Thursday, June 28, 2012

San Pedro High College Counseler

Despite only a few hours a week to get students off to college, Valerie Armstrong helps hundreds of kids make it to the next educational level.
Local Hero Valerie Armstrong -- A Part Time College Counselor at San Pedro High --- Guides Hundreds of Students To A Higher Education Despite Severe Budget Cuts
She Is A Woman You and Your College Bound Child Want to Meet 

By Diana L. Chapman

   My son burst through our door a few weeks back and shouted:  "Mom. Mom. You won't believe what Mrs. Armstrong did. She helped me with everything, getting my transcripts, just everything."
   I wasn't surprised having come to know Valerie Armstrong over the past few years and witnessing her sturdy dedication to numerous students going through the gauntlet of competitive college applications.
   With only two hours a day slotted to the once full-time college and career counseling post, she somehow manages to aid dozens of students while also juggling two other part time jobs at San Pedro High. She also serves as a work experience coordinator and a Title One Coordinator.
   She sums her college counseling job up this way:
"The job is either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat during college acceptances in March, "she said. "You'll see a kid who only wants to go to UCLA and doesn't get in.  And that's the hardest part. Sometimes it's heart wrenching."
   Filled with advice for students and parents (who are also welcome to meet with Armstrong) she starts out with this important suggestion: Ninth graders should step into her office as soon as possible to understand all the requirements needed to go to university. Otherwise, it may be too late and they are at risk for not making the A-G requirements -- what classes are required by colleges.
   Often seniors and juniors show up having dropped math after two years -- all that's needed to graduate from high school. However, four years of math are required or recommended by many universities, including the UC system.
   In addition, students often forget they received a D or F in their ninth grade or sophomore years. Those grades have to be made up in order to get into most four year colleges and by then, there's little time for make-ups.
  Students in all grade levels, should come and meet with her as soon as possible.
  "It starts from the moment they get here," Armstrong says. "I recommend to them to get all As and Bs. What I'm noticing is a lack of interest in the 9th grade. So I'll ask them if they want to go to a four-year college. Parents can call me or make an appointment or e-mail me anytime."
   Armstrong advises students on timelines, scholarships, applications, letters of reference, financial aid, what classes are necessary (called A-G)  to become competitive and encourages them not to just be participants in clubs, but to find a leadership roles in the programs they're involved in.
   "Don't be a stranger," she often tells kids once they drop in for information. To get an appointment with her, all students have to do is sign up on a sheet hanging on her office door so she can summon them from the classroom.
   Her frequent student visitors rave about the efforts she put in for them and others.
   "During the time I spent applying for college, I was in her room everyday with a different question," said 17-year-old Jazmin Ruiz, who received a full ride to UC Berkeley. "Her experience with the process made it astronomically easier, bearable and less stressful. I am truly grateful for the time she dedicated to helping me."
   Armstrong inspired her, said 17-year-old Rita Marquez who will be attending Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
   "I can truly say that I owe a lot of my success to Ms. Armstrong," Marquez explained who became a college peer college counselor under Armstrong's tutelage. "She is really a wonderful person...who dedicates so much her time to our students and she's always there whenever I need anything."
   But she's also there for parents.
   When my husband and I realized we couldn't financially afford the schools Ryan got into, we steered him toward community colleges . The choice was narrowed between El Camino and Santa Monica.
   It was the same financial plight Jeanine Eldar found herself in after her son, Korey, was accepted to seven universities.
   "Valerie Armstrong is an unsung hero, who really deserves some public recognition," the older Eldar explained who added she frequently consulted with the counselor.  "It was Valerie's assistance that helped guide our very difficult decision to turn down numerous University of California and California state schools in favor of going to El Camino since it made more financial sense to attend there for two years."
   The solution:  Armstrong encouraged both teens to enroll in the Honors Transfer Program at El Camino. This set of students receive a priority in getting classes, the counselor said. Some consider it like attending a mini-UC on the crowded campus.
Both were accepted. Transferring to the honors program, she said, avoids "excessive student loans" and cuts college expenses in half, she said.
   "I first met her during the second semester of 11th grade and ever since she has always kept me up to date on the variety of opportunities," said 17-year-old Elizabeth Do who became a peer college counselor and will attend UCLA.  "She definitely knows her information, but if she doesn't she'll call and ask. I've been able to observe her dedication in inspiring seniors to seek a higher education."
   Armstrong said she enjoys her job and even when she knows a student is unlikely to get to their "dream school," she encourages them to apply anyway.
   "I never tell my students not to apply for their dream school, but also apply to your back-up schools," Armstrong said. "My motto is apply for the dream school and see what happens...You just never know."

