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.
One morning, the early risers found a lamb staggering, dehydrated, its eyes rolling back in its head, and with the skills they'd learned in their vet tech class, they inserted an IV tube in its neck and started a bag of saline solution, saving its life.
On another morning, they found a cow giving birth to a breached calf.
"We all tried to pull that calf out," says teacher Trish Davis. Mother and calf are doing fine.
"So many people get the idea that this equine science program is a bunch of high school students who come down and pet horses all day, and that is really not the case," says parent Jeff Sparks.
In a greenhouse on the property, the students grow flats of flowers and herbs under Davis' supervision. Scattered among the buildings are landscaping projects with pools and trees and irrigation lines, an aviary with several species of birds that the students have raised, and a rodeo grounds.
There are eight labs in outbuildings behind the riding arena, labs that have made college instructors green with jealousy. They have sinks and Bunsen burners, yes, but also more esoteric pieces of equipment such as the freestanding, life-size cow's behind that is meant as a practicum for artificial-insemination techniques.
In the vet tech lab, students have assisted the school's full-time veterinarian, Dr. Melanie Pyeatt, as she removed a tumor from a horse's eyelid and a cancerous testicle from a stallion. The lab offers veterinary clinics for local people.
In yet another lab, 16-year-old Jennifer Gibson, a self-assured young lady, worked up a study that showed a link between waterborne streptococcus and a hoof disease that afflicts cattle; that work won her first place at the Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair and another award at the Maricopa County Fair, as well as awards from the Arizona Department of Agriculture, Kodak and SRP.
Students have also recently done studies on behalf of a local company that manufactures a chemical to clear out irrigation lines to see how that chemical affects the plants it comes in contact with.
And for fun, the Farm has a rodeo team, a tractor-driving team, a chapter of Future Farmers of America.
"This is agriculture as it should be," adds Trish Davis.
Dennis Fiscus of the Arizona Department of Education says, "We offer four types of ag programs in the entire state--animal science, plant science, horticulture and renewable natural resources. They're the only program that offers all four."
The students come out either college-bound or ready to work in stables, nurseries and the food industry. According to Dave Iwanski, executive vice president of the Agri-Business Council of Arizona, agriculture and agribusiness (food processing and other related industries) contribute about $32 billion each year to the state's budget, and many of the agribusiness companies, Iwanski says, "are having difficulty filling entry-level, high-paying jobs.
"To shut that program down just baffles me," says Iwanski.
Though the Farm is officially part of Carl Hayden High School, it is six miles away, which is a bone of contention for the lawyer Al Flores.
"It's off-campus, so the kids don't actually go to Carl Hayden," he says. The white students attracted by the magnet from outside Hayden's drawing area, in other words, really aren't mingling with the minority students, he contends. But Flores has lobbied the board against putting it at the proposed Cesar Chavez school, either.
A fact often glossed over by critics is that most of the Anglo students are urban kids from blue-collar families, not rich suburbanites taking advantage of the system. Misperceptions of the Farm do not stop there. Even former Carl Hayden principal Kino Flores (no relation to Al Flores) was at first afraid of cultural stereotyped baggage.
"When I came in, I questioned the same thing. I said, 'Hey, we're trying to get out of the fields, and now you're trying to put us back in,'" Kino Flores says.
"It's not about picking grapes, it's not about picking cotton," Jeff Sparks adds.
If the Farm is miles from Carl Hayden in distance, it is light-years away in mood.
"It's a little more wild there at Carl Hayden," Young says. "It's like you act wild with your friends, and when you're at your job, you act another way. You act wild at Carl Hayden, and then you come down here, it's like you're at your job. You're calm. I've learned to stop and think down here."
Young, who is African American, expects to get an internship with the U.S. Forest Service this summer and attend college next year to study zoology.
Flores says that minority students are underrepresented at the Farm, but in fact, 44 percent of the student population is minority, and it could be higher if the magnet program were structured differently; because the magnets were conceived as a means of balancing ethnic groups at the schools, a Hispanic student from South Mountain High School, for example, could not attend the Farm magnet because Carl Hayden High School, its parent, already has too many Hispanic students.
