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Cultural diversity can be a school's greatest strength

Few elementary school principals get calls from the State Department in Washington, but Dr. Harold Jones did during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. His school's International Day program was to include Israeli dancers, and some of the parents in the audience would be Egyptian. The combination spelled possible trouble to the State Department, and they warned Dr. Jones they might send agents to mix with the crowd.

''That kind of shook me up a bit,'' Jones recalls. ''The potential for 'an international incident' right on my playground!'' He doesn't know if the agents came. There was no trouble.

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There never is. Even though there are, in fact, hundreds of ''international incidents'' on the playground and in the classrooms of the Escondido Elementary School in Palo Alto, Calif., they are peaceful and educational.

Located next to Stanford University, the school serves the children of graduate students and visiting academics from around the world - including Iran, Iraq, Poland, the Soviet Union, Taiwan, and Red China. Every year students from nearly 50 nations attend, and many of those nations are at war or have long histories of conflict. Yet, in the 10 years that Jones has been principal, he says there has never been a smidgen of trouble that could be linked to international tensions.

Nor can parents or teachers remember any problems. What name-calling or squabbling there is at recess is more likely to arise from the disputed ownership of a ball than from a conflict in a distant land, says Barbara Lumbard , who has taught there for 12 years.

''I know three little girls from warring nations, comments Rachel Lotan, a mother from Israel. ''They are the best of friends.''

The challenge of Escondido is not so much to keep international strife out of the classrooms as to bring parents and children from so many cultures together into a productive school community. Every fall the school, which has an enrollment of about 400, welcomes 150 to 175 new students from other countries and from other parts of the United States. The task of pulling them together begins long before the school year starts.

As parents come in throughout the summer to register their children, Jones meets with them personally, explaining the American school system to foreigners and the local curriculum to everyone. The parents also receive a packet of information about the area and about the school's rules. At the beginning of the school year, parents conduct tours of the school for newcomers ''whether they are from Colorado or Taiwan,'' Jones says.

Escondido Elementary also has to deal with students speaking 20 to 25 languages. There are no bilingual programs because no one grade level has a large enough block of students speaking the same language. ''I guess you could call our program a total immersion program,'' Jones says. Students are expected to learn English, and there is an English as a Second Language Program that takes children from their regular classes for brief classes in English. The school also has tutors to help students in their native languages.

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The younger children are fluent by the end of the first semester and speak English without accents by the end of the year, while the older children take longer to learn, according to Jones.

American students say they pick up words and phrases in foreign languages, but add that the hardest part of having a large number of foreign students at the school is trying to make friends with people who speak another language.

''Learning to pronounce names is hard,'' says a sixth grader. ''Some of the names don't sound like anything at first.''

Even with these challenges, though, academic standards have been kept high, and Escondido holds its own in the district on test scores.

While the school is very much an American school, its curriculum reflects its international makeup. All of the schools in the district include multicultural education, but at Escondido there is more of it, and it has a different slant. There is a part-time coordinator to help teachers. And parents, including American parents, are a frequently used resource, coming in to explain a national holiday or demonstrate a local craft.

Jones feels that the attitude of adults in the school sets the tone, and he believes that it takes a certain kind of teacher to work at Escondido. He wants teachers who are going to accept children for what they are and not try to change them, who are going to appreciate the richness of the community, and who share his sense of mission.

''This is like a little United Nations, and I see us doing ambassadorial work ,'' he says. ''We want the parents to leave here with a good feeling about our country and our schools.''

The foreign students at Escondido today may well be leaders in their own countries in the future, he says, adding, ''Who is to say who is going to be behind the big desk with the red telephone someday?''

Among the permanent residents of Palo Alto, which allows students to enroll in any school with openings, Escondido Elementary is popular. ''Many parents say that they want their children to come here because it reflects the world population,'' Jones explains. Parents of children at the school say their youngsters have learned far more about the world than they themselves knew at the same age and are very accepting of differences.

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