterparts, and asks them questions about their new pen pals.
"It's awesome that these students have a chance to communicate first-hand with children from another country. This project will open their minds, and show them that there is more out there than just Logan Heights," says Ms. Badillo. She pats Carlos Diaz on the shoulder as he holds up a 10 centimos piece that his Peruvian friend Ximena Navia Gamboa enclosed with her letter. "Carlos sent her a quarter as a gift, and she sent him something back."
A creative curriculum is not the only thing for which King Chavez Academy is known. Not only is the academy housed in bright pink church buildings owned by Calvary Baptist Church, a primarily African-American congregation, but it is also the only school to house sixth grade in the entire Logan Heights area. The San Diego Unified School District buses Logan Heights sixth graders registered at Perkins, Kim-brough, King, Sherman and Logan Elementary to a school in Clairemont.
King Chavez opened its doors to kindergarten through sixth graders in September 2001. It currently serves 245 students, 95 percent of whom are Hispanic. According to staff, the academy focuses on "the three A's: academics, arts and athletics," and believes that one core element, "love", will successfully bring these three things together.
Although the majority of the academy's students live in Logan Heights, some children commute from areas as far away as Poway and Lakeside to take part in it's programs. Pat Sutherland, known as "Abuelita" to students, is an administrative assistant at King Chavez who helped to prepare the charter. "Schools around here lower the bar for these students. We raise the kids; we don't lower the bar," says Ms. Sutherland. "The art program that we have is broadening our student's outlook on life, and on the world."
Diego Arriaga, 13, carefully unfolds the letter written to him by his new, Peruvian pen pal, Gloria Diaz. "Doing the paintings and the interviews was fun. It was cool to get in touch with other people from across the world. They have different wishes and dreams," says Diego, expressing what he believes to be the "coolest" thing that he has learned from the project. "Most of us want big cars, but they want simple things from life."
Danny Ramos, 11, is a sixth grader at King Chavez who waits patiently for Ms. Badillo to translate his letter. He learns that Gabriela Ayca is 19-years-old, and believes that projects like this cultural exchange help combat a problem from which our society suffers.
"This problem is almost like racism. Some of us don't like each other, so we should get to know each other. I learned that Gabriela cares about a lot of people, because in the letter she wrote that she wanted me to take care of myself. She also wants to be my friend, and I accept that," says Danny, who wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. "I expect to have a long-time relationship with my new friend."