By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
What would you call a public high school where students invent pregnancy tests for livestock? Where they run genetic tests on plants for local companies? Where they design their own equestrian helmets and get them marketed by a major sportswear company? A school whose teachers win national awards? A school that has been a national model?
Call it history.
The Center for Agribusiness and Equine Science is a magnet program affiliated with Carl Hayden Community High School in the Phoenix Union High School District. Its supporters and detractors--and there are plenty of both--call it the Farm. It's got eight labs and an indoor horse ring, which cost more than $2.6 million to build in 1990 and have cost about a half-million dollars a year since then to operate.
"It's a nationally top-ranked program," says Dennis Fiscus, supervisor of agricultural education for the state. "People have come from all over the nation and looked at that program and patterned their programs after it, including the buildings."
But at the end of the 1997-98 school year, the model program and $5 million investment will be bulldozed to make way for a much-needed new high school.
At risk is $35 million in federally mandated desegregation funds, a full 26 percent of the Phoenix Union High School District budget. That money could be yanked if a federal court judge's order to build the new school by fall of 1999 is not met.
And financial threats notwithstanding, the goals of 170-some students in a magnet program pale next to the needs of the district's 6,000 students south of Interstate 10 who are crammed into two high schools.
And because the school district already owns the property that the magnet sits on, building the new school there seems a clear-cut, cost-effective decision.
But to the parents of the students who attend the agribusiness and equine center, it seems the uncompromising destruction of a bastion of educational excellence and relevance. Agriculture, after all, is the state's biggest industry, and the students who come out of the magnet program, for the most part, have marketable job skills and ready access to college scholarships. And for that reason, state agriculture lobbies have joined with the parents to search--unsuccessfully so far--for ways to keep the facility open.
The Farm, like all of Phoenix Union's magnet programs, came out of a 1985 federal desegregation order, and its purpose was to attract Anglo students into a predominantly Hispanic school. It appears to have done that.
Even so, the same federal court case that created the magnet is now going to plow it under. Ironically, the Farm is viewed as a use of desegregation money to the disproportionate benefit of white kids, who by definition, in these politically correct times, are advantaged.
"I think it's a good program with a limited number of folks that it serves," says Al Flores, the downtown lawyer who filed the original suit in 1982. "But it's not the folks that should be benefiting from the work I did and the decision that the court made and what the law requires. I can't live with it."
Flores has made it clear that he does not want the equine science portion of the Farm's curriculum--which comprises horse care and horsemanship--included in the new high school or paid for with desegregation money. And if he doesn't get his way, he is threatening to go to court to get all the district's desegregation funds taken away.
"It's a very delicate situation," says Doug Thomas, president of the Phoenix Union High School District school board. "If [the parents and business interests] really want to push a fight with the deseg plaintiffs, there's a risk that the deseg judge would say, 'Later!' There goes $35 million of your budget."
And in fact, however good the magnets may be academically, they aren't accomplishing their designated functions of reversing the district's slide toward segregation while providing equal education opportunities to all students in the district.
The Farm may just be one more domino falling. Magnets at three other high schools have already been axed. The Farm will have one more year before its equine program is discontinued and its agribusiness component is folded into the Carl Hayden campus. The board and school administration, meanwhile, are restructuring the magnet program and contemplating its complete elimination.
Which may be a necessary tragedy. The majority rules, even if it comprises minorities. In the interest of the 6,000 kids who need a new school to relieve overcrowding, a school district whose students perform below national averages will scuttle a showcase program that serves only a few.
From Baseline Road at 39th Avenue, downtown Phoenix looks like Oz rising above the vacant fields that were once real farms. The agribusiness magnet school sits on 38 acres there, nestled up against Cesar Chavez Park; the new high school will need to freeload from the city parks department in order to have all the space and athletic fields that high schools must have these days.
The Farm looks nothing like a school; it has a massive indoor horse ring that shares a roof with stables and a lab and an office. At the close of this school year, there were 20 horses, a number of cows and goats, and rabbits that the students raised for sale. Students hang around before and after classes, as if this were their own farm. Some come near dawn to do chores and feed animals and then linger long into the afternoon.