The parents and students at the Farm contend that Carl Hayden's guidance counselors have been steering kids away from the magnet, telling them that since it might not be around much longer anyway, why bother?
"They want you to go to other magnets, they don't say come up to the Farm," says Bobby Hoover.
Hoover, 15, is a former dropout and gangbanger who boasts of the fights and the legal troubles he's gotten into. Hoover is an urban white kid from a disadvantaged neighborhood. He jokes that he's worked so much with the Farm's horses that he's even learned to tolerate country-and-western music. His teachers have seen him channel his anger into hard work.
"It's amazing to watch the demeanor of a kid when he's working with an animal," Davis says.
And it's an inspiration to see a troubled kid find a future for himself in a career that's not only accessible to him but that he loves as well.
What happens to him after the Farm shuts down is anyone's guess. He will be another casualty of the greater good.
"What has happened with the agribusiness, equine center is that it's done an exceptionally marvelous job for the few," says former principal Kino Flores, who is now superintendent of the Tolleson School District. "That's not the intent of the deseg order."
"Since when do plaintiffs in a lawsuit run a school district?" one teacher asks, without bothering to mask the anger in her voice.
Al Flores has presided over the class-action lawsuit that has ruled the Phoenix Union High School District since 1982. Parents, teachers, businessmen, even school-board members curse and mutter at the perceived power he has over the district's decisions.
"Nobody appointed me anything," he says, "but I feel an obligation that if money is being misspent for the benefit of a small number of people when there is a great number of people who are suffering, then that money should be redirected."
The children on whose behalf Flores filed the original lawsuit are now in their 30s, and so when Flores repeatedly refers to "the plaintiffs," he is speaking symbolically.
"I think the community still exists out there," he says." There are still students in South Mountain High School that are getting the short end of the stick. There are still students at Carl Hayden who will soon be in the same situation as South Mountain High School students."
When Flores filed the suit in 1982, he was not defending symbols, but the rights of real neighborhood children to get the education they deserved. Because of financial difficulties, the Phoenix Union High School District shut down its four inner-city high schools, schools that had already been allowed to deteriorate. South Mountain was the only remaining high school south of Thomas Road from Tempe to Laveen.
The inner-city students, mostly minorities, were forced to find their own way on public transportation to the other schools in the district, which meant they had to get up at dawn. And if they wanted to participate in after-school activities, they ran the risk of being stranded, because there was no reliable evening bus service.
"These kids aren't the ones who get new Mustangs for their birthdays," Flores quips.
In March 1982, he filed a suit in federal court on behalf of 16 Hispanic students who attended downtown's Phoenix Union High School; it took its name--Castro v. Phoenix Union High School District--from the name of the first child named as a plaintiff. Another attorney filed on behalf of students at East High School, and the two cases were combined.
In August 1982, Judge Valdemar Cordova agreed that the district had eliminated the inner-city schools, and he ordered that two remain open and that the district become "closed," that is, that transfers from one school to another be regulated to keep them as racially and ethnically balanced as possible.
"A policy which allows virtually uncontrolled transfers from racial minority schools is tantamount to authorization for Anglo students to flee and perpetuates segregation," Cordova wrote in his ruling.
Flores says now that all he wanted was a neighborhood school when he filed the original suit. But it grew. The U.S. Department of Justice had also entered into the lawsuit, which by 1985 had passed into the courtroom of Judge Carl Muecke. Muecke signed a consent decree and desegregation order that had been worked out among the plaintiffs and the school district that would raise overall academic standards and equal educational opportunities in the district, and would create a series of magnet schools especially to attract Anglo students to minority schools.
The magnets were paid for with desegregation funds, monies that are federally mandated but come from taxes levied on district residents.
By 1995, the amount of desegregation funds in the Phoenix Union district budget had reached $32.6 million. Judge Muecke, who had been monitoring Castro v. Phoenix Union High School District through annual reports from the district, decided that the case was lying fallow, that no progress was being made regarding desegregation, and he ordered that the case be terminated (see "Does Not Work to Capacity," September 28, 1995).
