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Capistrano Board OKs Conversions

Despite concerns about segregation, three elementary schools will become K-8 campuses.

August 19, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

A proposal to convert three elementary schools to kindergarten-through-eighth-grade campuses was approved Monday night by trustees of the Capistrano Unified School District.

Some educators, parents and community members had expressed concern that two of the conversions would perpetuate "segregation" between Latinos and non-Latino whites and the third would unacceptably increase neighborhood traffic and overcrowding. Board members addressed those issues before voting unanimously in favor of the conversions.

One grade per year will be added to the campuses -- San Juan and Ambuehl in San Juan Capistrano and Arroyo Vista in Rancho Santa Margarita -- starting in the 2004-05 school year. Parents could choose to keep their children at the reconfigured K-8 schools or transfer them to a traditional elementary or middle-school campus.

Trustee Marlene Draper said she had been skeptical of the proposal at first but was convinced by the array of cross-cultural opportunities to be offered, such as arts programs mixing Ambuehl and San Juan students. "If I feel that K-8 provides educational benefits to Anglo students, why not offer it to Hispanic ones?"The board's vote was met with loud applause from some and stony faces by others.

Nearly every trustee commented before the vote that they had never seen an issue divide communities as much as the K-8 one.

Driving the proposal has been the district's overcrowded middle schools -- Marco Forster has a projected enrollment next year of nearly 1,600 -- and a desire to provide parents with a choice in what kind of campus their children attend.

Studies have shown that students at K-8 schools perform better academically than those at other types of campuses because the tough transition between elementary and middle school is eliminated, Capistrano officials said.

The concept of K-8 schools is growing nationwide for educational and fiscal reasons. About 660 of the country's 3,070 public K-8 campuses are in California.

During a public hearing a month ago, eight San Juan Elementary parents spoke against the conversions, saying they would reduce academic opportunities for their children and stunt their social growth by prolonging the length of time they attended a heavily Latino school.

Several Ambuehl parents said the conversion would help their children handle the difficult elementary-middle school transition better and allow them to develop longer relationships with their teachers.

Latinos make up 16% of the student population at Ambuehl and 98% at San Juan Elementary. Students from those campuses have traditionally started mixing in sixth grade at Marco Forster Middle School.

Supt. James A. Fleming has said it would be a mistake to sacrifice children's academic development for their social interaction and growth, no matter how valuable those objectives are.

Dozens of Arroyo Vista parents along with other community members spoke at the July hearing, about half praising the idea and others bemoaning the traffic bottlenecks that would result from the 400 additional students that could attend the school if every parent opted to keep their children at the K-8 campus.

Trustee Mike Darnold said the decision was "never a slam-dunk for me. The issues at the schools are different, but the results of a K-8 model at all three will be far superior than what exists today."

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