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Latinos' Holiday Trips No Joy to the Schools

December 19, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

'Tis the season, and for Silvia Pule, that means damage control.

In what seems to be a December routine, the principal at San Juan Elementary in San Juan Capistrano met this month with Nidia Villegas, an immigrant mother who plans to send her four children to visit family in Mexico over the holidays.

Their travels, Villegas explained, would extend beyond the school's vacation, and they would be missing a week of classes.

Pule knew that Villegas was hardly alone.

Throughout December, a steady stream of Mexican and other Latino parents has been filtering into Pule's office looking for the green light to take their children out of school. Others will embark on their lengthy vacations without informing the school of their plans.

It is an exodus that Pule and other school officials throughout Southern California brace for each Christmas season as thousands of immigrant Latino students head to their homelands.

With the absences cutting into state funding for schools and student learning, school officials in heavily Latino areas say they spend considerable time trying to cajole, educate and threaten parents to keep their children in class.

"It's very frustrating," Pule said. "We work hard to guard the [school day] so teachers can make the most of every minute of every day, and then, every year, along comes December."

Concern over holiday absences was so high in Santa Ana, where more than 91% of the 62,000 students are Latino, that it was a major factor in the decision to modify school calendars, school officials said. This year, classes at 10 campuses started in early August to allow for a monthlong winter break that runs through the middle of January.

More common, however, is the scenario in the Capistrano Unified School District, where the holiday break is two weeks. There, Pule and fellow principals try to persuade Latino parents to change their travel plans or get their children back to school in time for the start of classes.

So far this month, 31 families at San Juan Elementary have requested extended absences, some as long as two weeks more than the break. The numbers are about the same at Capistrano Valley High School, but administrators there said the total absences may double because of students who leave without informing the school.

"I can relate with them, I'm an immigrant too, and I know it's a tough choice," Pule said. "But I tell them, 'You made the decision to come to this country to give your kids a better life, and by pulling them out of school, you're hurting their chances.' "

Nonetheless, Pule and others said, it remains a hard sell to immigrant parents. With many needing days to drive or travel by bus to distant parts of Mexico and wanting to remain home for the traditional Christian celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, Pule said, parents balk at returning in two weeks.

"School is very important to me," Villegas said. "But this is the time when Latino families get together. It really bothers me that they are going to miss school. But my children don't know their family well. This is an opportunity for them. If they just go for a few days, they will not really know them."

Pule said she explains to parents that in California, which has one of the strictest truancy laws in the country, a student is considered truant after he or she misses 30 minutes or more of three school days without an approved excuse. By law, schools are required to send a letter to the truant's parents that spells out the possible consequences, including prosecution of parent and child.

And family vacations, Pule tells parents, are not approved excuses.

The push to limit holiday absences unfolds within a larger, ongoing effort by many districts throughout the state to maximize funding by raising attendance rates. With state funding based on how many students attend school daily, increasing attendance by just a few percentage points can mean millions of dollars for districts.

Times staff writers Dave McKibben and Jennifer Mena contributed to this report.

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