On a Monday morning, Rene Diaz is standing outside the corner office reserved for the superintendent in the Phoenix Union district headquarters, conferring with Shirley, his secretary. She relentlessly directs and polices his schedule, which inevitably includes more than there is time for. He's a busy man. He's got a school district to run.
Diaz is 51 years old, though most people wouldn't put him past his 40s, and has spent 25 years--virtually his entire career--in the Phoenix Union High School District.
He could have retired. A lot of people would have taken that option in a New York minute. But who knew that three months into the superintendent's job he'd inherit the biggest crisis in recent Phoenix Union history?
Still, Diaz seems to believe he can turn this school district around, and he's a stubborn man. People like him. Even picketing teachers will tell you they like him, which is probably attributable to his years in personnel, his big smile and that he used to be a counselor and a coach. That's important here, because he needs to rally the troops.
Phoenix Union is not the same school district it was when Diaz came to work. Today, it's mainly Hispanic, integrated by statistical count, governed by a school board that's mostly minorities. Diaz, who was named to the job in May, is the first Hispanic superintendent in district history.
That kind of ethnic equity was once the dream of a lot of people. But there are more important things on the table now. While Phoenix Union has passing grades in integration, it is failing education.
In 1983, the district was 56 percent Anglo, 12 percent African American and 27 percent Hispanic. While the African-American population has remained virtually the same, the Hispanic population is now a majority, with nearly 52 percent. Anglo students are about 30 percent.
The change is the result not only of an influx of Hispanics into Phoenix, but also "white flight" and, statistics indicate, "bright flight" from the district. While the number of students on a federal free-lunch program--the official poverty count for schools--is about 38 percent, numbers from surrounding elementary schools indicate that poverty is actually more likely to be 50 percent. High school students are more reluctant to participate in the program than younger kids, from fear of social embarrassment.
Phoenix has always had a hard time accepting that Phoenix Union is an urban, inner-city high school district with all the demographics and social ills that come with it. The school district has gangs and drugs and weapons and pregnant teenage girls and students who have to work to support their families because Phoenix, despite the palm trees and sunshine and strip malls, has those things.
Almost half the students--49 percent--who step onto one of the eight campuses in the Phoenix Union High School District do not graduate. That means the district is losing about 17 students a day. Most of them are minorities.
The district is under fire from every direction. Nearly every recent discussion of school reform, especially those including charter schools, has taken a slap at Phoenix Union. It's been held up as all things evil by legislators, the governor, the superintendent of public instruction, would-be school reformers and everyone else with half an idea about teaching kids.
And Phoenix Union has played right into the hands of its critics. It's a big bureaucracy with a big pile of money (by public school standards) and little to show by way of tangible results.
There are students who excel, who get scholarships to college and who perform at college level while they're in high school. But, overall, Phoenix Union students score below the 36th percentile on national norm reference tests--they perform better than only 36 percent of all students tested nationally.
And now, the school district's successful integration, accomplished under federal mandate, is coming under fire, too.
Phoenix Union High School District has long been both a battleground for civil rights and a victim of its remedies. And now the district, the community it serves and the government once again face the conundrum that's haunted public schools in this century: how to master both equity and achievement.
After four decades of thinking that integration was the secret to educating minority students, the public and governmental tide is beginning to turn back.
The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year reversed a desegregation order in Kansas City. The court found that if schools had achieved integration, regardless of poor minority-student performance, the court orders that forced desegregation in the first place may be lifted.
It was a landmark move that drew attention from the White House. The Clinton administration filed a brief, asking the Supreme Court not to dissolve the desegregation decree because it would start a chain reaction across the nation. It did. And Arizona was no exception.