Sunday, June 17, 2012

White Point Nature Preserve

Assistant Nauturalist Laurie Morgan describes how the Tongva, the native inhabitants, celebrated by dancing and stomping.
 White Point Nature Center Becomes a Great Teacher in the Eyes of Young Wilmington Students Thanks to A Children's Author/Illustrator

By Diana L. Chapman

   They squealed when they saw big lizards. Stood in awe watching soaring kestrels and red-tailed hawks.  And didn't want to quit watching a stink bug crawling across the dusty earth.
   Exploring the hills and golden grasses of White Point's Nature Park , Wilmington's Gulf Street Elementary students roamed the hillsides of the 102-acre site last week, some saying they'd never been to a nature park before.
   "We saw a lot of animals today," said 10-year-old Luke Nunez. "We saw a dove, a red-tailed hawk, a beetle and snails."
   Fernanda Juarez, 10, added: "I liked when we climbed the mountain. All the kids were so tired. I liked when we smelled lilac and turned it into soap. I've never been (to a nature park) before."
   The Palos Verdes Land Conservancy -- the caretaker of the San Pedro nature preserve -- provided a team of naturalists to  guide the children where they learned what early inhabitants, the Tongva, used as resources. 
  If a person touched stinging nettle, the Tongva used the backside of leaves from a mug wort plant to sooth it. Or if someone was ailing from a stomach ache, toyon bark was used to ease the pain.
  One naturalist, Holly Gray, showed the children how to make  soap using the California lilac by dipping it into a buck of water and rubbing the plant in their hands. It became foamy with a clean scent.
A student smells the scent of California lilac.

  Enthusiastic assistant naturalist Laurie Morgan gave a lively description how the  Tongva enjoyed celebrating life.  The American Indians, she said, stomped the grounds to dance and celebrate. She began stomping and encouraged the kids to stomp too.
  "Imagine the drums," Morgan told the students about the Tongva. "It's so fun. They had a song and dance for everything. They celebrated everything."
    In addition, the students did a scavenger hunt in the hillsides that taught them about nature and provided them "with a bucket of clues," to figure out a word the naturalists were seeking  -- solar.
  The overarching theme for children is to teach them to become stewards of the land and cherish the environment, said the conservancy's education director, Siegrun Storer.
Students gather around a bucket to make California lilac soap.
   "We are first and foremost trying to expose students to open space in order to foster and appreciate it," said Storer who added she's working toward providing more White Point educational tours in the future.
   The tour was a $250 gift to 50 students from Gulf elementary. Children's author-illustrator E.G. (Elisabeth) Ryan read at the school.  Impressed with the school's cleanliness, the teachers and the student's polite behavior during her reading, she offered the school a gift.
   She wanted the students to enjoy the preserve, where she often teaches her own children, twin boys, Maximillian, and Nick, 8, and Alexa Rose, 4.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Chilren's Author/Illustrator Gone Wild

Children's author/illustrator sheds light on her books to students at Gulf Elementary School in Wilmington.
Children's Author and Illustrator Brings Bursts of Wild Family Color To Her Work And Kids Like It; In Fact, They Really Like It

By Diana L. Chapman

   With an unusual past as a senior defense analyst for the U.S. government, E.G. Ryan (her pen name) never thought she'd give up her post -- a job where she was able to "fly all over the world."
   Even when she learned she was pregnant with twins, Elisabeth Ryan kept working.
  "I was traveling to Guam, Singapore, Japan, Germany," explained the nearly six foot,  blond. "I was pregnant and miserable. I never thought I'd be that mom who would stay at home completely. But the day I saw them (the twins), they came six weeks premature and that changed everything.
    "Here were these helpless creatures and I couldn't bear to be without them."
   The arrival Nick and Maximillian (Max), now 8, and the later arrival of 4-year-old Alexa Rose all with the last name Ryan-Shirley, sparked her imagination and brought back her old flame she carried for years -- writing and drawing.  At the age of six, she wrote and illustrated her first book.
   Now six books later with a boatload of ideas percolating, the incessant doodler--with a crazy- fun San Pedro household spinning in peacock blues and furious fuchsia colors-- the author-illustrator says she had no idea her children would change her path.  They gave her endless, adventurous antics -- a  bounty of material for her books.
   "They are my books," Ryan explained. "Without them, I would not have had any children's stories. Without them, I'd still be working for the government. They are so close to my heart."
   Her wild, bright tales include Spunky the Dog and Foxy the Cat --characters that appear in all her books. The books often feature animals at their home such as frogs and ants and each has a charming tale even parents will greatly  appreciate.
  Most have a gentle message without boxing kids on the head -- and gives parents another way to teach children to get out and play, clean up their rooms and enjoy life.
   In Spunky the Dog, Spunky gets mad and mean and the more mean he gets, the more green spots show up on his body. He deserts his family and continues on his own mean journey -- until he realizes he doesn't like being mean anymore. He returns home to see if his family still wants him.
   Ideas often materialize in Ryan's daily life. Her first book, Moon Balloons-- spun from a day when the two-year-old blond, curly-top boys at the time, clutched balloons their mom had given them.
   Nick accidentally let go of a balloon and as he watched it float to the sky he began "flipping out." He began screaming and crying with Max immediately following suit with shared "pangs of sympathy," the author said.
  To quiet them, she had to think quick.
 "I said: 'Don't worry. Don't worry.  It's going up to help hold up the moon.' "
  The twins immediately calmed down.
   One of my favorites is the Collect-Its about "a good, but messy little girl" named Alexa Rose who never cleans her room or puts anything away. But when things like her toothbrush begin to vanish she soon learns two mysterious, but good creatures live in a room beneath her.
   Their job: to collect things not wanted or used. (My own mother would have loved this book for me!) "
 "We collect things we find on the floor," the Collect-Its explain to Alexa Rose. "Things you do not want, need, or things you just plain ignore."
   The author's ambling into the publishing industry hit some rock hard objections. Some told her she shouldn't write and illustrate her own books. She needed to pick one or the other and of course, there were no promises of publication.
   Refusing to give up, the harried and busy mother of three, decided to publish the first set on her own and at one of her first events at the Corner Store in San Pedro, Ryan sold 200 books in one day. Foxy the Cat, Spunky the Dog, The Dreamies, Moon Balloons and the Collect-Its jumped out the door. The Good Foodies is available now too.
   "I see (they like the books) from the response I get from the children, from the parents, from the educators," Ryan explained, who added she does the work because "I want more niceness in the world. I want kindness."
   What she knew, Ryan said, was what publishers didn't; children loved her stories. She began going to read in classes across the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Los Angeles Unified schools and could tell by the "looks on their faces," that the children were riveted.
   "I love your stories," Luke Nunez, 10, wrote to the author. "The colors, animals, the drawings. I like your imagination."
Ryan with her twins, Max and Nick, and her daughter Alexa Rose showing off the author's books at their favorite haunt, the Corner Store.

