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O.C. Parents File Petition to Retain School Principal

Incident is the latest in an ongoing controversy over bilingual education in Santa Ana.

June 09, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana's debate over bilingual education -- highlighted in the recent recall of a school board member -- has been revived among parents at a low-performing elementary school where Spanish-speaking parents are fuming over the impending transfer of its principal.

A group of 12 parents said they have submitted a petition with 700 signatures demanding that Santa Ana Unified School District officials keep Principal Mary Marquez at Edison Elementary School.

The parents say that, after five years, Marquez will be sent to another school because some parents have complained that she promotes bilingual education.

District officials confirmed Marquez is being transferred but would not discuss why, citing privacy concerns. The superintendent said he hasn't seen the petition, but said it is the district's responsibility to assign teachers and principals. Marquez declined to comment.

The move is believed to be one of more than half a dozen transfers or demotions of principals and top district officials who were close to former trustee Nativo V. Lopez. He was recalled March 4 after a contentious campaign involving allegations of cronyism and improper support of bilingual education programs in violation of Proposition 227.

The current dispute underscores the intensity of feelings that linger over whether primarily Spanish-speaking students are best taught the basics in their own language as they learn English, or by immersion in English, as required by the 1998 ballot measure.

Marquez's transfer "is politics, pure and simple," said Yolanda Ochoa, president of the school's Parent Teacher Organization, who has repeatedly demanded that the school board keep Marquez at Edison because she has worked well with parents and helped raise test scores.

But Vivian Martinez, an organizer of the successful recall campaign against Lopez, said that under Marquez's leadership, the number of children in bilingual instruction programs has steadily increased.

California Department of Education statistics show that in the 1998-99 school year, Edison had no children receiving instruction primarily in Spanish.

The following year, 40 children were in such programs. The numbers climbed to 151 in 2000-2001, and 220 in 2001-2002. In the same period, the number of limited-English speakers ranged from 799 to 759 pupils.

Martinez said bilingual programs, which she says Marquez's supporters and ex-trustee Lopez continue to promote, will hinder education. "My concern is academics," she said.

"Our children need to be well prepared for the future and that preparation starts now."

Lopez, a longtime immigration rights activist and head of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional of Santa Ana, said he has not talked to Edison parents since March, when he was last on the school board.

"It's a racist slam to say these parents are so ignorant that they need someone else to tell them what's good for them," he said. "Test scores there have gone up, so the proof is in the pudding."

On the state's Academic Performance Index, Edison scored 503 in 2000, 468 in 2001 and 520 in 2002, according to state education records. The marks are a measure of academic improvement and are based on a formula that includes test scores and other measures. Schools are assigned new targets each year based on the previous year's scores. Edison exceeded its targets in two of the last three years, but ranks in the 40th percentile of schools with similar demographics, and in the bottom 10% of all California public schools.

The school stands amid neighborhoods of densely populated apartments near downtown Santa Ana that are home to many of Orange County's Spanish-speaking service workers. For many years, the school has had among the lowest scores in standardized testing. .

Results of another standardized test, known as the Stanford 9, showed 15% of Edison third-graders reading at or above grade level in 2002, compared with 24% for the district and 53% for the county as a whole.

Of Edison's 961 students the same year, 79% were learning English.

"We're the lowest of the low," said Martinez, whose son is in English-only classes at Edison. "I'm really upset. My child is carrying the weight of the scores. The children in bilingual education are not learning. ... They need to pass standardized tests."

Marquez's new assignment is expected to be announced at the end of this month, and there may never be a public explanation because personnel matters are confidential, district officials said.

Santa Ana Unified Supt. Al Mijares said many factors are considered before a principal is transferred, not just the desires of parents or test scores.

"People are going to make assumptions and I can only tell you that when we assign a principal to a school, it is done in a manner that is professional and in the best interests of the district," he said.

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