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Fixing the Arts High School

September 08, 2002

It's a shame that the eagerness that led to the creation of a countywide arts high school in Santa Ana masked serious problems.

The Orange County High School of the Arts, which had outgrown its original home in Los Alamitos, received redevelopment funding from Santa Ana to build a bigger campus. The Santa Ana schools, the most ethnically homogeneous in Orange County, hoped to gain a program that would draw students from throughout the county, helping to diversify its population and alleviate some of the crowding at existing campuses. Santa Ana Unified trustees insisted that the school admit 30% of its students from Santa Ana, and operators of the arts campus rashly agreed.

The district assumed its students and parents wanted the arts school, but the students preferred their neighborhood campuses. The arts school assumed it would be able to admit enough students even though few Santa Ana students have the means for early-age tutoring in the arts to make them competitive or even interested. Neither party thought about how Santa Ana teens were going to attend a school that goes on until 5 p.m. when they're busy helping their financially struggling families by baby-sitting younger siblings so their parents can work. No one even thought of providing school buses.

Yet as the arts school prepares for its third year at the new campus, people are surprised that the ratio of Santa Ana students is about one-third the level promised.

The school's chief proposal for combating this malaise is to open a second charter, an elementary campus for the arts funded by grants and state bonds that would feed Santa Ana students into the high school.

The proposal ignores two problems.

Santa Ana residents are no more likely to flock to an arts charter for young children than one for older children. And the district already has the year-old El Sol Science and Arts Academy, an elementary campus that works for district families--as proved by its waiting list. It's a magnet school that also serves its neighborhood and offers dual-language immersion in English and Spanish, a strong science and math curriculum and enrichment in the arts.

No mistake, the High School of the Arts runs an outstanding program, but right now it's not a natural fit for Santa Ana, which has some of the lowest standardized test scores in the county and a laundry list of more pressing academic needs. Santa Ana parents line up to enroll their children in the district's fundamental schools, drawn by the much higher test scores at those campuses, but at this point they don't see rigorous arts training as part of their children's academic future.

One day, the pairing might succeed. But instead of squandering more resources on yet another arts campus for younger students, the city, district and charter school should be helping to develop El Sol's programs and find the permanent campus it needs. They should concentrate on aggressive extracurricular outreach, including music and art tutoring in the city's after-school programs. Convenient transportation to the high school campus might help too.

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