ON THE FIRST DAY of school this year at Winkelman Elementary, a second grader asked teacher Gloria Guzman if she was mean, and Guzman answered: "Remember, only mean kids have mean teachers."

"Mean," however, is not the same thing as "strict." Now in her 25th year of teaching, Guzman likes being known as a disciplinarian, as a teacher who doles out big doses of homework. On the third day of school this year, Guzman sent work sheets home with her charges. "Hey," she says, "they're lucky I waited three days."

The 50-year-old Guzman has taught for the past 15 years in the same classroom in Winkelman, a small copper-mining town east of Phoenix. A native of nearby Kearny, she knows most of her pupils' families and taught many of their brothers and sisters, not to mention some of their parents. Guzman says she likes teaching second graders because their "brains are like little sponges."

Her classroom is of the standard variety: cinderblock walls, an American flag and alphabet charts that define the second grade, the year that pupils trade stubby pencils and printed letters for skinny pencils with built-in erasers and cursive writing. Taped on the wall above where Guzman sits during reading is a motivational poster depicting Smurf characters building a pyramid, with the caption: "It isn't easy staying on top."

The teacher would agree. For two years, state education officials have accused Gloria Guzman of cheating.

Thanks to the recent movie Stand and Deliver, it's a familiar story: A Hispanic teacher is accused of cheating after students excel on a national test. In the movie, calculus teacher Jaime Escalante takes a dramatic victory stroll down an empty hallway after his barrio students cram overnight and pass the test again. Cheating allegations are dropped.

In the Guzman case, it hasn't been quite that simple. Allegations of cheating, based on the circumstantial evidence of unusually high test scores, stretched into the longest investigation in the history of the state Department of Education, according to Ray Borane, deputy state superintendent.

Nobody won this war. Gloria Guzman wound up being censured by state education officials. The episode triggered the bitter ouster of Amelia Kame, a school-board member whose complaints started the investigation.

The dispute spilled out of Guzman's little classroom. Shouting matches erupted at school-board and town-council meetings. Tears were shed in Guzman's defense at state hearings. Children were grilled by investigators.

The dispute split families and neighbors in the tightly knit mining towns of Winkelman and Hayden. Amelia Kame had raised hackles when she questioned the quality of the district's "homegrown" teachers--people who had grown up in the towns and returned to spend the rest of their lives teaching the children of their friends and families. IN 1989, GLORIA Guzman's pupils ranked in the 85th and 94th percentiles nationally in reading and language on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and in the 79th percentile in math.

Amelia Kame didn't believe it.
Kame, a mother of four, is a former Catholic nun who says she once taught deaf students. At Hayden-Winkelman School District board meetings, Kame used to ask: "How come we're not sending kids to Harvard? How come we're not sending kids to Yale?"

Kame says she was "turning over rocks" when she drew charts for board meetings and challenged district officials about how they were spending money on their 530 students.

Other school officials paint it differently. "She just had an ax to grind against everybody and everything," says counselor Phil Masters, the district's testing coordinator. "She was kind of a reformer that didn't have a vision for what she wanted to do."

That spring of 1989, David Jones, whose wife taught in the district, pointed out to Kame what he perceived as discrepancies in the district's Iowa test scores. Jones, who was studying the school's third graders to test a math computer program he wanted to market, says some of the pupils seemed confused by simple concepts. Pupils who had been in Guzman's classroom the previous year were performing "at a very low level," Jones says. "It looked like they missed the second grade."

At the same time, records showed that Guzman's pupils far outclassed the district's other second-grade class, taught by beginning teacher Lydia Martinez. Those kids scored at the 31st, 37th and 25th percentiles in reading, language and math. (Overall, the state's second graders scored at the 49th percentile in reading, the 57th in language and the 59th in math.)

Kame complained at a spring board meeting about the apparent discrepancies and called state officials on May 12, 1989.

Based on those complaints, district superintendent Lalo Serrano questioned Guzman and school principal Jack Rostal. On May 16, Serrano ruled that "no discrepancies occurred." (Both Serrano and Rostal say they consider Guzman an outstanding teacher. "She's one of the best teachers in the district--in the state, perhaps," Serrano tells New Times.)

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Ellen Grant