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Worth the Wait : Parents Pass 3-Day Test to Get Kids Into Special School


SANTA ANA — She grinned about the pain in her knee because it paled in comparison to the glee in her heart after giving her grandson a first step toward a better life.

Juanita Muro simply wanted something more for 11-year-old Gabriel, whose mother has been in prison since he was a baby. She wanted his school to be a sanctuary from the world's drug-poisoned playgrounds and gang-patrolled halls.

If standing in line and leaning on her bad knee was the only way, she would wait.

She had plenty of company. More than 200 parents camped for three days outside MacArthur Fundamental Intermediate School, hoping to enroll their fifth-graders in a public school renowned for its sterling academic record and stern rules.

First-come, first-served enrollment was scheduled to begin Saturday at 8 a.m. The first parent, however, appeared at the school Tuesday.

His name was Anh Phan, and he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years. A thin man, splendidly dressed, he rejoiced as if Saturday's main event were a commencement, not an enrollment.

When his son, 12-year-old Dung Phan, received the first of 135 sixth-grade openings at the only fundamental intermediate school in the Santa Ana Unified School District, Anh Phan looked faint. He leaned against the boy's aunt for support.

"MacArthur School is the foremost school," he explained, hugging fellow parents and taking snapshots of his son's future alma mater.

MacArthur's 1,160 students score much higher than the district average on standardized tests, perhaps because MacArthur teachers assign homework four nights a week. And MacArthur parents rave about the school's rigid dress code and emphasis on patriotism.

So enormously popular are Santa Ana's two elementary and one intermediate fundamental schools that the district decided last February to open another fundamental intermediate school at Bristol and 17th streets.

But the best proof of the fundamental schools' popularity was at the back of the line Saturday. Though mathematically eliminated from next year's incoming class, roughly 75 latecomers stood their ground nonetheless, hoping to win a spot on the coveted MacArthur waiting list.

"It's very frustrating," said MacArthur Principal Jane Russo. "It's a double-edged sword. I'm pleased they want to come to our school, but I wish we had more space."

Russo said parents were discouraged from standing in line around the clock. Roll was called every two hours, from early morning until late at night. Parents were free to run home between roll calls.

Armed with sleeping bags and tents, many parents were prepared to continue their vigil each night in a public park beside the school. When city officials said the park was off-limits after dark, however, parents were allowed to go home and sleep each night, as long as they returned for the next morning's first roll call.

The routine was almost more cruel for Muro. Every two hours, she made the short walk from her home to the school, then back again, hobbling on her cane and often leaning against a building to rest.

"I've got chills, look!" she said, pointing to gooseflesh on her forearm after receiving Gabriel's enrollment papers. "I hope he makes it here."

Like Muro, many parents suffered greatly to preserve their place in line, and some were less forgiving than she.

"This is supposed to be a high-tech school," said Beatrice Vasquez. "Where's the high-tech?"

Vasquez said the enrollment process was an undue hardship for a parent. One mother in line suffered with bronchitis, she said, and standing outdoors could not have improved the woman's health, especially with last week's intermittent rains.

Vasquez herself was constantly racing home to give her diabetic daughter an insulin shot or a snack.

Russo conceded that MacArthur's enrollment system is not the best and said the school is studying ways to make it better.

"We've got a group of parents already that want to sit down and see if we can do this differently," she said. "We just have to rethink the system."

Suggestions of a lottery system, however, have little support.

"I want my kids to know you've got to work hard for an education," said Holly Griffith, a MacArthur parent who organized the enrollment process. "That's what bothers me about the lottery. I don't want them to think you've got to be lucky, you get it handed to you on a silver platter."

Most parents, ennobled by their three-day wait, shared Griffith's attitude.

"It was worth it," said David Luna, who succeeded in enrolling his 11-year-old daughter, Anabel. "I got my kid the best education available in town."

Luna, a maintenance manager at a pharmaceutical company, said his boss gladly agreed to give him time off from work. But others apparently were not so lucky.

Luna said he met one parent Friday who claimed he lost his job because he insisted on spelling his wife in line. "He was dragging his feet," Luna said. "He says, 'Well, I lost my job. But it was worth it.' That's very upsetting."

Veronica Hernandez said she was supposed to be a key witness in a robbery trial Wednesday. Instead, she told the lawyers a matter of life and death would prevent her from being in court all week.

She needed to enroll her daughter, Krystle, in middle school. A single mother, Hernandez works in the student relations office at Santa Ana High School.

"I've worked with the school district for 10 years," she said. "I've been in all these schools . . . I know a lot about the system and what goes on."

Hernandez said she frequently sees students suffer because their schools are chaotic, and she wants her daughter free to learn in peace and safety.

That was why she spent three nights sleeping with one eye open, fearful she would oversleep and lose her place in line.

"She's all I have," Hernandez said. "These are things I want her to remember: Yes, my mother did this for me. This is how much my mother loved me."

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