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SAINTS ALIVE! : Despite Image Problems, Santa Ana High School Approaches Century Mark With Hope, Vibrancy

December 02, 1988|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times Staff Writer

A ll hail Santa Ana / Thy colors red and white / Stand as a symbol / Of our will to fight / All hail Santa Ana / In thee we'll ere be true / In trial and in victory / All hail, all hail to you.

It's the kind of school where a coach once whipped up his team by telling them as they prepared for a game against largely Anglo Foothill High: "Look, some day you'll probably be washing these guys' cars and your wives will be working in their houses. Let's go out and kill them."

It's the kind of a school where 900 teen-agers entered the front door in September of 1985, but only 414 of them are still there as seniors, members of the class of '89.

It's the kind of school that offers advanced placement classes, special programs in business, boasts two auditoriums for performing arts, sends more than 50% of its graduates on to junior college or 4-year college, and inspires a fierce, proud, sometimes defensive loyalty.

And in the 100th year of its founding, as it begins an ambitious new expansion program to renovate old classrooms and build new ones, Santa Ana High School suffers from what students and teachers say is an inaccurate stereotype: a gang-ridden school where you take your life in your hands when you step on campus, where you have to fend off knives and duck bullets to get an education.

Much of the reason for the stereotype, students say, is simply that 78% of the students are Latino. Part of the reason is that the school is located on the fringes of gang territory. Students and teachers interviewed at random brought the stereotype up often and without prompting, complaining about it in tones of resignation or bitterness.

But to those who are there--the principal, teachers and students--the school's ethnic diversity is one of its strengths.

Jeff Watts graduated from Santa Ana High in 1965. His grandfather graduated from the school--same name, different location--in 1901. Watts returned to the school as a teacher in 1975 and has been head basketball coach there. How have things changed since he graduated?

"Obviously, the ethnic ratio has changed a lot," Watts said as he stood outside a raucous gym echoing with the shouts and cheers of hundreds of students on homecoming day. "Even though, when you look through the yearbooks back then, there still was a large percentage of Hispanics."

It was "not like now, but in the '60s here, I don't think we really thought about what race somebody was. I've seen that change. Nowadays, kids talk about, well, 'You're a Hispanic, you're a white.' Back then, some of my best friends were Hispanics, but I never even thought about (them) as being Hispanic.

"I also think that's one good thing about the school; they get a lot of exposure to other races that should help them, hopefully, later in life. I taught at an upper (-class) white school that's no longer in existence. . . . In the early '70s . . . we'd play Santa Ana and Santa Ana Valley before I came back here to teach.

"And one of the big things with those kids, and they would get it from their parents, was, 'God, we're going to go down to Santa Ana; we'd better take bats and this and that.' "

The school was no stranger to trouble in the past, and the outbreaks of violence and other distractions of the early 1970s make today's campus appear as quiet as a country churchyard.

In 1971, the first month of the school year saw 10 fights and three assaults on teachers at the school. Officials blamed the fights on short tempers exacerbated by overcrowding but said they were not racial and had been blown out of proportion.

The next year, 100 Latino students walked out of the high school and marched on the school district's central administration building 1 1/2 miles away. Shouting "Viva La Raza" and "Chicano Power," they successfully demanded that a Latino school-attendance officer be rehired.

These days, Watts said, "there will be a fight every now and then, but usually it's an isolated incident. It's not 10 guys against 10 guys. Somebody might hit somebody and usually it might wind up being over a girlfriend."

The view from student level is calm too.

Bobby Reimers is an 18-year-old senior with top grades and advanced placement courses, which provide college credit if successfully completed. He was also varsity baseball co-captain last year and works nights and weekends in a video store.

"People bother each other at every school," Reimers said. "But around Santa Ana, the student population is so diverse, you have blacks hanging with whites, whites hanging with blacks, Mexicans hanging with blacks, Mexicans with whites, whites and Mexicans. Everyone blends together."

Ed Torres is a senior who said he had planned to go to USC until he started "slacking off" on school work in his senior year. He now plans to attend junior college first and USC later. Torres said he hasn't seen a fight worthy of the name in all the time he has been at the school.

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