Nestled near the southwestern corner of Tempe, just south of Baseline Road and east of the I-10 freeway, the three-square-mile town of Guadalupe is cursed with limited infrastructure but adorned with brightly colored buildings that make it look more like Mexico than Arizona. Guadalupe's 5,600 residents are primarily Hispanic or Yaqui Indian. The town welcomes about 145 babies into the world every year, which keeps the median age at 22. Nearly every household falls well below the government's official poverty marker.
Guadalupe's children go to high school in Tempe. On average, more than 65 percent of them don't graduate. It's not a new problem.
By and large, Hispanic kids in Arizona don't fit into a system designed for English-speaking children of middle-income, two-parent, nuclear families. Forty-four percent of Hispanic students in Arizona drop out of high school. The situation is even worse in Guadalupe, where just 32 percent of the entire town has graduated from high school. "The system does not meet the needs of these children. A lot of it has to do with racism. It has to do with the attitude and the way the education system views Hispanics and bilingual education," says Amalia Villegas, who runs South Mountain Community College's Guadalupe Learning Center.
Now, though, the Maricopa County Accommodation School District is set to open an alternative school in Guadalupe. Starting later this month, the Guadalupe school will operate from 8 a.m. to noon, with two classes five days per week and no frills in between. The daily schedule is designed so that students can work full-time after school. Their spring break is during Holy Week. Alternative schools traditionally serve students who drop out or are kicked out of high school somewhere else. The rules are strict, and it's generally considered a school of last resort.
In Guadalupe, however, the new school could become the classroom of first resort.
Any student may apply; having failed somewhere else is not a requirement. By design, the school happens to address most of the problems Guadalupe kids have in making a transition to traditional high school--problems of poverty, culture and even religion. Most of all, the school will be located in the community, which makes it both convenient and familiar. Most students will likely be from Guadalupe.
If it follows the path of its predecessors, the school will be successful. Because of its location, it will also wind up being, for all intents and purposes, an all-minority school. It will wind up being that way by design.
And it is a design that may create legal waves.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the purposeful segregation of schools by race to be unconstitutional. The ruling, known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, convulsed the nation, as schools from the Deep South to New England were served with court orders to integrate--and white communities across the nation protested the cross-town busing those orders entailed.
But 40 years later, segregation is coming back. This time, there's no George Wallace standing at the schoolhouse door, no minority phalanx fighting to get in. Quite the opposite, in fact. The minorities are struggling to get out. They want their own schools.
And now they have Arizona law behind them. A law that says separate but equal might just be better.
While educators and politicians spent the past few legislative sessions fighting over a failed attempt to legalize private school vouchers, a seemingly innocuous proposal to allow the creation of charter schools went through virtually unopposed.
The legislation allows various groups to form their own schools within the public school system, free from the state mandates that structure education. Charter schools are to be optional and equally open to all who wish to attend.
All of this seemed fairly uninteresting compared to the great debate over spending public money, via vouchers, in private schools.
Then Hispanics started stepping up to the plate. And with them were plans for schools in predominantly Hispanic communities, serving, by and large, Hispanic children.
The issue is simply dissatisfaction with public education. But the Hispanic move toward charter schools poses a demographic challenge to the sacred ideal of integration. It is a challenge that may force the school system to rethink the issue of bilingual and bicultural education.
After years of frustration with a high dropout rate, low achievement and a failure to address other needs of both immigrant and Chicano students, some Hispanic community leaders believe their only hope is to create their own schools.
"It is an awakening to the community to say, 'No one else can come in and take care of our problems for us,'" says Armando Ruiz, director of youth programs at South Mountain YMCA.
Hispanic-charter-school advocates want their children to learn English. But they want them to learn other things, too. They want a challenging, bilingual curriculum that teaches the values of their community; they want more time for their children to learn, and more bicultural teachers to learn from; and they want a school where children and their parents feel comfortable. It's not much different than what everyone else wants. But they've lost faith in the public education system's ability to deliver for their children.
Children like Christina Valencia.
Valencia, who is 21, officially dropped out of high school in 1990, her senior year. Last year, after a few failed attempts at a General Equivalency Diploma, she started at one of Maricopa County's alternative schools and is finally set to graduate in December. But her success is unusual because, like many children of Guadalupe, Christina Valencia had one foot out the schoolhouse door almost from the time she started classes. Valencia went to Frank Elementary School, which is across the street from her house in the middle of Guadalupe. It was fun, and she did okay. For the most part, everyone knew everyone else, and the years just kind of passed along without fanfare or incident. Fees Junior High School was a little different, and a little farther away, but there were still a lot of other kids from Guadalupe there. Valencia got average grades for her school and passed through with no clue that she was slowly sliding behind other children her age. Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe revealed the gap. Valencia found herself academically, socially and economically behind from the first day of school.
Marcos de Niza takes in about 75 freshmen per year from Guadalupe. The remainder of the student body comes mainly from upper- and middle-income households in Tempe, including posh communities like the Lakes.
