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Drive to Teach 3 R's Proposed in Santa Ana

September 19, 1997|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Santa Ana schools chief Al Mijares on Thursday proposed teaching students almost nothing but the 3 R's from kindergarten through eighth grade, in an all-out campaign to lift his district's perennially mediocre test scores to at least the national average.

The superintendent proposes to relegate traditional subjects including science, social studies, health, physical education and the arts to a secondary place in the curriculum, either taught outside normal school hours or folded into newly intensified periods of reading, writing and mathematics instruction. Mijares said many of the details the plan remain undecided. But he warned there is no time to lose.

"We have large numbers of students who are struggling in the area of language and mathematics, and who need all the help that they can get," he said. "We have a limited number of minutes a day where they are receiving instruction. And so we have to maximize that student-teacher relationship."

What the Santa Ana Unified School District calls "Project ATM--Above the Mean" is likely to kindle debate over education priorities at a time when many urban school districts in California are lagging far behind suburban districts. The proposal will be considered by district trustees Tuesday evening.

Santa Ana Unified, with about 52,000 students, is Orange County's largest school system and the seventh largest in the state. In recent years it has been flooded with immigrant children from impoverished families whose first language is Spanish.

When tested on basic skills, Santa Ana students usually score well below the national average. This year, ninth-graders in six schools ranked no higher than the 29th percentile in reading comprehension in the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. On average, Mijares said, the district usually places in the bottom quarter of all school systems nationally on such tests.

Traditionally, school officials and parents have pointed to socioeconomic factors: that two-thirds of Santa Ana students qualify for federal lunch subsidies and that seven of 10 aren't fluent in English.

But Mijares, 44, who was named superintendent in 1994, said he wants to raise expectations. Calling his proposal "a bold step" and "the ultimate push for increasing academic achievement," he said student test scores could reach the 50th percentile within five years.

The proposal, if adopted, apparently would be one of the most far-reaching curriculum overhauls in recent times in Orange County. San Francisco Unified School District's superintendent also has pledged to raise the achievement of all students to at least the national average.

One academic expert agreed with Mijares that the plan is bold.

"Have I ever heard of a proposal like this? Absolutely not," said Louis Miron, chairman of the department of education at UC Irvine.

Miron said the proposal reflected increasing pressure on public educators in urban areas to show improvement in standardized test scores.

"They need to show gains," Miron said. "No one is going to fault anybody for trying to show gains, but the real question is, if you radically alter the curriculum, possibly to the detriment of students, who is benefiting from those gains?"

School board President Nativo Lopez declined to comment Thursday but said through a spokeswoman he would answer questions on the plan next week. Trustees Aida Espinoza, Rosemarie Avila and Audrey Yamagata-Noji could not be reached for comment.

Trustee Robert W. Balen said he agrees that Santa Ana schools need reform but contended that music instruction and other arts programs should not be gutted.

"We have some big hurdles in front of us as far as student achievement, and we all agree that there needs to be a radical approach taken," Balen said. "That part's good. But there are literally a hundred issues to discuss and to finalize before we could implement a program like that."

Many details about the plan remained sketchy Thursday. Elementary and middle school principals said they were not yet sure how it would change their operations.

Joe Randazzo, principal at McFadden Intermediate School, said he has pushed for heavy emphasis on reading, writing and mathematics for years. He called it "teaching across the curriculum," pointing to science classes as an example in which students learned math, critical thinking and writing skills.

"It's basically already being done at this level," Randazzo said. "We're doing a good part of that right now."

Santa Ana officials also must consider state requirements. According to a Department of Education official, students in grades one through six must receive at least 20 minutes a day, on average, of physical education instruction, and twice that in higher grades. Mijares suggested the district could seek a way around that requirement by using athletic programs after school.

The state education code also calls for instruction in social sciences, science, visual and performing arts and health. But, unlike the case of P.E., a daily schedule is not prescribed.

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