   Her untamed illustrations -- that suck up cloaks of staggering color -- likely is one of the biggest attractions to her books. The combustion of colors welded with intense detail immediately snag the children's attention.  All six books are drenched in shades such as  mustard yellows, streaks of lime greens, splatters of ruby-reds and teal blues.
   A seventh and eighth book, The Green Thumb, and Bully-Bites are scheduled to come out later this year.
   Ryan uses her own childhood as well. Intrigued by her tall height, other students razzed her asking her the same question over and over again.
  "They'd say: "You are so tall. Do you play basketball?"
  With a sharp retort, Ryan would say: "You are so small. Do you play miniature golf?"
   Wanting to see for myself if kids really enjoyed her work, Ryan kindly came to Gulf Street Elementary School in Wilmington and read to first graders who stared at the storyteller with big eyes and sat as though frozen. They didn't make a peep,they were so fascinated.
   The author then moved to a group of 4th graders who -- even though were older -- passionately loved her stories. I picked this class since I'd been conducting writer's workshops there and wanted to see what the students thought.
   They were asked to write about Ryan's work.
   "I like how she writes about her family in her book and her animals," wrote 4th grader, Johnathan Benavidez. "I couldn't believe when she said she had frogs. That is very cool. I like how she wrote about her daughter and how her room was dirty."
   Wrote Hannah Marie Martinez, 10: "I liked her books because she uses a lot of color and designs. I liked all her books and I want to read the others. I think she will write a lot more books. I love Spunky."
   The author also has written three novels: SOS 999, Letter 16 and Irish Eyes, two of which will be published by the end of the year.
   "I just love it," Ryan said of writing. "I have a zillion ideas. I have whole stories in my head. My life is like a purse. It doesn't matter how big it is. It's always full."
   Working on her illustrations often doesn't start until her kids are in bed, the house is straightened up and then she writes and draws often not going to bed not until 2:30 in the morning. Each illustration takes about 14 hours to complete.
   Her children are also given ample opportunities to doodle and draw. Ryan wants to give them the creative freedom she had as a young girl.
   Mostly she recalls her childhood days as glorious. Ryan (the daughter of one of Rancho Palos Verdes' founding fathers, Robert Ryan) lived in Europe  for several years of her young life.
    But she also spent many wondrous years growing up in the golden brush areas of Abalone Cove. There was no doubt where her family was going to land. They moved to San Pedro.
   "I love this whole area," she said. "It's a hidden gem."
   In her ongoing journey to pump out books and visit schools, Ryan generously leaves behind a set of her books for the school library.
    Niels Goerrissen , a father of three and the fourth grade teacher at Gulf Elementary who hosted the author's visit, said he too was enticed by Ryan's work.
   "She read three of her books and the students very much enjoyed them," he said."Each book had a strong theme that I identified with. Meeting real authors is awesome. Students (are now) asking their teacher to write? Are you kidding? Absolutely awesome."
E.G.Ryan's books can be purchased at, The Corner Store and Rok'n' Ell Boutique, both in San Pedro, and through