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.

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice halted its monitoring of the Phoenix Elementary School District, which had been under a voluntary desegregation agreement with the government.

And then, in August, Federal Court Judge Carl Muecke, the custodian of Phoenix Union under the court order, ordered an end to mandatory desegregation at Phoenix Union, seemingly from out of nowhere. In his order, Muecke said that Justice Department standards had been met.

Governor Fife Symington didn't miss a beat. Not only has he called for the end of mandatory desegregation, he asked the Constitutional Defense Council to fight it in court. Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham told parents they could send their children to schools outside the district, despite that such an action might violate provisions of the federal order.

Objections to Meucke's decision were filed by the Justice Department, the school district and the plaintiffs who brought the original civil rights case. Their arguments will be resurrected in court this fall.

"The school district should not give up on its commitment or efforts to try to have an integrated district," says Joe Eddie Lopez, a Phoenix Union school board member and one of the Hispanic community leaders behind the 1982 lawsuit.

"It's stupid that our governor would propose to allow a segregated district in the middle of Phoenix."
History has shown that segregation didn't work, because separate schools were certainly not equal. And, in more than a decade in the largest high school district in Phoenix, forced integration didn't bring minority students a good education, either.

But no one seems to have the next better idea--although privatization, charter schools and other programs that take public education out of the hands of the local school district are quickly moving to fill that slot.

In the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the United States Supreme Court effectively ended the notion of segregated schools. The decision reversed the court's position of 58 years earlier, in which, in a case known as Plessy v. Ferguson, it found that "separate but equal" was lawful under the Constitution.

In his opinion in the Brown case, then-chief justice Earl Warren noted: "Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local government . . . [education] is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is the principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.

". . . In the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
But despite Warren's apparent emphasis on education, the resulting enforcement and the public schools focused more on the "equal" than on the "education." School desegregation is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, not the Department of Education, and it's about counting bodies, not test scores.

Throughout history, predominantly minority schools were not on a par with those serving Anglo children. Conventional wisdom, therefore, has been that minority students should share the same classroom with Anglo students in order to have an equal chance.

But schools weren't responsible for redlining, for employment and housing discrimination or for many of the other roadblocks that minorities would continue to face long after desegregation became the law of the land. The enforcement of integrated schools was, in essence, an attempt at solving a multitude of societal sins through the school system.

When it became the law of the land, through federal court orders, desegregation took precedence over everything else, including academic achievement.

Students do not attend the school in which they are most likely to excel, they attend the school that most needs their race or ethnicity to achieve the district's integration goals.

For a while, the nation's urban schools were busing children to get the mandated mix. It didn't work. Parents objected to their children being hauled away every day like prisoners on their way to work camp. Low-income parents especially were unable to get to their children's school. Kids felt like they didn't belong. Neighborhood people thought they were under siege when inner-city kids arrived.

Busing was replaced by a more expensive and gentler idea in the 1980s: the magnet program, the method of choice for Phoenix Union. Magnet schools are a marketing ploy to get Anglo children to attend predominantly minority schools because of a specialty program not offered elsewhere.

Like its predecessor, the magnet program desegregated the schools. But kids didn't get a better education.

In the late 1960s, Phoenix Union was sued over its boundaries. A lot of students who were supposed to be attending Phoenix Union High School were going to other, predominantly Anglo schools. Minorities wanted the same chance. They got it in court. The district adopted an open enrollment policy that allowed students to attend school wherever they wished within the district.

But that didn't work, either.
Phoenix Union High School deteriorated under open enrollment. Facilities were poor. Veteran teachers left for better working conditions at other schools. Anglo students left with them. Before long, Phoenix Union was a run-down, nearly all-minority school.

In 1982, a group of minority parents filed another lawsuit against the Phoenix Union High School District. The group was backed by what had become a familiar crowd of African-American and Hispanic community leaders, and organizations such as Chicanos por La Causa and the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund.

They wanted a better education for their children. They got magnet schools and a federal desegregation order.

The lawsuit alleged that minority children were being unfairly singled out by the school board's decision to close Phoenix Union High School downtown. The court agreed. But the school district could ill-afford to either renovate Phoenix Union or open a new school.

"Our student population was not getting a good education. Part of the concern was that they were shutting down Phoenix Union High School. The excuse was that it economically didn't pay off to keep it open," says Tom Espinoza, another Hispanic leader behind the suit and a former president of the State Board of Education.

