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.

Children like Christina Valencia.
Valencia, who is 21, officially dropped out of high school in 1990, her senior year. Last year, after a few failed attempts at a General Equivalency Diploma, she started at one of Maricopa County's alternative schools and is finally set to graduate in December. But her success is unusual because, like many children of Guadalupe, Christina Valencia had one foot out the schoolhouse door almost from the time she started classes. Valencia went to Frank Elementary School, which is across the street from her house in the middle of Guadalupe. It was fun, and she did okay. For the most part, everyone knew everyone else, and the years just kind of passed along without fanfare or incident. Fees Junior High School was a little different, and a little farther away, but there were still a lot of other kids from Guadalupe there. Valencia got average grades for her school and passed through with no clue that she was slowly sliding behind other children her age. Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe revealed the gap. Valencia found herself academically, socially and economically behind from the first day of school.

Marcos de Niza takes in about 75 freshmen per year from Guadalupe. The remainder of the student body comes mainly from upper- and middle-income households in Tempe, including posh communities like the Lakes.

When Guadalupe kids talk about high school, the first thing most of them mention is that the other kids dress differently. Meaning that Guadalupe kids, for the most part, lack the fashionably correct looks and labels of the general student population. "They think we're all gang members or something. That's just the way they classify us, because we don't dress like them," Valencia explains from the immaculate home she shares with a caboodle of relatives, but no air conditioner.

Valencia is not one to talk about school unless specifically asked. She started high school and stumbled. "I was falling behind. The classes are big, and the teachers don't get to know you," Valencia says, looking up shyly. "They don't really help you, like if you don't understand something."

Other kids seemed to be way ahead. "They knew more than we did. It's like you would do a problem or something, and they knew the answer right away, and so you knew you were slow," Valencia says. High school can be one of the best things about adolescence. It's where memories and lifelong bonds are made. It's also an enormous, often-intimidating bureaucracy, and navigating it can be a daunting challenge, especially if you're outside the norm. It's a lot of little things: fees for lockers, sports, labs and parking, to name just a few. They are among the things that Guadalupe's kids can't afford. The things that keep them separate.

After-school activities and sports require money and transportation.
Few of the kids from Guadalupe, Valencia says, go to school dances. "They don't like having to dress up. They don't have transportation, and you feel out of place, anyway, so why go?"

Valencia also had her share of fights. "I was jealous of them," she says through a beautiful smile connecting the round cheeks under doe-brown, almond-shaped eyes.

"I knew they were going to graduate, and I wasn't."
A lot of her peers in Guadalupe, Valencia explains, grow up somewhat ashamed of their race. There are few people who look like them at school, and even fewer in positions of authority.

"People will say things like, 'Oh, you don't want to do anything. You just want everything given to you. You live off the government.' It's not true. We try very hard.

"After a while, you just feel like you're nothing, and you don't want to go anymore."
So she didn't.
Her grandmother would wake her up and lecture her about going to school. She would leave the house and turn the other way. Sometimes, she went to school and then ditched classes. Attendance is a problem for a lot of kids in Guadalupe. Going to school means riding a crowded bus, for lack of other transportation. If you miss the bus, you miss school.

If a doctor's appointment or some family need comes up during the day--tending younger brothers and sisters, for example--there is no way to get home. So students are likely to stay home altogether, to be on the safe side.

And then there's the matter of religion. Most of Guadalupe is Catholic.
About the biggest thing going in Guadalupe is the traditional Lenten celebration, re-creating the resurrection of Christ. Ceremonies take place at Guadalupe Yaqui Temple every Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon during the seven weeks before Easter.

Holy Week, the week before Easter, is most sacred and, in Guadalupe, celebrated with nearly nonstop events, day and night. Spring break for Tempe Union High School District, however, is scheduled earlier in March.

Therefore, many Guadalupe students are off a week of school during spring break--and then miss a few Fridays and another week for Lent. The lost time is enough to send some students over the edge and out of school.

It happened to Valencia, and her high school experience is an all-too-common scenario here, says Mike Matwick, dropout prevention coordinator at Marcos de Niza High. "They wind up in a class where they are going to immediately experience failure, and these kids are at rock bottom of academic self-esteem," Matwick says. "There's this whole history of negative experiences and repeated failure and having that feeling that you don't belong."

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