When Guadalupe kids talk about high school, the first thing most of them mention is that the other kids dress differently. Meaning that Guadalupe kids, for the most part, lack the fashionably correct looks and labels of the general student population. "They think we're all gang members or something. That's just the way they classify us, because we don't dress like them," Valencia explains from the immaculate home she shares with a caboodle of relatives, but no air conditioner.
Valencia is not one to talk about school unless specifically asked. She started high school and stumbled. "I was falling behind. The classes are big, and the teachers don't get to know you," Valencia says, looking up shyly. "They don't really help you, like if you don't understand something."
Other kids seemed to be way ahead. "They knew more than we did. It's like you would do a problem or something, and they knew the answer right away, and so you knew you were slow," Valencia says. High school can be one of the best things about adolescence. It's where memories and lifelong bonds are made. It's also an enormous, often-intimidating bureaucracy, and navigating it can be a daunting challenge, especially if you're outside the norm. It's a lot of little things: fees for lockers, sports, labs and parking, to name just a few. They are among the things that Guadalupe's kids can't afford. The things that keep them separate.
After-school activities and sports require money and transportation.
Few of the kids from Guadalupe, Valencia says, go to school dances. "They don't like having to dress up. They don't have transportation, and you feel out of place, anyway, so why go?"
Valencia also had her share of fights. "I was jealous of them," she says through a beautiful smile connecting the round cheeks under doe-brown, almond-shaped eyes.
"I knew they were going to graduate, and I wasn't."
A lot of her peers in Guadalupe, Valencia explains, grow up somewhat ashamed of their race. There are few people who look like them at school, and even fewer in positions of authority.
"People will say things like, 'Oh, you don't want to do anything. You just want everything given to you. You live off the government.' It's not true. We try very hard.
"After a while, you just feel like you're nothing, and you don't want to go anymore."
So she didn't.
Her grandmother would wake her up and lecture her about going to school. She would leave the house and turn the other way. Sometimes, she went to school and then ditched classes. Attendance is a problem for a lot of kids in Guadalupe. Going to school means riding a crowded bus, for lack of other transportation. If you miss the bus, you miss school.
If a doctor's appointment or some family need comes up during the day--tending younger brothers and sisters, for example--there is no way to get home. So students are likely to stay home altogether, to be on the safe side.
And then there's the matter of religion. Most of Guadalupe is Catholic.
About the biggest thing going in Guadalupe is the traditional Lenten celebration, re-creating the resurrection of Christ. Ceremonies take place at Guadalupe Yaqui Temple every Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon during the seven weeks before Easter.
Holy Week, the week before Easter, is most sacred and, in Guadalupe, celebrated with nearly nonstop events, day and night. Spring break for Tempe Union High School District, however, is scheduled earlier in March.
Therefore, many Guadalupe students are off a week of school during spring break--and then miss a few Fridays and another week for Lent. The lost time is enough to send some students over the edge and out of school.
It happened to Valencia, and her high school experience is an all-too-common scenario here, says Mike Matwick, dropout prevention coordinator at Marcos de Niza High. "They wind up in a class where they are going to immediately experience failure, and these kids are at rock bottom of academic self-esteem," Matwick says. "There's this whole history of negative experiences and repeated failure and having that feeling that you don't belong."
Despite the Supreme Court's desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, public schools are as segregated as ever.
In the famous 1954 case, the court ruled that separate educational systems--in this case, for African Americans and Anglos--were inherently unequal and, therefore, unconstitutional. The court ordered schools to desegregate with "all deliberate speed."
But the federal government never actually desegregated most of them. Instead, it required schools to allow all comers in the door and, in some instances, to institute a plan that would create more diversity.
Phoenix Union High School, Roosevelt Elementary and Tempe Elementary School districts operate under court-approved desegregation plans, mostly through magnet-school programs. But in Arizona and across much of the nation, schools are still unequal and largely segregated.
In July, the state Supreme Court ruled that Arizona's school funding was inequitable and, therefore, unconstitutional. Nearly all of the schools on the short end of the funding stick have high minority populations. More than half of the nation's "minority" children go to schools where they are, in fact, in the majority, according to a December Harvard study. And for Hispanic children, the numbers are even higher. Nearly three-fourths of Hispanic children go to predominantly minority schools.
Hispanics compose more than 90 percent of the student population at 35 schools in Arizona. In most cases, the segregation is a result of housing patterns, specifically, concentrations of low-income housing. The U.S. Supreme Court, in recent years, anyway, has allowed this de facto segregation, so long as schools were not designed to serve one race exclusively.
But Hispanic school activists say the public schools have not adapted, in any effective way, to the changing demographics that have created schools overwhelmingly populated by minorities.
Bilingual education is nearly nonexistent in Arizona public schools, even though more than 62,000 children in public school speak little or no English.
Despite a growing international economy and a changing population, the ability to speak Spanish is looked upon less as an asset than as a problem in many schools.
The state allows school districts to provide a number of different types of instruction to children who speak little or no English.