"We had to confront the issue from the standpoint of our kids having a fair education. The only way to do it was to force the school district into a suit."
It was agreed that the district would create attendance zones for each school, and add special programs at Carl Hayden Community and South Mountain high schools--the two serving large minority populations in south and southwest Phoenix--in order to integrate them.

Already keeping a close eye on school segregation and discrimination, the Department of Justice followed with its own action, which resulted in a federal court order to desegregate Phoenix Union High School District in 1985. The order dictated that the district use a series of magnet programs to achieve ethnic balance in its schools. It also mandated "racial/ethnic balance in the district's schools and equal educational opportunities for all students" be the criteria for future actions of the district. The district was required to report its ethnic breakdown annually to the Department of Justice.

Buried inside the 13-page desegregation order is one sentence of tragic irony. It reads:

"Foremost among the district's goals is the improvement of academic achievement levels of all students."
That didn't happen. Educating kids wasn't as important as getting the body count right. One administrator characterizes Phoenix Union's history this way: "What was important was how many white kids you had in your school."

There was a time when Phoenix Union High School District's magnet program was envied by educators across the nation, even used as a model for other school districts.

Magnet programs offer specialty classes inside a high school. Students take them along with their required basic subjects. The magnets were originally designed to attract Anglo students into predominantly minority schools, but continued to grow with the district. Now there are 13 magnet programs offered at eight high schools, like the law magnet program at South Mountain High School and the International Studies program at Central High School. (For a complete list, see box on page XX.)

While any student may sign up for magnet classes offered at his or her school, only 4,000 of the 21,000 students in the Phoenix Union High School District are enrolled in a magnet program.

The magnets undeniably offer opportunities that kids here would otherwise never have. Few students at South Mountain would meet lawyers or compete in mock-trial competitions were it not for the magnet program there. For many, the magnet programs are a reason to come to school.

The magnet programs have, as well, achieved desegregation in the Phoenix Union High School District. For the past three years or so, the district has been within federal goals of ethnic mix in all of its schools.

But it has come at a price.
The district spent $6.2 million in federal grant money--above its regular desegregation budget--to start agribusiness, aerospace and marine biology magnet programs.

The agribusiness/equine studies center under the umbrella of Carl Hayden Community High School compares to a university facility. The center, which sits on more than 20 acres in Laveen, includes indoor and outdoor arenas, barns, stables, a biotechnology lab, a greenhouse and a computer lab. Its students run the farm, work at internships and earn college credit. The agribusiness magnet costs more than $500,000 a year to operate.

South Mountain High School's aerospace magnet program teaches aviation mechanics, air-traffic control and other aeronautical subjects to 335 students. Some of them even leave with a pilot's license, but they are relatively few. Only 100 of them are taking more than one class. The program costs more than $900,000 a year to operate.

The marine/environmental sciences magnet, started in 1994, houses aquariums, display cases, lab stations, large saltwater tanks and a 120-gallon freshwater "show" tank. Each of the 141 students in the program has access to a computer with CD-ROM laser-disc players, microvideo systems, scanners and color printers. The students also go to Sea World, Catalina Island and Oak Creek Canyon. Last year, 18 students received their scuba diving certification at San Carlos, Mexico. Three received Advanced Certification in Navigation. The program cost $2.2 million to get off the ground.

But even with all the money and facilities, the magnet programs have not brought academic success to Phoenix Union. According to a 1993 evaluation of the district's magnet programs, done by an independent research group, there is no evidence that students in magnet programs showed any higher overall gain in national norm reference test scores than students who are not in a magnet program. The magnet programs didn't make any significant difference in dropouts, either, according to the study.

"It has helped with student achievement. It has not helped with our overall graduation rate," Superintendent Ren Diaz says. "With our district becoming a minority district, I see our responsibility now that we need to start restructuring and re-forming our current magnet programs. Maybe doing away with some of them."

"Clearly, the numbers are showing that we could be doing much more," says Diaz. "When 1,000 students show up as freshmen and only 500 graduate, something is wrong. If our graduation rate was 95 percent, I might buy that it's the students. But 50 percent says it's the system."
Ironically, the federal demand for integration may be one of the very things standing in the way of improving the school system. When it ordered desegregation, the federal government allowed Phoenix Union to collect more money from its taxpayers--$32.6 million more this year.

But the money came with strings attached. It could be used only toward integrating the schools.

