SEPARATE BUT MAS QUE IGUAL

NEARLY HALF OF ARIZONA'S HISPANIC CHILDREN DROP OUT OF PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOLS. SOME PARENTS THINK THE SOLUTION IS HISPANIC CHARTER SCHOOLS.

Nestled near the southwestern corner of Tempe, just south of Baseline Road and east of the I-10 freeway, the three-square-mile town of Guadalupe is cursed with limited infrastructure but adorned with brightly colored buildings that make it look more like Mexico than Arizona. Guadalupe's 5,600 residents are primarily Hispanic or Yaqui Indian. The town welcomes about 145 babies into the world every year, which keeps the median age at 22. Nearly every household falls well below the government's official poverty marker.

Guadalupe's children go to high school in Tempe. On average, more than 65 percent of them don't graduate. It's not a new problem.

By and large, Hispanic kids in Arizona don't fit into a system designed for English-speaking children of middle-income, two-parent, nuclear families. Forty-four percent of Hispanic students in Arizona drop out of high school. The situation is even worse in Guadalupe, where just 32 percent of the entire town has graduated from high school. "The system does not meet the needs of these children. A lot of it has to do with racism. It has to do with the attitude and the way the education system views Hispanics and bilingual education," says Amalia Villegas, who runs South Mountain Community College's Guadalupe Learning Center.

Now, though, the Maricopa County Accommodation School District is set to open an alternative school in Guadalupe. Starting later this month, the Guadalupe school will operate from 8 a.m. to noon, with two classes five days per week and no frills in between. The daily schedule is designed so that students can work full-time after school. Their spring break is during Holy Week. Alternative schools traditionally serve students who drop out or are kicked out of high school somewhere else. The rules are strict, and it's generally considered a school of last resort.

In Guadalupe, however, the new school could become the classroom of first resort.

Any student may apply; having failed somewhere else is not a requirement. By design, the school happens to address most of the problems Guadalupe kids have in making a transition to traditional high school--problems of poverty, culture and even religion. Most of all, the school will be located in the community, which makes it both convenient and familiar. Most students will likely be from Guadalupe.

If it follows the path of its predecessors, the school will be successful. Because of its location, it will also wind up being, for all intents and purposes, an all-minority school. It will wind up being that way by design.

And it is a design that may create legal waves.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the purposeful segregation of schools by race to be unconstitutional. The ruling, known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, convulsed the nation, as schools from the Deep South to New England were served with court orders to integrate--and white communities across the nation protested the cross-town busing those orders entailed.

But 40 years later, segregation is coming back. This time, there's no George Wallace standing at the schoolhouse door, no minority phalanx fighting to get in. Quite the opposite, in fact. The minorities are struggling to get out. They want their own schools.

And now they have Arizona law behind them. A law that says separate but equal might just be better.

While educators and politicians spent the past few legislative sessions fighting over a failed attempt to legalize private school vouchers, a seemingly innocuous proposal to allow the creation of charter schools went through virtually unopposed.

The legislation allows various groups to form their own schools within the public school system, free from the state mandates that structure education. Charter schools are to be optional and equally open to all who wish to attend.

All of this seemed fairly uninteresting compared to the great debate over spending public money, via vouchers, in private schools.

Then Hispanics started stepping up to the plate. And with them were plans for schools in predominantly Hispanic communities, serving, by and large, Hispanic children.

The issue is simply dissatisfaction with public education. But the Hispanic move toward charter schools poses a demographic challenge to the sacred ideal of integration. It is a challenge that may force the school system to rethink the issue of bilingual and bicultural education.

After years of frustration with a high dropout rate, low achievement and a failure to address other needs of both immigrant and Chicano students, some Hispanic community leaders believe their only hope is to create their own schools.

"It is an awakening to the community to say, 'No one else can come in and take care of our problems for us,'" says Armando Ruiz, director of youth programs at South Mountain YMCA.

Hispanic-charter-school advocates want their children to learn English. But they want them to learn other things, too. They want a challenging, bilingual curriculum that teaches the values of their community; they want more time for their children to learn, and more bicultural teachers to learn from; and they want a school where children and their parents feel comfortable. It's not much different than what everyone else wants. But they've lost faith in the public education system's ability to deliver for their children.

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