Maryann Reynoso, principal of San Miguel School on 108th street in Los Angeles, introduces four of her students, sitting around a table, to a visitor. Jacob Lopez, Emily Hernandez and her good friend Zittlali Arellano are fourth-graders. Aidan Bentivengo is in fifth.
When she excuses herself to go back to subbing in a nearby classroom, the quartet warily eyes my retro cassette tape recorder, an ancient technology they’ve never seen until this Thursday morning. Taking out the 120-minute tape, I explain how it works and why it’s way better than trying to take notes, especially for group interviews. And I’m here to get down how exactly they feel about going to a Catholic school in the first month of 2016.
Glances and growing grins are exchanged, mostly between the girls. And then we’re into it.
“I think it’s a nice school and that we get to have fun,” reports Jacob. “And the teachers are always here protecting us. And they’re always helping us if we need help.”
Asked about that curious word “protecting,” he says, “Umm, there’s big gates. But they don’t let anybody in the gates except parents.”
When I point out how I had some trouble getting in myself, the girls giggle a little.
Then the soft-spoken boy finishes his thought: “And, like when someone is bullying us just a little, we just have to tell the teachers and they come and help us out in the playground. Yeah.”
Aidan started at San Miguel in pre-K, but went to public school in kindergarten, second and third grades because his family moved. “Oh, it was dangerous and not protective,” he says of those years. “I wasn’t bullied. But, like, a lot of people would just come and gather. It was just so risky. Sometimes I was afraid of something happening. Something like you see on TV. So, yes, it’s protective here.”
Emily lives in Lynwood and her parents drop her at San Miguel on their way to work. She’s smiling. “I like it a lot,” she says. “I like how more teachers come here, and they bring more opportunities to the school. Like Miss Bader, she was visiting last year from UCLA. She brought others she knew. They started dance here, and then she started a drama club.”
She turns to Zittlali, who lives in South Gate and is also dropped off at school. “We’re in both,” she goes on. “And then I love how all the teachers are so, like, active. We have a decathlon for competing in March. It’s for fifth grade and up. But they let us in, ‘cause we passed a little test that they gave us.”
When I mention how they must be smart, the girls chuckle before Emily says, “Thanks.”
Zittlali also likes the clubs they have at San Miguel. “I think it’s a great experience,” she says. “The teachers pay attention to you a lot more. I think they explain it here more because they have less children to teach it to. And I feel safe. There’s mostly teachers sitting down outside [on the playground] taking care of us.”
Aiden, on the other hand, lives five minutes away. But he never walks to school. His dad brings him and picks him up around 5:10 p.m. He likes the after-school daycare — being able to finish his homework, having a snack and then going outside to play.
Jacob lives even closer, just a couple minutes away.
Both boys, like the girls, feel totally safe on campus.
OK, what about academics?
“Yeah, they have more expectations here than in public school,” says Aidan.
The rest nod. They’re just expected to learn, and that’s that.
“It’s first that your parents expect more,” Emily points out. “The teachers do expect [a lot too.] But, definitely, [it starts] with your parents.”
Zittlali is nodding now. “Yes, like when I had Miss Celest in pre-K my grades were low. So she told my dad my grades were getting lower and can she keep me for two hours after school? My dad said yes, so I stayed after school and she would teach me. And now here, I have A’s on my grades. The other teachers always push us, too.”
“They’re strict, but they do it for us,” says Aidan. “They really care for us.”
When asked if teachers push too much, the fifth-grader shakes his head. “No. For me, I don’t think so.”
And what about homework?
Once again, Emily is the explainer. “We mostly cover everything in class,” she says. “Only if an essay is due, like we were doing an essay about New Year’s resolutions. So we have to do a third draft. But it doesn’t take me that long to write it. Then a math worksheet is the homework we have the most. But a lot of times we just have to, like, read and get parents’ signature and stuff. It’s ‘unfinished work’ you have to do at home.” She stops to give a certain look. “And I always finish my work.”
Zittlali’s favorite subject is writing. “I like how you get to be very detailed,” she notes. “And I like how there’s no limit of how much you can write. You can write how much you want.”
Emily has a similar right-brain bent. “I like art,” she says. “And I like acting. I like drama.” And she looks over at her friend again. “In fact, we’re auditioning for ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’ today. I want to be Lucy.”
When it’s pointed out how Lucy van Pelt in the comic strip “Peanuts” can be a crabby, bossy, opinionated girl who often bullies Linus and Charlie Brown, Emily doesn’t miss a beat. She simply says, “Exactly,” smiling all out now.
Aidan likes math. Why? “Numbers! Numbers.”
Jacob favors science, especially science projects mixing different chemicals together and seeing how they react. Last year he and a buddy did one on forming crystals from salt and water.
When asked what he wants to be, he returns, “I want to be a paleontologist.”
‘More duties to do’
Now, still planted at the table, it’s down to summing up the whole shebang about San Miguel. I’d be sweating bullets. But for the quartet, it’s no problem.
The four elementary school kids agree learning more about their faith is a really good idea. No way that would be possible in a public school. They like going to Mass in church. They like learning about all those saints and sacraments. And they know how important it is to help out others, especially the poor.
“There’s great activities, and there’s great teachers who can support you whatever you go through,” says Emily Hernandez. “And you get the chance to really practice your religion.”
Zittlali Arellano is nodding one more time. “Because I feel the more people come here, the more opportunities we have.”
Aidan Bentivengo looks up, saying, “I’m proud to be in a Catholic school, because I have more duties to do here — to get good grades and degrees in college.”
Jacob Lopez is the last to step up to the query. “Because the teachers, they pay more attention to us, and they’re always here if we need them,” he says. “Like if you need help on a worksheet, you just raise your hand and they come and help you.”
No big deal at an urban Catholic school in L.A. today.