One of the city’s most perplexing examples is the location of two elementary schools; they sit diagonally from each other on the same block—both directly adjacent to Marco Forster Middle School. Kinoshita Elementary is overwhelmingly Latino, while Del Obispo Elementary is predominantly white.

This is in stark, even ironic, contrast to the history-making Mendez vs. Westminster, the famous local civil-rights case that set the legal precedent for Brown vs. Board of Education and made “Mexican only” schools illegal in California.

“I’m not on a school board, and I can’t speak for the way they’re drawing their lines,” says San Juan Capistrano City Council member Lon Uso. “But I believe that they should make an effort whenever possible to have the most diversity that they possibly can in any school.

San Juan Capistrano's four public elementary schools are within a four-mile radius of one another. Inset: district officials say nothing can be done about the disparities at the two nearby schools
San Juan Capistrano's four public elementary schools are within a four-mile radius of one another. Inset: district officials say nothing can be done about the disparities at the two nearby schools
Kinoshita Elementary School principal Erick Fineberg, left, and Del Obispo Elementary school principal Eric Gruenewald say their focus is on students, not demographics
Jonathan Ho
Kinoshita Elementary School principal Erick Fineberg, left, and Del Obispo Elementary school principal Eric Gruenewald say their focus is on students, not demographics

“With Kinoshita and Del Obispo, you can throw a rock and hit the other school,” he continues. “And to have two schools that are so different in their populations . . . I don’t know. It does give you reason to think.”

*     *     *

Preserved and doted on by residents and tourists alike, San Juan Capistrano has maintained what few cities in the county can boast: a small-town core that fans out from the 200-year-old Mission San Juan Capistrano. The bucolic, 14-square-mile valley is one of the only outposts in South County with old narrow streets, historic neighborhoods, and the peculiar and heartily celebrated trek made by Argentine cliff swallows, who for more than a century have returned yearly to build their mud nests at the Mission. The language found on street signs and used to describe old neighborhoods such as “Los Rios” is a reminder of the city’s Spanish then Mexican incarnations before the U.S. nabbed California.

Not more than a couple of miles south from the city’s heart are Del Obispo and Kinoshita elementary schools. The two are a 57-second car drive apart, and each is visible from the other’s back yard. The schools are considered—most often casually and quietly, other times publicly—to be emblematic of the ethnic separation within San Juan Capistrano’s public schools.

In recent years, Kinoshita has become the most ethnically and socioeconomically isolated school in the district, which encompasses 56 schools in seven cities. Close to 95 percent of its students are Latino, 78 percent are learning English and 88 percent are poor. A hop, skip and a walk around the corner sits Del Obispo, which has a majority white population; 32 percent of students are Latino, one-fifth are learning English and 33 percent are poor.

San Juan Capistrano is the only city in South County that reflects the demographic twists and turns California has taken the past few decades: 33 percent of its 34,000 residents are Hispanic and 62 percent are non-Hispanic white.

Although they can peer into each other’s playgrounds, the kids at Kinoshita and Del Obispo don’t freely choose to go to one or the other school. Lines have been drawn and redrawn by the school district, fought over like micro-borders, to determine who will go to school where. With 52,000 students scattered over an area of ongoing development, CUSD is considered a “growth” district and, consequently, almost yearly goes through a boundary-redrawing process that shuffles groups of students around in order to relieve overcrowding or fill up newly built schools. The process almost always causes considerable outcry from parents.

“Everyone knows that if you’re white in this town, you send your kids to Del Obispo or Ambuehl and not to Kinoshita or San Juan Elementary,” says a prominent local parent who wishes to remain anonymous. The other two schools she mentions, Ambuehl and San Juan, sit less than a mile and a half from each other, but are almost as ethnically and socioeconomically disparate as the first two. (San Juan Elementary’s former status as the district’s most ethnically isolated school has changed in the past few years as families from around South County have enrolled in its dual-language-immersion magnet program, where all students are taught to be fluent in both English and Spanish, beginning in kindergarten.)

*     *     *

Yohana Sandoval remembers making harried efforts to catch up to the rest of her class when she was a student at San Juan Elementary in the late 1980s. She had arrived from Mexico with her parents at a time when the small town was less than one-fifth Latino but full of tourist-driven nostalgia for its Spanish/Mexican past. Her parents settled into one of the now predominantly Latino neighborhoods known as “The Carolinas,” a cluster of neat, well-tended small homes and apartments closed in by a gate near downtown. The 8-year-old Sandoval, who could read and write in Spanish but spoke no English, joined the nearby school.

She remembers a healthy cultural mix at the city’s oldest elementary school, which was built when the county still had wide swaths of open, undeveloped land in 1964. Within a year, Sandoval was placed in all-English classes. “I learned English faster than my peers who had grown up here with Spanish-speaking backgrounds probably because I already knew my primary language pretty well,” she says. “I knew how to read and write.”

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