Their campuses crowded with poor children struggling to learn English, Santa Ana school officials are proposing a radical idea: Why not turn kindergarten into a two-year program, effectively stretching students' school careers to 14 years?
The two-year kindergarten proposal, which in its preliminary form already has majority support on the school board and won a favorable response from the state superintendent of public instruction, appears to be the first attempt in the nation to institutionalize an extra year of schooling for students at risk of failing.
"This sure as heck beats retaining them in eighth grade," said Al Mijares, superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District. "Who says kindergarten has to be one year? In the bigger scheme of things, if a student graduates a little later, how is that going to hurt them?"
Mijares estimates that 70% of his incoming students--perhaps 3,500 children a year--would go into a second, more advanced year of kindergarten to give them extra time to learn English and bolster their basic skills in reading and math, at a taxpayer cost of about $15 million a year.
A few Southern California school systems, including Monrovia and Torrance, offer a second year for kindergartners who aren't developmentally ready for first grade. Some private schools offer similar "bridge" years for children who need the extra help.
But Santa Ana, which has the highest percentage of Latino students of any large district in the state, is unusual because it is considering an overhauled school program directed not at individual child development but at formidable socioeconomic obstacles.
A full 85% of students in the Santa Ana district live in poverty and nearly three-fourths come to school speaking only Spanish, reflecting the demographics of Orange County's most populous city. Many are the children of immigrants who have received little education themselves.
The Santa Ana proposal is only the latest of many moves nationwide to push kindergarten--which is not mandatory in California--away from finger-paint and circle time and toward academic achievement.
In California, ambitious new standards require kindergartners to read, write and even graph statistics. Lurking at the other end of students' school careers is the new high school exit exam, which they will have to pass to receive a diploma. And in between lie years of testing.
As a result, educators are looking for ways to enrich the kindergarten experience, with the goal of making it a more reliable launching pad.
Also growing in popularity nationwide is full-day kindergarten, a concept also under discussion in Santa Ana. In 1999, 57% of all U.S. public and private school kindergartners spent a full day in their classrooms, up from 40% a decade before, federal statistics show.
Although still rare in California, where most schools offer only half-day kindergarten, all-day kindergarten is springing up in a handful of districts, including San Diego, Santa Clara and Campbell.
A new study from Montgomery County, Md., of nearly 8,000 children from low-income or immigrant families who attended full-day kindergarten last year found that they did much better than their counterparts from half-day classes.
But crowded districts such as Santa Ana and the Los Angeles Unified School District complain that they lack the classroom space to put all kindergartners in full-day programs.
Many kindergarten experts maintain that state-funded preschool would be one way to shore up the skills of children from low-income homes. The latest research indicates that much important brain development occurs before age 5.
But in California there is a waiting list for the limited state preschool program, said Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction.
Eastin for years has pushed the notion of universal preschool. She wants the state to finance programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents want the service. But the price tag of $5 billion a year has kept the idea from making headway.
With the state unwilling to fund a comprehensive preschool program for all the needy Santa Ana children, Mijares sees the two-year kindergarten as the way to go for his district. The superintendent also thinks his kindergartners are ill-equipped to handle a full day of classwork.
With a two-year kindergarten, the district would enroll thousands more students and get more state attendance money. The state generally pays public schools about $4,600 per student enrolled.
And if the state doesn't pay for the extra year of schooling now, Santa Ana officials say, it will later when those children must be held back because of the state ban on advancing students to the next grade regardless of whether they are ready, or when they are unable to pass the high school exit exam.
The district might hold three or four shifts of kindergarten to fit all the students onto already crowded campuses, the latest going into early evening.