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Mexico Offers TV Classes to Santa Ana School

Education: 'Plaza" plan would let parents take evening courses using a Spanish satellite feed from Mexico City. Approval is likely.

April 22, 2002|JENNIFER MENA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine two Santa Ana classrooms where students study with their teachers by day. At night, their parents occupy the same desks, taking vocational or English classes by satellite from Mexico on a big-screen TV.

That's the aim of a pilot program proposed at Carr Intermediate School in partnership with the Mexican government. Using a study plan and software developed in Mexico, parents could learn high school basics and English at night.

While the Mexican government has worked with California school districts before--including donating thousands of textbooks--vocational training in Spanish goes a step further.

"We want to be very attentive to the issues facing the Mexican population in the United States," said Melba Pria, director of the Mexican Foreign Ministry's Mexicans Abroad program, during a visit last week to the Santa Ana middle school. "This is a way to share a program we began in Mexico and help school officials in the United States integrate adults into the school campus."

Mexican immigrants, many from rural areas, often leave school before sixth grade. They come to the United States to earn money and, once here, realize that they need more education to get better jobs and to help their children excel.

Because an estimated one-sixth of all Mexican nationals live in the United States, according to the Mexican government, Mexican President Vicente Fox is putting a new emphasis on those north of the border. The Mexican government estimates there are 100 million Mexicans in Mexico and 20 million in the United States.

The experiment to create "community plazas" is underway in 18 American schools, including one in San Diego.

"Plaza" refers to a concept rather than a place. The word is used in Mexico to refer to the town center, the heart of a city. Program organizers say they hope to use that image to create a sense of community among immigrants who may have little formal education and are often intimidated in adult vocational training classes.

"In the United States, teachers say, 'Come on, you can do it.' People in the United States feel directed. They respond. But many Mexicans do not," said Sofia Orozco Aguirre, deputy director of education for Mexicans Abroad. "Most Mexicans leave Mexico to make a living.... Education is not a priority. In Mexico, you do not make more money if you have more education.

"The materials are in Spanish and are designed for adults in this situation."

A Nebraska meat-packing plant is working to set up such a learning facility for its employees, Orozco Aguirre said.

Other Santa Ana campuses are considering adopting the program, as are school officials in Riverside and Huntington Park.

Howard Bryan, director of English-language development and bilingual education for the Santa Ana Unified School District, said the satellite classes will help children with their Spanish-language skills and their ability to learn English.

"We would like to see this in every school in our district," he said. "Every school has immigrant parents, and this is designed to help them."

Bryan said the district was already remodeling Carr and will designate two classrooms for the plaza. "This is in the beginning stages right now, so we need to fully develop a plan," he said. "I do believe it is going to happen, though."

The campus was selected for the pilot program in part because more than half the school's 1,750 students are learning English. Also, the school comprises the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, a level at which parents with limited education become concerned that they can no longer help their children with lessons, said Evangelina Castaneda, president of Carr's parent-teacher-student organization.

Castaneda, whose 12-year-old son Miguel is at Carr, said of the plaza proposal: "It's magnificent. We've never seen anything like this. We're happy the two governments are working together, and it affirms parents' involvement."

For the Carr plaza, Santa Ana Unified must come up with the money for computers. Mexico pays for satellite connections--about $7,500 for each plaza--and provides a curriculum that is introduced to students through satellite programming.

Trustee Nativo V. Lopez said he believes the school board will do everything possible to make the plaza work at Carr and expand the program to other schools.

"What all board members agree on is that the more educated our parents are, the better off our students are," he said.

Details of how the plaza would work--including staffing, equipment, funding, the frequency of classes, student eligibility and when classes could begin--are still being worked out, district officials said.

Development of additional plazas would depend on the availability of space, Bryan said.

Carr's principal, Angel Gallardo, expressed confidence that the program would work well at the southwest Santa Ana campus, where parental involvement is high. Parents successfully lobbied for a year-round schedule and student uniforms in recent years, he said.

"I feel that anything that helps parents will help our students," Gallardo said. "If it takes the Mexican government to help, so be it."

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