Among the most successful is a fully bilingual program in which children learn their lessons--math, history, social studies and so forth--in the language they understand best, while they also learn to speak English.
Only seven of the state's 220 school districts offer fully bilingual programs. Instead, pointing to funding and staffing problems, most districts offer some amount of instruction in English as a Second Language. Usually, those classes last just a few hours per day.
Bilingual programs are controversial, at least in Arizona, because in them children continue to speak and learn in Spanish for several years. Critics prefer that children use only English, at least at school, and argue that they will assimilate to American education faster that way. But students with limited English skills typically spend most of their school days in classrooms where they don't understand most of what their teachers or their classmates are saying--or what is in their textbooks.
They are pulled out for an hour or two a day to a separate classroom for English instruction, until they either catch on or drop out. Experts estimate that it takes six to eight years to become fluent enough to learn in a second language.
"It [language] is the only area of education where we routinely expect our children to outperform their teachers," says Jim Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. "All that they know and can say, the schools can't understand." Despite a great need for teachers fluent in both Spanish and English, only 3 percent of the state's 35,000 teachers hold bilingual teaching certificates. Another 3 percent have an English-as-a-Second-Language endorsement, which requires less training in the language and culture of students. Still another 3 percent have a provisional certificate in one or the other, meaning that they haven't completed their course work.
Meanwhile, the largest number of teachers instructing students with limited English skills--about 5 percent of all teachers--has no certification at all, even though state law requires it.
Problems start at the schoolhouse door for children lacking a solid grasp of English.
State law requires that schools assess these children to determine their language skills and place them in appropriate programs. But during the 1992-1993 school year, more than 6,000 schoolchildren were not assessed or were assessed improperly, according to the Arizona Department of Education.
Language programs required by law were not provided to more than 8,000 children who were identified as needing them. And of the 182 school districts that reported teaching these children, more than 20 percent did not monitor their progress. About 5,000 children who speak little or no English were given state achievement tests in Arizona last spring. Nearly half of them were given the test in English. As a result of improper assessment, nonexistent programs, insufficient teaching staff and inappropriate testing, children whose only problem is a lack of English skills are held back, placed in special education or remedial classes and labeled "at risk"--until, all too often, they finally give up and leave school.
Proponents think charter schools can change that pattern of cultural neglect and educational failure, but the charter-schools debate is not just about culture, or even quality of education. The debate is thoroughly intertwined with ethnic politics.
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.
Sometimes, it is a matter of survival. Poorer Hispanics may be working multiple jobs or caring for housefuls of children. Transportation is always a problem for the poor.
Recent immigrants are even further away from the action. Parental involvement is not customary in Mexico, where parents generally relinquish authority over education to the schools. Some of the newly arrived also fear they might jeopardize precious citizenship by making waves in the school system.
It is entirely unclear whether charter schools will, in and of themselves, make more Hispanic parents partners in the educational process. While Hispanics generally agree that there's a problem in the public school system, they don't necessarily agree on an answer.
Some are dead-set on change within the existing school system. Others see little hope in continuing that fight.
But when Hispanic charter schools are formed early next year, they probably will encounter many of the problems that the public school system has so far failed to address in minority communities.
The Arizona Hispanic Community Forum earlier this year made political history when it joined Governor Fife Symington in support of a traditionally Republican proposal--giving parents vouchers that could pay for private school for their children. After a bitter legislative battle, the voucher effort failed, but it was prompted by the same concern that is driving Hispanics to create charter schools.
The public school system is failing to properly educate overwhelming numbers of kids.
But charter schools are no panacea for Arizona's educational problems.
First, to have any chance of surviving a legal challenge based on the U.S. Supreme Court's desegregation rulings, charter schools almost certainly will have to be open to all comers. Such a challenge could come from many quarters; school districts that lose students (and the state funding associated with them) to charter schools seem likely to sue.
But trying to be all things to all kids--including non-Hispanic kids--is likely to cause many of the same problems the mainstream school system already faces.
Charter schools, by law, will receive the same per-child funding as other public schools. Most minority communities are relatively poor. The per-child funding--which is directly related to the value of taxable property in a school district--has, therefore, been grossly inadequate. In fact, this structural underfunding has been a major reason that public schools haven't been able to provide for the needs of minority children.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
It remains to be seen whether charter schools can improve education if the system of funding is not significantly reformed.
The new schools, while free from most state mandates, also may run headlong into a battle with teachers' unions and the state school board if they don't hire state-certified teachers. Yet it is certified teachers who have produced a 44 percent dropout rate among Hispanics attending public high school.
The ideology of charter schools assumes that the public school system as a whole will benefit from the successful example of a few. But critics say that if public schools are relieved of the burden of educating all children, the result will not be improved instruction, but educational Balkanization and a rapid disintegration of what is left of the public school system.
That is a chance that Hispanic-charter-school advocates are willing to take. Their frustration with the public school system runs deep, their faith shallow. And their idea of "all deliberate speed" does not encompass decades.