The district, the Justice Department and Flores protested; Muecke relented. But everyone thought this was the time to reconsider the district's desegregation efforts.
Last year, the total desegregation funds for Phoenix Union almost reached $35 million, a full 26 percent of the total budget.
As board member Susan Fulton explains, "If that lawsuit goes away, under state law right now, we can continue to fund the programs that we're funding with it. But what was being rumbled in the legislative rules was that if the lawsuit goes away, we'll see if we can run a bill to change state law so that we can take the deseg money away."
Other board members agree that it's a risky business practice to build a budget around money that could so easily disappear.
"You've got a lot of people who are afraid that if you tell Flores, 'Butt out, we're running the school, this has an educational value, we're going to continue to fund it this way,' that he was going to then, in turn, demand that the judge appoint a special auditor, and he was going to demand to see how the funds were spent and we'd probably lose all $35 million," Fulton continues.
Doug Thomas, the board president, says he would invite anyone to examine the books. Thomas, who is also an attorney, and Dick Yetwin, the school district's attorney, both think that Flores is just posturing as any attorney would when he boasts that he'll take away the desegregation money.
"Al would have to go a long way to convince a federal judge," says Yetwin.
Flores wants the money to go into a new school, not magnet programs. Magnets, however attractive, just haven't done what they were intended to do: raise academic standards and opportunities and desegregate the district.
Between 1982, when the Flores suit was filed, and 1995, Anglo enrollment in the Phoenix Union High School District dropped from 11,500 to 5,800, while the Hispanic population rose from 5,000 to 11,600. Those eerily similar numbers show that one population quite literally displaced the other; meanwhile, the African-American population remained constant at about 2,500, and the Native American population grew from 535 to 738.
In May of 1996, Dr. Richard Valencia, a Texas college professor hired by Flores to analyze the magnet programs in the Phoenix Union district, issued an evaluation of the magnet programs. In his conclusion, Valencia writes, "It appears that Anglo students, particularly those of higher SES [socioeconomic status] background, have disproportionately benefited from the magnet programs. On the other hand, minority students, especially those of lower [socioeconomic] backgrounds, have not benefited the same degree from the magnet programs. From a pedagogical perspective, these contrasts make little sense--that is, providing greater advantage to those students who are, for the most part, already advantaged."
It's a Catch-22. The magnets were created to attract Anglo students. White students were in fact attracted to the magnets, but the overall district became more segregated rather than less. And minority students were not being attracted in sufficient numbers, whether because of counselors or cultural perceptions, the inability to transfer from other minority schools or just out of indifference. The Farm, for instance, could handle 300 students; it had 178 at its high point last year, fewer by the end of the semester.
"There is no question that the magnet schools are absolutely wonderful--and absolutely expensive," says Kino Flores.
There are about 4,000 students in the Phoenix Union district's 14 magnet programs, about 20 percent of the total school population. Sixty-four percent of those are minority students; 36 percent are Anglo. But the cost per student at those schools is an additional $1,056 to $8,088 per student per year above the per-student cost of the district as a whole, which is $4,717. That means that students in some magnet programs cost more than $12,800 per year to educate, nearly three times as much as those in the general school population. The Farm cost per student falls in the middle of that range at $3,247 additional cost per student per year.
"It's just an incredible amount of money for a very limited number of kids," says district board president Doug Thomas.
In fact, the school board has discussed eliminating all of the magnets to search for new strategies to satisfy the consent and decree order. And keep the desegregation funds in its budget.
Then what? Dr. Valencia's dreamy recommendations come straight out of Sesame Street.
"To avoid becoming a 90-100% minority district in the future," he writes, "PUHSD will need to be ingenuous [sic] in ways to improve the Anglo capture rate. One way, which I discussed earlier, is to develop an Effective Schools Model, in which high academic achievement is the foremost goal of education. As such, parents of all racial/ethnic backgrounds will want their children to enroll in the district."
