When classes begin today for students at El Sol Science and Arts Academy in Santa Ana, all 60 kindergartners will plunge into their lessons--in Spanish.
It's not that the students don't know English. In fact, at least half of them are fluent.
Rather, teachers at the new charter school use Spanish, school officials and parents say, because they are training the children to be members of a increasingly diverse community.
"Things are changing demographically," said Wendy Navarro, who has two children in El Sol. "Look around. We have to accept that."
As more than half a million students across Orange County return to school this week and next, parents such as Navarro are likely to see a student body that is slightly less white, slightly more Latino and less likely to speak only English.
No ethnic group has made up a majority of the county's student population in a decade. But in Santa Ana, 92% of the students are Latino and more than 41,000 of its 62,000 students are still learning English.
El Sol parents and officials are quick to stress that their school does not offer a bilingual program--a touchy subject in this city where some residents want to oust a school trustee for what they call his illegal support of bilingual education.
Instead, educators call it a dual-language immersion program. El Sol is the only school in Orange County in which all students learn in such a setting.
A few others offer similar programs as an option.
In contrast to bilingual education, which uses a student's native language as a bridge to make the transition to English gradual, dual immersion uses two languages to achieve fluency in both directions.
At El Sol, all students begin kindergarten learning their curriculum in Spanish. They also devote 10% of their lesson time to learning English.
The ratio of English to Spanish instruction changes incrementally each year. By the time students reach fifth grade, they will be taught 50% in English and 50% in Spanish. The school's highest grade is second, but ultimately it will be eighth.
The goal is to turn out students who feel comfortable with both languages.
El Sol and other dual-language immersion programs represent another facet of the debate over bilingual education and how to improve academic achievement in increasingly diverse communities.
Since state voters four years ago passed Proposition 227, which banned bilingual education from public schools, some parents in heavily Latino districts such as Santa Ana's have complained that their children continue to learn in Spanish.
Parents can request bilingual education for their children by signing a waiver, but other students must be taught fully in English, according to the law.
Earlier this year, some parents at Santa Ana Unified filed a recall petition against school board member Nativo Lopez, accusing him of encouraging principals to push waivers and to keep bilingual education alive. Lopez has been an outspoken critic of Proposition 227 but denied trying to undermine the law.
The recall petition will be put to voters if Lopez's opponents can gather enough signatures by Sept. 12.
While bilingual education has received much attention, there has been little debate about dual-language immersion.
District officials say the programs at Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. elementary schools, also in Santa Ana, have proved successful. Students in dual immersion outperform those in bilingual or English-only classes in standardized tests, officials said.
One reason may be that students in such programs tend to be high achievers, said Howard Bryan, the district's director of English Language Development and Bilingual Programs. The English speakers in the program help Spanish speakers acquire English skills faster, he said. "The students mix and they help each other."
El Sol parents say that is true, but they also praise the school's emphasis on sciences and arts and parental involvement, which is a condition of enrolling children in the school.
All parents must put in at least 20 volunteer hours each year, helping with anything from classroom work to painting fences.
"We get such gratification and the kids just love to have the attention," said Cynthia Criollos, who has two sons in the school. "And the parents, no matter where they are from, they have something to give."
Last week, Criollos was putting the finishing touches on the school's new garden. Some students had gathered at the campus for orientation and were enthralled by the planters and the gardening tools.
"How do you say seeds in Spanish?" Criollos asked casually. "Semillas," responded a group of giggly boys and girls.
The campus, at Broadway and Halesworth Street, is not much to look at right now.
A refurbished old Victorian home serves as the offices, six portable classrooms are lined neatly on a back lot, and a 54,000-square-foot building sits vacant with grand possibilities: new classrooms, a cafeteria and a library.