News

CLASS STRUGGLE

It is midafternoon. As a shrill electric bell signals the end of another day of classes, a tall, middle-aged man in a dark blue suit and a red tie leans down to talk to the young woman walking by his side.

Dr. Roger Romero, superintendent of the Wilson Elementary School District, tries to make himself heard over the after-school cacophony of dozens of adolescents shrieking in Spanish and English as they bolt from classrooms. He raises his voice: "What do you want me to call you, anyway? Do you like to be called Miss Rubio or Ms. Rubio or Tammy or what?" "Call me Tammy," replies Tammy Rubio, dressed in a bulky salmon-colored pullover, black stirrup pants and black flats. The newly elected member of the Wilson Elementary School District Governing Board is eighteen years old, but she looks younger than some of the eighth graders who bump into her as they race down the concrete walkways.

Rubio may well be the youngest school board member in Maricopa County. She won the election last fall as a write-in candidate after door-to-door campaigning in the district barrios.

Romero, 48, is also a new arrival in the district. The former assistant superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District hired on at the Wilson district just a few months ago.

The superintendent and his school board are faced with a difficult challenge: Running a school district with one of the lowest achievement rates in the state, and one of the highest rates of student withdrawal in Maricopa County.

Their district is tiny, with only two schools, Wilson Elementary School and Wilson Primary School, which sit across from each other on 30th Street just north of Van Buren. A vast majority of the students withdraw before the school year ends. Roughly a quarter of the students come from transient homeless families. Another quarter come from migrant Hispanic workers who move frequently.

A quarter of the pupils in the almost completely Hispanic district speak only Spanish. Some, recent immigrants from Mexico or Guatemala, have never used indoor plumbing. Others enter school completely illiterate, yet old enough to be in eighth grade.

Of the 850 or so students in the district, 97 percent are poor enough to qualify for free breakfast and lunch. Sometimes, these are the only meals some students will eat in a day.

MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 The area surrounding the schools is rough. Stabbings are frequent in the Van Buren motels, and prostitutes wander up from that street to strut their wares in the school zone. School board president Mercedes Robles often shoos the women away. But lately she's been more diplomatic, after she noticed that one of the prostitutes is also a school mother.

All this takes its toll on the children, who often try to put the best face possible on their own transient lives. Take, for instance, an all-too-common vignette that plays itself out as Romero and Rubio stop by the band room on their tour of the school.

A fat boy barges in to collect his brother. "We gotta clean our lockers," the fat boy says. His younger brother reluctantly tucks his drumsticks in the back pocket of his jeans and heads toward the door. "We're movin' to the north side; we're gonna go to a real nice private school," the fat boy says with bravado, to no one in particular. It is painful for teachers to watch such scenes, and to know that for homeless kids like these, school is the warmest, most welcoming place they know. Ironically, the buildings of the Wilson School District are clean, modern and superbly equipped. The teachers are among the highest paid and best qualified in the state. Although the children are poor, the school district has a rich industrial tax base that contributes generously to the district's $3.3 million budget for two schools. What's more, the school's impoverished student body qualifies it for numerous federal grants.

Wilson is a district ripe for innovation, and Roger Romero says he wants to make the school a national model for similar inner-city Hispanic schools. The Wilson District offers a window into Hispanic education in the Valley. It is a Hispanic school run by a Hispanic school board and superintendent. Whether the school fails or succeeds is a measure of how one Hispanic community tends to its educational needs.

Romero is controversial. He resigned as assistant superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District last year, for reasons he says are "political." He implies that he objected to its failure to provide bilingual education. Romero, like other Hispanic activists, is an ardent advocate of bilingual teaching. He believes that teaching kids in their native tongue improves achievement and self-esteem. Now he has a chance Col 3, Depth P54.10 I9.14 Pedro and his wife have struggled for years to learn English, but have never been able to grasp it completely. When their son George was in first grade, each day the teacher would pin a note to his shirt, telling his mother to speak with him in English. "What does the note say?" his mother would ask in Spanish.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Terry Greene