The creation of specially tailored schools is a political hot potato that seems to have more to do with who's doing the tailoring than anything else. Educators have increasingly embraced the idea of alternative schools for dropouts and others who have trouble making it in the mainstream education system. But when an alternative school is proposed by an ethnic community, to serve members of that ethnic group, eyebrows rise. The school board in Dade County, Florida, last month approved an emergency plan to open schools specifically for new immigrants from Cuba and Haiti.

New York operates three high schools specifically serving immigrant students. But Leadership Secondary School in New York City, a high school intended to emphasize Hispanic culture and bilingual learning, was stopped from opening last year after the city's board of education faced a legal challenge that contended the school would be ethnically segregated. Similar challenges halted schools designed to serve African-American males in New York and Detroit. The New York school was allowed to open after agreeing to admit all students. However, it continues to be populated primarily by African-American males. The issue sparked recent controversy in Arizona when Lisa Graham, on the campaign trail in her bid for the office of superintendent of public instruction, backed the idea of charter schools in Hispanic communities. Specifically, Graham supported the vision of Armando Ruiz and Tom Espinoza. Their school would be open to all students, but would be located in the center of a predominantly Hispanic community in South Phoenix. The school would, therefore, almost certainly have a Hispanic majority.

Ruiz, a former state senator, hails from South Phoenix's most politically active family, at least three members of which have either held elected office, or worked, in the public education system. Espinoza is a developer, a former member of the state board of education and a founder of Chicanos por la Causa, a Hispanic social-service agency.

Supporting them are about 20 to 30 other community members, parents and educators. Their idea is to expand the Little Lamb Montessori Preschool, just east of Central Avenue in South Phoenix, until it includes all elementary school grades. "We live here. We may be the only adults in that kid's life showing them we care. We're there to ask, 'What are you doing with your life? Are you messing around on the street? Are you doing your homework?'

"We know the school. It's right here in the community. Everybody goes there for something, whether it's a community meeting or a dance or something."
The school is designed around the idea that the community must teach morals and a generic brand of spirituality--subject areas most schools have avoided for fear of being sued. To its supporters, the school is an integral part of the future of this community. "What we're attempting to do is build the concept of values in the community, and using school to grow the next generation of leadership," Ruiz says.

Many of today's dropouts, in South Phoenix and other Hispanic communities, are the children of dropouts. And their children will be, too, says Ruiz, unless the cycle is broken now. Historically, it is not until the third generation of U.S. residence that someone from an immigrant family goes on to college. But Arizona's burgeoning Hispanic population--nearly half of which isn't graduating from high school--can expect an even longer wait. "There are a number of generations that have now passed. Kids came out of the 1960s and 1970s who fell into the spiral of going down, not up," says Ruiz. "There have been two decades of major deterioration of family and individuals in our communities. Now we are taking over. We will do whatever we can do to secure our children's future. Charter schools just happen to be the vehicle for that."

It's a new twist on an old issue. In 1954, the fight was about allowing minorities in the public school system. The claim was that separate schools for minorities would never be equal to those serving the white majority.

Today, some Hispanic activists feel that charter schools can give their children something better than public schools--integrated or segregated--ever will.

"I don't think there should ever be a system in place that could refuse somebody because of race or religion or ethnicity," says Espinoza. "But I would fight [desegregation]," he adds. "You can't prove to us that it's worked, because it hasn't. And what was the intent of the law? That children be educated. Why force something on our community that hasn't worked?"
Ironically, Hispanics could have taken control of a good number of Arizona school districts already. The state's education system is built around the concept of local control, and most power in that system lies with local school boards whose members are elected. Hispanics make up a majority in many districts.

But their numbers never translated into muscle at the polls or in the schools.
School-board races traditionally bring in the lowest voter turnouts of any type of election. And regardless of how vocal their leaders are, Hispanic communities, especially poor Hispanic communities, vote in even lower numbers, on a percentage basis, than other ethnic groups. The reasons are manifold. Inability to speak English. Unfamiliarity with the school system. Intimidation by the school and election bureaucracy.

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