Monday, June 04, 2007


Dana Middle School students join for the first time in years. Some have never seen a sea lion in the wild.
Capt. Mike McLauglin, and his first mate, Elaine (above)

Other students had never been on a vessel before and are out on the ocean for the first time in their lives.

Dana students (above) enjoy the experience. The consistent thread in their comments is that they can't wait to go again.


TopSail is Tops for Kids – Poor, Rich or in the Middle
It’s the best Team Teacher that every school in the Los Angeles Harbor Area Should Join – including San Pedro High School

“I felt free like a bird when it flies,”-- Jazmine Galindo, a sixth grader, about her adventure aboard the tall ship Exy Johnson

By Diana L. Chapman

I listened to the kids grilling Capt. Mike McLaughlin as he steered the Exy Johnson toward open seas with a bunch of Dana Middle School students aboard.

The students--mind you, between the ages of 12 to 14--wanted to know: What kind of job in the harbor can they get that pays well? How did Mike become a captain? Which jobs are not only lucrative but prestigious? What are the best jobs to take care of their families? Do they have to go to college? What was that yellow boat over there – a taxi? Why is that black vessel have people getting ready to board that freighter?
My thought: When was the last time you were in a school where students sharply question their teacher with pointed interest?

The captain answered patiently, explaining they could spend years gaining the experience to become a captain, as he did, or they could take a shortcut and go to school at a maritime academy.
Ironically, these students, who live in and around Los Angeles Harbor, the second largest port in existence, hugged by the giant Pacific Ocean, had never seen marine mammals in the wild before. That was just some of the experiences unfolding before my eyes aboard the Exy -- and one that impressed upon me more than how our children in San Pedro and throughout the harbor area should be studying and exploring the endless number of career possibilities for them in their own backyard.
The students gathered around Exy's rail excitedlby spotting sea lions roll and glide around the ship, waiting for cannery employees to throw out handfuls of fish. Later they were treated to seeing a school of dolphin!

This is exactly what the founder of TopSail, Capt. Jim Gladson, had in mind when he created the program– an adventure aboard sailing vessels that would teach students alternative ways to learn ranging from geography, science, math, teamwork, resourcefulness to one overarching lesson – how to sail.

That’s how we came aboard for two seperate days with students who are considered potential candidates and may join the school’s after school sailing club once it takes form this fall at Dana. But it's sad that had it not been for Rachel Fischer Gladson, Gladson’s daughter-in-law, these junior high students would never boarded for a single lesson.

Because she knew of my advocacy for children, she called to ask if I could help connect Dana with the program. Thousands of dollars provided through LA Bridges has been wasted by our local schools. Essentially, the story is this: Both Dodson and Dana middle schools could use Top Sail virtually for free with grants through LA Bridges, a prevention-based program for Los Angeles middle schools.

I cringed when I learned this and so did Dana's principal, Terry Ball. While both schools had dabbled some time or another to take advantage of this program, it also needs the right people in the right place at the right time -- meaning a top administrator who believes in it and teachers who want to run the program.

In our case, we were blessed that two teachers volunteered -- English teacher Michelle DeBilzan and science teacher Greg Bartleson. For the first time in years, Dana set sail last week on two different journeys aboard the 90-foot brigantine where kids learned everything from “belaying” or winding lines to how deep the water is just beyond the Angel's Gate Lighthouse.

I loved listening to the kids grill the captain – and believe me, they did -- as well as climb out on the pulpit, head up the mast, raise and later fold the sails and become a big part of the detail running the Exy, one of the twin ships used in TopSail.

So many students begged to come back that the teachers realized how difficult it would be to select students who will be able to join. Each junior high school in Los Angeles that falls under the LA Bridges program – which means most of them – qualifies for this adventure, which includes five different day sails and one final five-day adventure to Catalina Island.

When we returned after a day that began with morning under a misty pearl -gray sky but was transformed into a bright, sunny afternoon, I asked the students to write about their adventures becoming part of the crew and learning a multitude of tasks, including how to use the “head”--the bathroom--and learn lingo they’d never heard before.

“The experience on the ocean is a whole different way to listen and learn,” wrote 13-year-old Bradley Washington. “Smelling the ocean and what smells came out were wet and damp. I would love to go back and relive the experience.”

Wrote 7th grader Bradley Fernandez: “This trip left me speechless. I liked the climbing the best because I got to use my courage and I let go of my fear. This was the best trip of my whole life!”

The teaching experience started when founder Gladson discovered taking his students at an alternative school in Eagle Rock aboard a vessel taught them much more than they could learn in a classroom. They learned how to steer, chart, read maps, understand ocean tides and currents; it was an educational maverick that worked.

He began TopSail under the Los Angeles Maritime Institute at Ports of Call and has four ships in the program, including Exy’s twin, Irving Johnson and the 70-foot Swift of Ipswich.

I can go on and on, but nothing can tell you more than going out on the adventure yourself as a volunteer and watching the kids learn in ways none of us could have imagined. Students coiled lines, hoisted sails, quizzed the captain on how deep it was right outside the harbor (not quite enough to swallow the boat, which is 87 feet high and we were at a depth of 82 feet, the captain explained) and most of all watching the kids become a team.

No one can tell you better than the kids themselves.

“Today, we went sailing and it was crazy. I learned about how you go through winds,” wrote Richard Q., a 13-year-old sixth grader. I really, really, really, 5X really, want to go on a five-day trip. Please pick me. Please pick me. Please pick me. I will behave and learn stuff. New stuff.”

That you will Richard Q. That you will.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the Topsail experience as much as the students. It is a great "hands on" experience for our students and also validates that there is more to the world than just what is at Dana M.S. (or Dodson or Muir). It encourages young people to think beyond their experiences and to want to explore more of the world.

Neal Kleiner