Flores' goals are more modest and more realistic: Build a new school and they might stop rioting at South Mountain.
According to the court, that school is supposed to open in the fall of 1999. The Farm is in the way--literally, figuratively, economically.
At the end of August 1996, the school board and administration held an open meeting at Carl Hayden High School to show off their plans to use the agribusiness and equine magnet site for the new Cesar Chavez High School.
Down on the Farm, this was cause for much alarm. The parents and the school's advisory board, which comprises agri-businessmen, state agriculture officials and even U.S. Forest Service employees, formed an ad hoc committee to come up with alternatives to destroying the magnet facility.
Al Flores stood firm. In a December 11, 1996, letter to the school district's lawyer, he wrote, "Although the Farm may be an excellent program which probably increases the general quality of education within the District, the Farm does not advance the goals set forth in the Consent Decree and consequently cannot fairly continue to be funded with desegregation monies."
Still, on December 19, the school board voted to relocate the agribusiness program to Cesar Chavez High School, provided it could purchase 10 acres of land adjacent to the site, work out an Intergovernmental Agreement (or IGA) with the city to use some of its park land, and get approval from the court by April.
One member of the advisory board, David Iwanski of the Agri-Business Council of Arizona, a lobbying group for the agricultural industry, put his energies and some of his staffers to work and came up with a land swap.
A landowner named David Fretz was willing to trade 60 acres of vacant land directly across Baseline from the Farm for the school district's 38 acres, and then lease the Farm back to the district for a nominal fee. The school would then get the amount of land it needed, and the Farm could remain open.
Iwanski's staff then pushed legislation through the state government to allow the unimproved land to be traded for improved land.
But the deal fell through. The school district thought Fretz was getting the best of the bargain, and Fretz decided that he'd rather build houses on his land in the distant future rather than be saddled with a school building.
The ad hoc committee quickly set up another swap just down the road, this time with the help of the International Horse Foundation, a California-based group with representatives in Arizona. The foundation would set up a group of investors to purchase 55 acres of land which would be exchanged for the Farm, then leased back to the school district for one dollar a year. The investor group would be allowed to use the property for its own events and lease it out for other uses that would not interfere with school functions.
(The local foundation representative did not return calls.)
On March 20, the school board agreed to consider the proposal, but demanded that it be worked out in detail by April 17, a painfully short deadline. And the board also voted to cut desegregation funding for the equine portion of the magnet's curriculum.
"My response to that was that industry will find the money for that portion of the curriculum," says David Iwanski of the Agri-Business Council. Iwanski felt strongly that he could have come up with funding to keep the equine center open, if only there were enough time to pull off the land swap.
But the board wavered, worried that there really was not enough time to cut the particulars of the deal.
And Flores refused to yield, pointing out that if the architects were not allowed to draw up the final on-site plans for the school, it would never get built in time.
"I have extended the deadline twice," Flores says. "Hey, if you can have 60 acres, I'm all for it. I would love to have everything they want out there. But not at the expense of making it a small school. Not at the expense of these kids who have been trampled on over and over and over.
"They came back to me and said, 'What's one more year?'"
Then, to indicate how he responded, Flores extends his middle finger.
"No way. That's not going to happen."
As of this writing, the school district still had not worked out its IGA with the city over the additional land it needs for its full complement of athletic fields for the new school.
The Farm has been granted one more school year, and after that, the agribusiness component of the curriculum will be moved to the Carl Hayden campus. Three of its six teachers have already been fired. The equine component will be discontinued altogether.
Linda Proctor, who directs the program--and who refused to speak for attribution because she is an employee of the school district--has been granted a charter by the state department of education to start an agricultural charter school. She has entertained some offers to do so, but has not decided if or how she will do it.
In the interim, the Farm will be fenced off from the rest of the school construction site. Cesar Chavez will break ground as soon as possible. And if all goes according to plan, at the end of the next school year, the bulldozers will knock down the fence and head for the Farm.