On a recent Friday, the principal of Santa Teresita School was leading Jazmin Islas, Daniel Valenzuela and Aaron Rocha along with this scribe across the asphalt schoolyard. Sister Mary Catherine Antczak had told the fourth-graders when they met me how they should answer all my questions with thoughtful answers. As we approached the bungalow, other students were giving our on-the-move group side-looks. But we soldiered on, eyes mostly forward, reaching the library just before noon recess ended.

Inside, the walls were covered with shelves lined with books, big and small. Many color-grabbing covers stuck out two inches or more. But what you noticed — and even smelled a little — were all the blond wood tables and chairs. No plastic and metal tube furniture in sight. The gray-carpeted floor, low ceiling and inspirational posters on the wall gave the rectangular room a real cozy feel. You wanted to grab a book right off a shelf, squat down on the carpet and get lost in a good story.

Jazmin, Daniel and Aaron resisted the temptation as Dominican Sister Mary Catherine, of Mission San Jose, left. Instead, they sat at a sturdy round table in a corner, boys’ learning on their arms, to check out their bespectacled inquisitor.

For the fourth-graders, it had been a heady year of study. In science, they learned about electricity and magnetism, how living organisms depend on one another and the properties of rocks and minerals among other things. Math was no slough, either: reading and writing whole numbers through 1,000,000 then memorizing multiplication division tables two through 10.

Social studies was focused on learning the history of California and about its waves of immigration from pre-Columbian societies. Emphasis was also on the U.S. Constitution and the relationship between state and federal government. Reading aloud from classical literature to online information took up a chunk of Language Arts. Vocabulary skills were raised. Writing clear, coherent and focused essays was a must, along with using technology to do info searches.

Studying religion took a three-pronged approach: scripture/Christian life, sacraments/worship and morality/social justice. At the heart of it all was grasping God’s love for us and our need for mercy and forgiveness. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy were not only to be learned but practiced.

YOLA and bike rides

But with just a couple weeks left of school, the conversation drifted to summertime — and summer plans!

Daniel had his left hand up. “I might be going to YOLA summer camp for a month,” he said before explaining how the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles was connected to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which was helping out Santa Teresita. “It’s like a music school after school and on Saturday, and we start out in fourth grade. Today is the last day of class and we’re having a YOLA party.” 

Jazmin said, “I don’t know,” in a quiet voice. “There’s a lot of stuff I want to do. Like I want to go to camp, maybe a camping school or summer school. And maybe Universal Studios.”

Aaron looked like he wanted to say something: “I really want to go to Tennessee to visit my grandpa and gramma. And I also want to go to Universal Studios to go to Harry Potter World. And I want to go to Campland in San Diego. And to ride the new roller coaster at Six Flags: the new Revolution.”

Jazmin said she wanted to visit her older cousin, Monica, in Mexico. “I haven’t seen her for a long time,” she said. “I think she’s in her 20s now.”

But — rather mind-bendingly from my ‘50s fourth-grade perspective — these Santa Teresita kids weren’t all that glad summertime had almost arrived.

“ ‘Cause I want to go to school. It’s kind of fun,” explained Jazmin. “I think I’m going to summer school for two months, but I don’t know where. And I like reading books, and I’ll have a lot more time. But I’ve finished the whole set of Harry Potter. I finished them a long time ago, like in March or April. So I also want to play a little more on my Xbox. Not a lot.”

“I don’t really want to leave school, ‘cause I always hang out with my friends here, and it’s really fun for me,” Daniel said. “And my favorite subject is math. It’s kinda easy for me. Right now we’re doing long division. So I’d rather be here learning more math.”

Aaron was both happy and sad about summer vacation being so near. Same reason as his best friend, Daniel. He said they probably won’t be seeing each other until school comes around again in August.

“You’re going to my birthday party, June 29th?” gasped Daniel.

“Oh, yeah,” said Aaron, before returning to more summer musings. “I do like it because I’m drawing a new map on my PlayStation 4 and I can spend more time on it. And I’ll have more time to ride my bike.”

200-day calendar

The three said they didn’t mind at all going three weeks longer than their Los Angeles Unified School District counterparts, who have seen the number of their own school days actually cut to about 175.

Local Catholic schools went to the 200-day calendar for the 2011/2012 school year. The benefits of a longer school year have been pointed out by national research studies for many years. And education reformers have stressed how schools in the United States have a much shorter academic year than their counterparts in other developed countries like England or France. Still, few public school districts here have implemented a longer instructional year because of the cost.

The fourth-graders, of course, didn’t know any of this.

“It’s cool,” considered Daniel of the additional weeks at Santa Teresita. “Because we have more time to spend having fun in our school family. And, also, you get to go to other friends’ houses to spend time after school.”

Aaron was shaking his head up and down. “It’s like what Daniel said. But, umm, I’d rather have more time spending with my aunts and uncles during the summer, because I don’t really see them that much. Two of them live in Riverside.”

“I think it’s all right,” Jazmin agreed. “Because you have more education and more knowledge than them [public school students]. I think it’s wonderful ‘cause there’s lots of programs and lots of interesting other stuff. Like there’s Spanish Club. There’s Homework Club. Lots of other stuff.”

Aaron was leaning forward now. “We have good field trips,” he said. “In kindergarten, we went to the L.A. Zoo. We went to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.”

“The teachers are wonderful, too,” reported Jazmin with a knowing half-grin. “They teach us, like, so much knowledge. And they help us connect with religion and the stuff we’re supposed to know.”