Desegregation money cannot be used to reduce class sizes across the board, cannot put computers in every classroom, and cannot pay for year-round school or dropout prevention programs or remedial classes unless they're somehow incorporated into a magnet program.

More than 6,200 students in the district come to school speaking one of 36 languages other than English--5,723 of them speak primarily Spanish. But as long as it's under the court order, the district cannot send those students to a comprehensive bilingual or multilingual school because that would fly in the face of integration. It can only allocate the money into English As a Second Language classes given as part of the regular school day.

It is the subject of much debate, but studies show that children without English skills perform much better in a comprehensive bilingual education program.

But the federal mandate is hardly the only problem facing the district's new superintendent. He's got to change the culture of an entire organization entrenched in bureaucracy and tattooed with failure.

His goal is a 70 percent graduation rate by the year 2000. That means meeting very specific annual goals, including a 3 percent increase this year.

Principals have to achieve the goal in their schools. Department heads have to achieve the goal in their departments. Teachers have to achieve the goal in their classrooms. Diaz breaks down data to teacher and ethnicity and gender and, practically, the student in row three.

But his success rests on his ability to change the thinking and the values of his district. To change the priorities from regulations and body count to teaching, learning and graduating.

Diaz talks about what he did as principal at Maryvale High School.
"I walked around the campus visiting classes, just even for five minutes or so. You'd be surprised what a difference that makes. We changed assemblies from sports-driven to academics," he says, laughing. "The coaches were outraged.

"We made it a place where instruction was valued. . . . No excuses. This is what is important. I value this. This is what I want to see," he says.

"We have to change the culture. Every meeting, every discussion, everything we do will focus on achievement."
One plan is year-round school, replacing the 18-week semester with 45-day instructional increments, separated by a 15-day break. At South Mountain High School, overcrowding may soon give the district no other choice. The school has more than 3,000 students enrolled.

An even more complicated proposal would turn Central High School into a charter school--and a test case for other schools in the entire district.

The magnet programs are likely to at least be tinkered with, although unlikely to be scrapped, because of the tremendous capital investment they represent.

"Under a magnet structure, the outcomes are not completely academic," board member Joe Eddie Lopez says. "Why would anybody expect academic results if you're just trying to get kids into a school?

"Without stressing academic achievement, the magnets become pretty meaningless. If our students are not eligible to take advantage of that [magnet] and pursue that field at the universities, it's doing very little."
And if the district doesn't start showing an increase in achievement, the magnet programs are going to be history. Without a federal order for their existence, it's not likely that anyone will support their funding.

Investigators from the Department of Justice are scheduled for a visit in October. A plan has to be filed with the court by the end of November.

If the desegregation order is lifted, the district's funding could be capped at its current level or cut back over a period of years. However, without a federal court mandate, state legislators could easily take all $32.6 million away.

And that is the immediate fear of everyone in the school district.
"I'm not sure what business could operate without a quarter of its budget," Diaz says.

Unfortunately, he may soon find out.

Albert Flores has moved the boxes of files about Phoenix Union High School District out of the warehouse where they've been for the better part of a decade since he represented plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the district. Now, yellowed and water-stained, they're spread out on the floor of what appears to be a war room in Flores' downtown law office. He's preparing to go back into battle with the school district. "A lot of people are saying forget the desegregation, forget the money, let's work on education," Flores says. "This plan wasn't perfect by any means," he adds. "But I'd file the lawsuit again tomorrow if it were not equitable.

"My fear is that if it were not for someone watching over them, it will go back to the way it was," Flores says.

He's not alone. Most people who know anything about Phoenix Union High School District guess that within a single year, the schools would become completely re-segregated if the order were lifted. A quick look at housing patterns shows they're probably right.

"I'm not ready to throw the baby out yet," says Tom Espinoza, who was behind the original lawsuit. "There are so many people in the community saying, 'Scrap the whole thing. It's not working and maybe that will force them to make the school district deal with the real issue.'

"And the real issue is that all of the kids in the Phoenix Union High School District should be reading and writing and doing math skills.

"The truth is that my issue was never desegregation. My concern was not that we have more Anglo students. The issue was how do we force the school district into providing a better education? And we had to file suit to do it. In hindsight, I'm not sure we ever reached that."
"I would love for this to be about education," Flores says, discussing the return of his case. "But it's not.

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.
Lisa Davis