Santa Ana recently made national news when the U.S. Census Bureau announced that this urban community has the largest percentage of Spanish-speaking people among cities with populations of 250,000 and above. As one of the 100 largest cities in the country, Santa Ana is also known for its youthful population, with a median age of 26.5 years.
These realities, combined with many residents’ low incomes and low levels of educational completion rates, create a need to develop an outside-the-box approach to education. El Sol, a new science and arts academy, opened its doors last September with an approach that promises to shine a ray of hope on Santa Ana. On Thursday, officials from UC Irvine, the Santa Ana Unified School District and the city will gather at the El Sol campus to celebrate the school’s first-year achievements. A K-8 charter school, El Sol offers academic excellence through its English/Spanish dual-immersion curriculum, high learning expectations, talented teachers and partnership with parents.
El Sol recruits 50% of its student body from English-speaking families and 50% from Spanish-speaking families, and is being developed in phases, with 120 kindergarten and first-grade students now.
Development of excellent schools in urban settings like Santa Ana requires partnerships where resources, know-how, and goodwill are shared. Less than two years ago, the El Sol concept was brought before the members of the Santa Ana Board of Education, which had the courage to embrace the concept and help make the dream come true.
A friend of El Sol, Jack Peltason, former UC Irvine chancellor, views the school as an “educational model that cultivates academic success, leadership development and an awareness of the complex challenges of our diverse community.”
Indeed, this is a popular view among a growing number of friends, who are helping the campus’ vision become fully realized. Ultimately, El Sol’s success will depend on continued development of strong partnerships.
UC Irvine is one such partner. The university is helping train El Sol parents to support children academically. The program, Make It New, coaches parents on ways to renew their kids’ motivation about learning. Because some parents have more experience and education than others, the program’s parent mentorship component provides support to those who need greater confidence and skills to support their children.
It makes sense for a Santa Ana school to offer dual-language immersion, which instructs students in all subjects in two languages, so that students become fully bilingual. Not only do 74% of its residents speak Spanish, but 15% do not speak English at all.
Pragmatism aside, however, El Sol’s model is based on logic, because research of similar programs demonstrates the dual-immersion model’s success throughout the world.
There are about 300,000 students in English/French immersion programs in Canada. Consensus exists among applied linguists about the benefits of well-implemented dual-immersion programs. Almost 150 studies since the early 1960s testing a variety of aptitudes report advantages for bilingual students.
As parents, we believe that linguistic isolation carries the potential for one of the greatest social, academic and professional disadvantages.
Within a few months, we have witnessed our previously monolingual English-speaking children start to acquire a second language, and in the process learn that the “others” have something to teach and give, just as much as they do.
We are frequently asked, “What about after El Sol? Where will your children go after eighth grade?” Our response is usually, “Where won’t they be able to go?” El Sol is creating scholars with an emphasis in the sciences and arts. They just happen to be doing it in two languages.
Of course, some of our graduates may elect to attend local high schools, both public and private, and undoubtedly, many who get sparked by El Sol’s arts component will compete for enrollment in Orange County’s High School for the Arts.
If you pass the corner of Broadway and Halesworth Street, just north of 10th Street, you may notice El Sol’s school logo on a Victorian house, now transformed into the school’s administrative offices.
It is a corner where courageous people have pledged their support to grow a campus prepared to meet the complex urban challenges of its community.
It is a corner where students are rigorously challenged, and where parents are partners in the educational journey.
It is a corner where you can feel the sun’s rays transforming possibilities into probabilities, making each day gloriously new.
Jenny Doh and Cynthia Criollos are residents of Santa Ana and parents of El Sol students.