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Santa Ana District OKs Academy Plan

Education: Low achievers will have an extra year to prepare for second grade.


Santa Ana school officials have retooled a two-year kindergarten proposal and will create a pilot program that would send the lowest-achieving students to two years of first grade.

The Santa Ana Unified school board voted 3 to 2 to approve the "Primary Academy," a program developed by a group of principals concerned about promoting students who are likely to fail the following year.

The academy plan will start in seven of the district's 36 elementary schools. Under the plan, kindergarten students who appear less than fully ready for first grade will be considered for the one-year academy, where they would receive extra attention. If they do well in the academy, they will go to second grade the following year. If they still are struggling, they would go to regular first grade. Parents would volunteer their children for the program.

The program would begin in July at six schools: Adams, Diamond, Jackson, King, Lincoln and Monte Vista elementary schools. It begins at Harvey Elementary School in September.

District Supt. Al Mijares said innovative approaches are needed in a district where many children come from poor, Spanish-speaking families.

"The typical way of doing business doesn't work here," said Mijares, pointing out that 85% of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch, all but 4% never attended preschool and most speak Spanish at home. "The primary academy is a response to the needs of our community."

School board member Nativo V. Lopez said the academy is better than a previous plan that would have sent students to a two-year kindergarten. That would have meant two years of a half-day program, while causing scheduling and facilities problems, he said.

In the academy, language arts classes would have lower student-to-teacher ratios and teachers would assess student progress more often and have more contact with parents. Phonics would be stressed, since many academy children are expected to have reading problems.

"We hope we can avoid retaining children with this program," said Marjorie Cochran, principal of Diamond Elementary School. "We feel it will provide deeper skills and that children will be at grade level."

Cochran said 60% of second-graders in the seven schools do not read at grade level. She expects 38 of her 160 kindergarten families to opt for the academy.

Alicia Cortez said she will ask to have her 6-year-old daughter, Amber Rodriguez, placed in the academy because of her reading problems.

"She knows her numbers. She has trouble with words," Cortez said. "I feel she needs the extra attention. I don't feel she is up to grade level."

Rosa Orduna said her daughter, Rosa, was recommended for the academy. "It sounds excellent. [My daughter] is very distracted and she's not paying attention," Orduna said. "I hope she can capture more of the sounds of letters. That is what she is missing."

Despite favorable parent responses, school board president John Palacio, who voted against the Primary Academy, said he believes the program could jeopardize as much as $35 million in state funding. Palacio said the state has frowned on programs that track disadvantaged children into certain programs.

State officials did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

Mijares and Cochran said they would be willing to make adjustments in the program if the state raised any issues.

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