By Robin Pierson, Special to the Independent
When Elsa Brizzi remembers how her third graders of different ethnicities, speaking different languages, connected with each other in one of the first bilingual education classrooms in the nation, her eyes get misty. “It was beautiful,” she recalled, “organic and open.”
Using her impressive intellect and her even bigger heart, this year’s Laguna Beach Woman’s Club Woman of the Year has for more than four decades endeavored to identify and meet the needs of students, regardless of the language they speak or their country of origin.
This pioneer in the field of bilingual education and champion of women, children and seniors, is not slowing down. Two years ago, deep in the throes of retirement, Brizzi started a reading program linking seniors with second graders. The Intergenerational Literacy Enhancement Program (ILEP), now called The Special You Reading Club by the kids, pairs an adult with a child. Working together, the two become authors and illustrators, creating their own books of “specialness.”
“It’s more than learning to read,” said Brizzi. The project’s textbook, “You are a Very Special You,” which Brizzi wrote and illustrated, boosts the confidence building message in three languages. “I want the kids and I want the seniors to discover their ‘insides’,” acknowledging themselves as “loveable and capable,” she said.
Starting at Laguna’s Boys & Girls Club, Brizzi intends to expand the program to other cities. “Laguna Beach is so rich in resources, in beauty and how we treat the environment and each other, we can be a model.”
This intergenerational approach “brings together a unique educational opportunity,” said Brizzi. “The kids get integrated and celebrated” and the seniors receive the gift of being in the moment. “When you sit with a group of kids, it brings you directly into the present.”
Raised in Inglewood by a German-born father and a mother whose parents hailed from Spain and Mexico, Brizzi was fascinated by and exposed to a variety of languages and cultures from the get go. When her parents divorced when she was 7, Brizzi became intimately familiar with the struggle of single moms.
Those early life experiences made Brizzi resonate to the needs of both non-native English speakers and to mothers raising children on their own.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated from college.” When she was offered a job as a teacher in Pasadena, she went to USC on a Ford Foundation grant to obtain her teaching credential at night.
After stints teaching elementary, middle, high school and counseling in special education in Pasadena, she took a job teaching creative writing on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. “I had 16 year olds and 7 year olds in the same class. They had reading difficulties, but they were great artists so we did poetry and drawings outside by the creek.”
Brizzi then helped start an alternative school for students who had been kicked out of junior high school. Working with troubled kids was both rewarding and demanding.
She took a break from the educational system, turned her attention to ceramics, painting and sculpting and moved to Baja California where she designed and built her own Moroccan style house overlooking the ocean.
Not enough intellectual stimulation and too much tequila propelled Brizzi back to the States when her former principal made her an offer that made Brizzi’s heart sing. “He wanted to start a bilingual education center for students in kindergarten to third grade and I couldn’t refuse.”
The Pasadena pilot project was so successful that Brizzi was recruited on the state and federal level to train in the area of bilingual education. At the same time, she got her master’s degree in education from USC that led to a teaching job on campus.
In 1976, Brizzi moved to Laguna and commuted to Downey, working in the special projects division at the Los Angeles County Office of Education. From 1980-2005, both as an administrator in the Office of Education and as an adjunct professor of organizational behavior and development at a University of San Francisco satellite in Orange County, Brizzi widened her scope to include educating business leaders in leadership expertise.
“I’ve had my nose to the grindstone since I was 7,” said Brizzi. “Now, I’m letting go of driving myself and I’m respecting and valuing myself.”
A luncheon Friday, Aug. 14, celebrates Brizzi and her accomplishments at the Woman’s Club of Laguna Beach at 286 St. Ann’s Dr. on. Info: www.wclb.org.