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"Clearly, the numbers are showing that we could be doing much more," says Diaz. "When 1,000 students show up as freshmen and only 500 graduate, something is wrong. If our graduation rate was 95 percent, I might buy that it's the students. But 50 percent says it's the system."
Ironically, the federal demand for integration may be one of the very things standing in the way of improving the school system. When it ordered desegregation, the federal government allowed Phoenix Union to collect more money from its taxpayers--$32.6 million more this year.
But the money came with strings attached. It could be used only toward integrating the schools.
Desegregation money cannot be used to reduce class sizes across the board, cannot put computers in every classroom, and cannot pay for year-round school or dropout prevention programs or remedial classes unless they're somehow incorporated into a magnet program.
More than 6,200 students in the district come to school speaking one of 36 languages other than English--5,723 of them speak primarily Spanish. But as long as it's under the court order, the district cannot send those students to a comprehensive bilingual or multilingual school because that would fly in the face of integration. It can only allocate the money into English As a Second Language classes given as part of the regular school day.
It is the subject of much debate, but studies show that children without English skills perform much better in a comprehensive bilingual education program.
But the federal mandate is hardly the only problem facing the district's new superintendent. He's got to change the culture of an entire organization entrenched in bureaucracy and tattooed with failure.
His goal is a 70 percent graduation rate by the year 2000. That means meeting very specific annual goals, including a 3 percent increase this year.
Principals have to achieve the goal in their schools. Department heads have to achieve the goal in their departments. Teachers have to achieve the goal in their classrooms. Diaz breaks down data to teacher and ethnicity and gender and, practically, the student in row three.
But his success rests on his ability to change the thinking and the values of his district. To change the priorities from regulations and body count to teaching, learning and graduating.
Diaz talks about what he did as principal at Maryvale High School.
"I walked around the campus visiting classes, just even for five minutes or so. You'd be surprised what a difference that makes. We changed assemblies from sports-driven to academics," he says, laughing. "The coaches were outraged.
"We made it a place where instruction was valued. . . . No excuses. This is what is important. I value this. This is what I want to see," he says.
"We have to change the culture. Every meeting, every discussion, everything we do will focus on achievement."
One plan is year-round school, replacing the 18-week semester with 45-day instructional increments, separated by a 15-day break. At South Mountain High School, overcrowding may soon give the district no other choice. The school has more than 3,000 students enrolled.
An even more complicated proposal would turn Central High School into a charter school--and a test case for other schools in the entire district.
The magnet programs are likely to at least be tinkered with, although unlikely to be scrapped, because of the tremendous capital investment they represent.
"Under a magnet structure, the outcomes are not completely academic," board member Joe Eddie Lopez says. "Why would anybody expect academic results if you're just trying to get kids into a school?
"Without stressing academic achievement, the magnets become pretty meaningless. If our students are not eligible to take advantage of that [magnet] and pursue that field at the universities, it's doing very little."
And if the district doesn't start showing an increase in achievement, the magnet programs are going to be history. Without a federal order for their existence, it's not likely that anyone will support their funding.
Investigators from the Department of Justice are scheduled for a visit in October. A plan has to be filed with the court by the end of November.
If the desegregation order is lifted, the district's funding could be capped at its current level or cut back over a period of years. However, without a federal court mandate, state legislators could easily take all $32.6 million away.
And that is the immediate fear of everyone in the school district.
"I'm not sure what business could operate without a quarter of its budget," Diaz says.
Unfortunately, he may soon find out.
Albert Flores has moved the boxes of files about Phoenix Union High School District out of the warehouse where they've been for the better part of a decade since he represented plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the district. Now, yellowed and water-stained, they're spread out on the floor of what appears to be a war room in Flores' downtown law office. He's preparing to go back into battle with the school district. "A lot of people are saying forget the desegregation, forget the money, let's work on education," Flores says. "This plan wasn't perfect by any means," he adds. "But I'd file the lawsuit again tomorrow if it were not equitable.
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