SANTA ANA—Esperanza Campos, 38, glowed as she watched her three children take their first steps into American society. It was, after all, their urging which had brought the family from Chihuahua, Mexico.
On Tuesday, Campos joined nearly 100 other parents at the Santa Ana Unified School District’s Registration and Testing Center in a program unique in Orange County. The center is a mandatory first stop for any new student in the district who speaks any foreign language. Here, the children are tested for their academic skills and, most important, their ability to understand English.
The center, which processes thousands of children each year, is working so well that officials from other districts have visited it to watch.
“Santa Ana is something of a port of entry city because there are so many newly arriving immigrants,” said Rose Marie Fontana, director of the school district’s bilingual programs. “This kind of facility serves everyone well, the students, the parents and the schools, because it provides accurate, valid testing for all students who have a language other than English.”
While all school districts in California are required by law to test a child’s academic skills in both English and the child’s primary language, Santa Ana is the first to open a separate facility for testing which also offers adult classes for parents while they wait, and one-stop inoculations for both children and parents.
The district, which is the county’s largest with about 43,000 students, processed 5,877 new students at the center during the 1989-90 school year — a record number. About 95% of them were Latino. The other 5% were Indochinese. This year, although they haven’t counted, officials expect to exceed the record.
The students undergo more than two hours of testing of their verbal skills and reading, writing and math ability. Parents then discuss the results with counselors and decide on a course of study.
The parents can choose the Immersion English Program, in which students are taught in English and given help in Spanish only when absolutely necessary, or the Transitional Language Program, in which daily instruction in English is given, but where reading, math and social studies are conducted in Spanish until the students are capable in English.
Fontana said 95% of parents choose the transitional program for a variety of reasons.
“We give neutral, unbiased information about each program, and the parents are given their choice. Both programs lead to English. Most parents choose bilingual so they can help their children with homework and know what their children are doing,” Fontana said.
The center’s 10 bilingual employees normally test about 35 students each day. But during the months of August and September, the number swells to about 100 per day. To deal with the overflow, employees have installed an outdoor canopy where they offer classes to parents during the two-hour wait.
In those classes, teachers from Rancho Santiago College talk about parenting, requirements for amnesty under immigration rules, English programs for adults, job applications and community services.
“It’s very important to us to make sure they know they can get help,” said instructor Michele Garcia-Jurado.
The district has also arranged for new students to be immunized at the center. Registered nurses from the County Health Care Agency come to the center two days a week to give the shots, which also are available to parents.
Esperanza Campos’ morning at the center provided answers she needed. Her children, above-average students in Mexico, had wanted to go to school in the United States. One son is an artist, Campos said as she produced his drawings from her purse. Another wants to be an astronaut, and her daughter hopes to be a doctor.
Campos chose to enroll her children in the bilingual program so they would not forget Spanish.
“All of our relatives are Mexican, and we have many traditions that I want them to know about,” she said. “But I think it is better for them to learn here. They will get a better education and there will be better opportunities.”
Blanca Lopez, 36, has similar hopes for her children, Carlos, 14, and Dana, 8. Although part of the family has lived in the United States for 10 years, Carlos had stayed in their native Honduras to live with his grandmother.
While Carlos will be in high school in the fall, he will attend specialized programs because his tests revealed that he is behind his peers in all academic subjects. Still, Lopez said she is confident that he will survive in the American school system and, eventually, thrive.
“He is very happy to be going to school here and to be living with us,” she said. “With a good education, my children can have professions and live well.”
Racial Breakdown This is an ethnic breakdown of the Santa Ana Unified School District: Student Population: About 43,000 Latino: 81% Black: 2% Asian & Pacific Islander: 9% White: 8% Source: Santa Ana Unified School District