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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.

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