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From the Classroom to the Boardroom

Teacher Sal Tinajero hopes to offer an insider's perspective as Santa Ana's newest school trustee.


For four years, Sal Tinajero has been on the front lines in Santa Ana's schools. A middle-school teacher on a shoestring budget, he has tried to create programs that inspire, overcome the challenges of overcrowding and show kids that education will get them somewhere in life.

Next month the 29-year-old soldier of education will leap from the trenches into a general's role as an elected member of the Santa Ana Unified School District Board of Education.

"I'm hoping it will be a smooth transition and that the experience I have as a teacher will help guide me in the decisions I make," said the soft-spoken Tinajero, who grew up in Santa Ana.

His first order of business: expanding the district's college preparatory program. He'd like to have professors from Santa Ana College teaching college-level remedial courses in the district's high schools.

"That way, our students won't have to take those classes when they graduate, and they'll be prepared to take the college entrance exams," Tinajero said. "There are a lot of kids in our district who come from immigrant families, and going to college--for most of us--is like a dream. Graduating from college is like a fantasy."

Improving language skills, continuing to reduce class sizes, getting more technology into the classroom and increasing parental involvement are other issues on his priority list.

He also hopes to bring unity to the often divisive board and to offer an insider's perspective.

"People oftentimes don't understand the dynamics in a classroom and the challenges that teachers face," Tinajero said. "People never thought about the restroom situation with portable classrooms--kids not being able to go to a nearby restroom because they're in a portable. And people don't think about whether the janitors have the right equipment to do their job or even a place to store their equipment.

"And they don't stop to think about whether the facilities are designed to allow faculty to monitor students--whether the locker rooms are set up so that teachers can see what's going on in the entire room.

"Hopefully, I can help create an atmosphere [on the board] that will open these issues up for discussion. . . . I've always been respectful of people's views, and I'm always willing to listen, and I hope to persuade others to listen."

It's that fresh perspective that board President John Palacio is looking forward to. "We're pleased to see him elected," Palacio said. "He will bring the hands-on experience as an educator."

Tinajero was the top vote-getter Tuesday in the Santa Ana school board race, with 10,472 ballots cast for him. But three incumbents aren't far behind. Rosemarie Avila is a close second with 10,179. Audrey Yamagata-Noji and Nativo V. Lopez appear to be battling over the last open seat with just 131 votes separating them--Yamagata-Noji leading with 8,892, Lopez with 8,761.

The final outcome won't be determined until all absentee and provisional ballots are counted, which could take a few days or a few weeks, said officials for the registrar of voters.

Tinajero's showing came as something of a surprise. Many local political observers were expecting Lopez to take the lead in the polls. He had the largest campaign war chest and was backed by a number of Latino-rights and labor groups. Some believe Lopez could still snag a seat with the absentee and provisional votes.

Some say Tinajero's showing was the result of endorsements from both sides of the political fence. Even though the school board race is a nonpartisan one, both the Republicans and the Democrats weighed in with their picks, and Tinajero made both lists.

"I think the [endorsements] that really helped were the Orange County Democratic Foundation and the unions--their help and support was key," he said.

There was also the conservative Lincoln Club's endorsement. The Republican group sent out a mailer just days before the election backing Tinajero and two other candidates.

"This shouldn't be a partisan race, and in my case, it really wasn't," Tinajero said. "When I'm teaching, the parents of my students aren't asking me if I'm a Republican or a Democrat. They just want to know that I'm giving their children the best education I can give them."

But a seat on the board won't come without sacrifice. To avoid conflicts of interest, he will have to resign his position teaching seventh- and eighth-grade history courses at Lathrop Intermediate School.

He has already applied for teaching positions at the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified and Anaheim Union High School districts, and he plans to submit his resume to the Tustin, Garden Grove and Newport-Mesa unified school districts as well. As a husband and the father of a 2-year-old son, he has had to think about how he'll provide for his family.

"That is the biggest concern I have before taking office: finding a teaching position at another district," Tinajero said.

His boss doesn't think he'll have too much trouble. But Supt. Al Mijares said he hates losing Tinajero in the classroom.

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