Kinoshita and Del Obispo elementary schools are just an athletic field apart, but for many in San Juan Capistrano, the gap is a potent symbol of an issue that has roiled this south Orange County town in recent years: school segregation.
The schools are on the edge of a middle-class, mostly white neighborhood. But while Del Obispo's students are about 55% white, Kinoshita's enrollment is about 95% Latino. It is a disparity that former district teacher Gia Lugo said highlights the wide gap in race relations in this historic community.
"It's a fact of life in this town," she said. "Even in school you spend the day around your own kind."
The new school year begins today, with the ethnic makeup of the town's other two primary schools similarly skewed. Harold Ambuehl, east of Interstate 5, is 67% white, and San Juan, which is across the street from Mission San Juan Capistrano, is 89% Latino.
Emma Elizalde Barrera, whose daughter attends Del Obispo, said she is troubled "by the segregation of Latinos" at Kinoshita, where the girl was enrolled before Elizalde transferred her to Del Obispo. She said her three children who attended Kinoshita and San Juan had a difficult time associating with white children in middle and high school.
Del Obispo and Kinoshita "are next to each other," she said in Spanish. "Why aren't white children attending Kinoshita?"
Fifty-four years after Brown vs. Board of Education integrated public schools in the United States and 62 years after Mendez vs. Westminster School District outlawed "Mexican schools" in California, segregated schools are still a fact of life in the state.
A 2004 study by the University of California All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity found that 75% of Latino and 70% of African American students attended predominantly minority schools. The study found "a trend of school resegregation" that began emerging during the 1990s.
Race has long been an explosive issue in San Juan Capistrano and its school district. In 1994, white and Latino students at Marco Forster Middle School painted a mural with U.S. and Mexican flags in response to racist fliers targeting Latinos; the mural was intended to promote unity and understanding.
Tensions were exacerbated in 2005, when parents complained that the attendance boundary for the new San Juan Hills High School would draw students from Latino neighborhoods and hurt test scores. School board officials argued that the boundaries were necessary to avoid segregated schools but settled a lawsuit by parents by eliminating references to race in its attendance boundary policy and delaying indefinitely a decision on who would attend the school.
In July, Kim McCarthy, whose daughter attends Marco Forster, complained at a board meeting that the school is operated "as if it is a Mexican public school." The campus, with 55% Latino enrollment, is next to Del Obispo and receives students from that school and Kinoshita.
McCarthy also complained about Spanish spoken by Latino students and staff; Latino parents bringing their children on parent-teacher nights to act as interpreters; and the school mural. Supt. A. Woodrow Carter responded to McCarthy's criticisms in a two-page letter in which he defended multiculturalism. "We cannot ignore our diversity," he wrote.
Newly elected board member Ken Maddox said Latinos have reason to complain about the grade schools.
"I, too, would be greatly troubled to learn my school district engaged in segregation based on ethnicity," he said. "But there is no easy solution to the problem."
Privately, district officials -- many of whom came of age during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s -- say they are troubled by the schools that are mostly Latino. But they say that any attempt to redraw attendance boundaries would spark a backlash from parents, and that Latino and white parents don't want their kids bused to schools across town to achieve integration.
District officials said their goal is to deliver quality education, but that socioeconomic barriers hamper students who live in the town's two predominantly Latino neighborhoods: the La Zanja community, across from the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, and an area called Las Carolinas, near City Hall.
They say they cannot influence where poor kids live -- a crucial point when considering that the district's policy is to maintain neighborhood schools. About half of the elementary students who live in La Zanja attend San Juan. The others go to Kinoshita, which is two miles away -- the closest place where district officials could build a school to relieve overcrowding at San Juan.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Hector Villagra, who filed a legal motion in 2005 supporting the redrawing of boundaries to integrate San Juan Hills High School, criticized the district for allowing segregation in grade schools.