By Friday morning, the lawn chairs, the steaming coffee and the heated discussions over educational policy were already in place on a small strip of grass outside Greenville Fundamental Elementary School.
Taking part in an annual ritual, hundreds of parents had lined up to register their children for one of 50 openings at what many consider one of the district’s best schools.
“Your kids are going to be here seven years,” said Jeff Philleo, 23, who was one of the first in line Thursday afternoon, hours before the traditional midnight start. “What’s a couple of nights?”
But as the annual lineup leading up to today’s registration was underway, school board members were laboring to eliminate the long lines at fundamental schools such as Greenville, which stress back-to-basics themes including English-only instruction, parent involvement and strict dress codes.
After years of lobbying by parents, a new mix of Santa Ana Unified School District trustees has voted in the past two months to increase the number of fundamental schools from four to seven.
And Tuesday, trustees are expected to consider designating Saddleback High School as the district’s first fundamental high school.
Fundamental schools, which were begun nearly two decades ago, have become shining lights in the school district because their students have achieved above-average test scores. But as Friday’s line attests, they are prone to long waiting lists.
The schools have no neighborhood boundaries, operating instead on a first-come, first-served basis. Siblings of current students, though, are given priority.
The first of the newly designated fundamental schools will open in September, when renovations are completed. The other two recently designated fundamental schools are expected to open in 1998, while construction on another, named in 1994, will begin in June.
But as the school board has increased the number of fundamental schools, it has indicated a willingness to expand the rules a bit with year-round schedules, priority for students in the immediate surrounding areas, and some instruction in students’ home-spoken, non-English language.
Such details are to be worked out by board members, in consultation with parent committees. Further discussion is scheduled for Tuesday’s board meeting.
Trustee Robert W. Balen and many parents say that the board has gone too far in tinkering with the definition of fundamental schools, and has named some that are not in line with the original concept. Making them neighborhood schools would mean that some less-than-committed parents will have children attending, they say. And they see allowing bilingual education as reneging on one of the fundamental schools’ big selling points.
“What is a fundamental school if we’re doing that? What are we approving?” asked Balen, who opposed the newly designated fundamental schools.
A number of parents share Balen’s concern.
“They [the school board] don’t want the same things as Greenville,” said Roland Lujan, president of the Greenville parent-faculty organization. “They want the same results.”
The results Lujan and others often point to include test scores. The 1995-96 Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills showed that the districtwide average first-grade reading score was 40; for Greenville first-graders, it was 59. By the fifth grade, the districtwide average reading score was 17; for Greenville fifth-graders, it was 55.
Theories abound as to why Santa Ana’s fundamental schools have produced standout test scores. While a high level of parent involvement is often cited, some note that involvement is high at other schools and they add that test scores are not the only indicators of success.
For Kesha Martinez, among the parents in line Friday, one big advantage is English-only instruction: “I just want my daughter to learn the proper English before she learns Spanish. I want [her] to go to a school that has English-only.”
Whatever it is that makes fundamental schools successful, board members have indicated that the concept is open to interpretation.
“We need to be a little more flexible,” board President Nativo V. Lopez said at a recent meeting, “but at the same time, embracing 95% of all the other [fundamental school] characteristics.”
Lopez, for example, has indicated a willingness to allow some foreign-language instruction.
But if trustees make the wrong calculations, they will once again be faced with parents scrambling to get their children into Greenville, Muir Elementary and MacArthur Intermediate schools, said school activist Wendy Tobiska.
“Will the line go away?” she asked. “Maybe it won’t.”
However, one thing seems clear.
“The name ‘fundamental’ has such a mystique in this district and this city,” said Deputy Supt. Joseph Tafoya, “that everyone wants to have their school named that because they think it will make it better.”