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'3 Rs' Plan Gets Tentative OK in Santa Ana

September 24, 1997|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Amid criticism from parent activists, a majority of Santa Ana school trustees gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a far-reaching plan to boost test scores by focusing almost exclusively on reading, writing and mathematics in elementary and middle schools.

The plan, which three of the five trustees endorsed in speeches to a packed meeting room, would reshape class time devoted to such subjects as science, social studies, physical education and fine arts and direct teachers to redouble lessons in basic skills. Supt. Al Mijares aims to raise ninth-grade student achievement on standardized tests, now mired around the 30th percentile nationally, to at least average within five years.

In another development before the evening meeting, the president of the Santa Ana Unified School District's board of trustees said he would support revisions to bilingual education programs--a key part of the curriculum in a school system in which the majority of students are not fluent in English.

"The way I'm sizing it up, there are no sacred cows," board President Nativo V. Lopez said in an interview. Lopez said he supports accelerating the transition of students from Spanish to English instruction, which now usually happens in third grade. But he insisted that the district should continue to teach immigrant children in their native language when needed.

Tuesday's events showed that Santa Ana educators appear on the verge of taking major steps in an effort to lift the impoverished urban district from a perennial cycle of good intentions and disappointing performance. Their actions will be closely watched. With 52,000 students, Santa Ana Unified is Orange County's largest district and seventh-largest in the state.

Mijares said his proposal to overhaul the school day, known as "Project ATM--Above the Mean," is open to community opinions. But even before the meeting, there were signs that many parents were rebelling. Some complained that they had been caught by surprise.

"I was shocked," said Wendy Tobiska, president of the Santa Ana Parent-Teacher Assn., who first heard of the plan from a reporter last week after it was unveiled. Tobiska, who said her organization has not had time to take a position, nonetheless criticized the plan for failing to offer students a well-rounded course of study.

Christine Underwood, whose son attends Taft Elementary School, said: "I heard about it just last week, and I said, 'You've got to be joking.' I'm furious. Not that I don't think reading and writing and math are . . . the most important things in the academic universe. However, I think it is extremely important to have history, geography, political science, art and P.E."

The Mijares plan would not ban teaching of subjects other than the so-called three Rs, but it would relegate them to secondary status. The superintendent is proposing to fold such material as history into lessons on language, and science into lessons on math, for all students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Some subjects, he contends, could be taught after school or on weekends. Schools that fail to show enough progress on test scores within three years might be reorganized.

Portions of the proposal are not without precedent. San Francisco Unified School District recently began intensified instruction in basic skills with an eye to lifting all student test scores above the national average. But what sets Santa Ana apart is the degree to which Mijares and the school board appear ready to reshape the school day.

Wendy Harris, director of the elementary teaching and learning division of the state Department of Education, said she has not heard of a plan like Santa Ana's. The state requires an average of 20 minutes a day of physical education in elementary schools and twice that in higher grades. But with that exception, Harris said, local administrators "have complete flexibility with the amount of time they choose to devote to different subject areas."

To get around the P.E. requirement, Mijares has said he might propose substituting after-school sports programs.

On Tuesday evening, Mijares presented the plan to the school board before a standing-room-only crowd of well over 150 parents and educators. He pressed his case by using a series of bar charts and graphs projected on a screen to show that the district has been treading water for nearly 10 years.

But many questions remained unresolved as of 10 p.m. Mijares set no timetable for the changes and offered no specific plan for what the new school day would be like.

Board President Lopez said he was "a thousand percent" behind Mijares. He said the district cannot afford to continue taking incremental measures to improve student performance.

"If we continue to do what we're doing, maybe in 20 years we'd get above the mean," Lopez told The Times. "In the meantime, we'll lose two or three generations of kids. In my mind, that's an educational crime."

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