By Matthew Hendley
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"Our student population was not getting a good education. Part of the concern was that they were shutting down Phoenix Union High School. The excuse was that it economically didn't pay off to keep it open," says Tom Espinoza, another Hispanic leader behind the suit and a former president of the State Board of Education.
"We had to confront the issue from the standpoint of our kids having a fair education. The only way to do it was to force the school district into a suit."
It was agreed that the district would create attendance zones for each school, and add special programs at Carl Hayden Community and South Mountain high schools--the two serving large minority populations in south and southwest Phoenix--in order to integrate them.
Already keeping a close eye on school segregation and discrimination, the Department of Justice followed with its own action, which resulted in a federal court order to desegregate Phoenix Union High School District in 1985. The order dictated that the district use a series of magnet programs to achieve ethnic balance in its schools. It also mandated "racial/ethnic balance in the district's schools and equal educational opportunities for all students" be the criteria for future actions of the district. The district was required to report its ethnic breakdown annually to the Department of Justice.
Buried inside the 13-page desegregation order is one sentence of tragic irony. It reads:
"Foremost among the district's goals is the improvement of academic achievement levels of all students."
That didn't happen. Educating kids wasn't as important as getting the body count right. One administrator characterizes Phoenix Union's history this way: "What was important was how many white kids you had in your school."
There was a time when Phoenix Union High School District's magnet program was envied by educators across the nation, even used as a model for other school districts.
Magnet programs offer specialty classes inside a high school. Students take them along with their required basic subjects. The magnets were originally designed to attract Anglo students into predominantly minority schools, but continued to grow with the district. Now there are 13 magnet programs offered at eight high schools, like the law magnet program at South Mountain High School and the International Studies program at Central High School. (For a complete list, see box on page XX.)
While any student may sign up for magnet classes offered at his or her school, only 4,000 of the 21,000 students in the Phoenix Union High School District are enrolled in a magnet program.
The magnets undeniably offer opportunities that kids here would otherwise never have. Few students at South Mountain would meet lawyers or compete in mock-trial competitions were it not for the magnet program there. For many, the magnet programs are a reason to come to school.
The magnet programs have, as well, achieved desegregation in the Phoenix Union High School District. For the past three years or so, the district has been within federal goals of ethnic mix in all of its schools.
But it has come at a price.
The district spent $6.2 million in federal grant money--above its regular desegregation budget--to start agribusiness, aerospace and marine biology magnet programs.
The agribusiness/equine studies center under the umbrella of Carl Hayden Community High School compares to a university facility. The center, which sits on more than 20 acres in Laveen, includes indoor and outdoor arenas, barns, stables, a biotechnology lab, a greenhouse and a computer lab. Its students run the farm, work at internships and earn college credit. The agribusiness magnet costs more than $500,000 a year to operate.
South Mountain High School's aerospace magnet program teaches aviation mechanics, air-traffic control and other aeronautical subjects to 335 students. Some of them even leave with a pilot's license, but they are relatively few. Only 100 of them are taking more than one class. The program costs more than $900,000 a year to operate.
The marine/environmental sciences magnet, started in 1994, houses aquariums, display cases, lab stations, large saltwater tanks and a 120-gallon freshwater "show" tank. Each of the 141 students in the program has access to a computer with CD-ROM laser-disc players, microvideo systems, scanners and color printers. The students also go to Sea World, Catalina Island and Oak Creek Canyon. Last year, 18 students received their scuba diving certification at San Carlos, Mexico. Three received Advanced Certification in Navigation. The program cost $2.2 million to get off the ground.
But even with all the money and facilities, the magnet programs have not brought academic success to Phoenix Union. According to a 1993 evaluation of the district's magnet programs, done by an independent research group, there is no evidence that students in magnet programs showed any higher overall gain in national norm reference test scores than students who are not in a magnet program. The magnet programs didn't make any significant difference in dropouts, either, according to the study.
"It has helped with student achievement. It has not helped with our overall graduation rate," Superintendent Ren‚ Diaz says. "With our district becoming a minority district, I see our responsibility now that we need to start restructuring and re-forming our current magnet programs. Maybe doing away with some of them."