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School Reforms Should Pass

January 12, 2003

State officials probably will have misgivings about Santa Ana's proposal to add an optional fifth year to high school. They're also likely to question the Santa Ana pilot program that provides an additional year of schooling for kindergarten students who run into problems.

True, these innovative programs would cost the state money during a worsening fiscal crisis that has Sacramento cutting schools spending, not adding to it. Critics also worry that the programs will funnel Latino students into remedial programs.

The concept of ethnic tracking, though, seems downright silly in a district where more than 90% of the students are Latino -- more than twice the statewide average. Critics need to face realities that Santa Ana educators live with every day. Three-fourths of parents in the district lack high school diplomas, and many are illiterate. A stunning 85% of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

At the same time, California uses the highest achievement standards in the nation to determine if students are proficient. The state wants to ban social promotion and require students to pass a high school exit exam before they can gain a diploma.

Santa Ana schools Supt. Al Mijares isn't trying to skirt requirements or shortchange students. Extra classwork demands more from students and their families, not less. Why restrict education to 13 years, Mijares argues, when some students need more time to succeed?

A quarter of the district's schools have been running primary academies for about a year. Instead of holding back struggling kindergartners, the youngsters are sent for an added year of scholastic help. They receive lots of phonics instruction and benefit from a lower student-teacher ratio.

Why not give kids this kind of help in the early years rather than setting them up for years of failure?

But Santa Ana also has a particularly mobile student population. Every week, new immigrants enter school, knowing no English and unable to read. That's why Mijares wants an optional fifth year of high school, also with a remedial focus. The late-afternoon and evening classes -- the only time classroom space is available -- would help to groom these students for the exit exam.

The state has plunged into a mass of reforms that so far have resulted in sketchy progress. Social promotion is still a reality in most urban schools, and so many California students are flunking the exit exam that the state is looking to delay its implementation.

Santa Ana is proposing constructive reforms that will help graduate students who are ready for higher education and good jobs. The state should have no quibble with that.

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