A push for Latino learning
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 10, 2003
Hispanic parents file civil rights complaints when their children's
test scores fall short
by Kristen Go
Hispanic parents in the Valley are turning to federal civil rights laws to get
services they feel their children need to learn at the same level as
The parents want school districts to provide lessons and programs that help
their children excel in reading, writing, math and science, even if that means
teaching students in Spanish. At the same time, Arizona education officials are
ordering school districts to stop offering these very services.
Across the Valley, race-based complaints filed with the U.S. Department of
Education's Office of Civil Rights comprise one of every
three complaints against Arizona school districts, double the amount from 1997.
Five years ago, six complaints involved race. Last year, the
number was 17.
"I want our kids to get good grades. Every child shouldn't fall below
standards," said Javier Cano of north Phoenix, a parent who has
struggled to see progress in his child's studies at Palomino Elementary School
in the Paradise Valley School District.
School districts know there's a problem in bringing up the test scores of
Spanish-speaking students, and the Paradise Valley district isn't an
exception. The district isn't above the law, but it, like other districts, is
trying to come up with solutions to prevent more Hispanic kids from
"If there was a magic bullet to fix this, I'd use it," said Sue Skidmore, a
member of Paradise Valley's School Board.
But Cano and other parents believe that if school districts don't find answers
soon, more school districts may face civil rights
In the Phoenix area, Paradise Valley has the most complaints of any district and
provides a microcosm of how this new legal strategy is
Lagging test scores
For parents in Paradise Valley, the strategy of going to the federal government
came after trying to talk to teachers, principals and board
members about the lagging test scores of Hispanic students.
The parents have enlisted the help of the League of United Latin American
Citizens, a civil rights group. The league has the experience
of filing federal complaints, the money to wage legal battles and a history of
LULAC encourages people to deal with issues at the local level, but when that
doesn't work, it recommends using civil rights laws that
guarantee equal access to government services.
The league been successful in getting the Office of Civil Rights to intervene,
which is why the group advocates taking some cases to the
federal level, said Dave Rodriguez, national vice president of LULAC's far
For four years, Jose Luis Rodriguez, a counselor at Greenway Middle School, went
to the Paradise Valley School Board and asked the district to address the
lagging test scores of Hispanics. Rodriguez was initially hired by the district
to oversee programs for students learning English. He tracked the progress of
these students and was outraged that students weren't learning more.
Rodriguez believed he was in a position to speak up for parents, including many
who didn't speak English, and provide proof of the
students' lack of progress.
In 2000, Rodriguez filed a complaint with the Arizona Department of Education
and the federal Office of Civil Rights. He showed that
Hispanic students frequently stayed in programs designed to teach them English
for several years and scored at least 35 points below
their peers in reading, writing and math portions of the Stanford 9 test.
His complaint led to federal monitoring. The district also agreed to hire more
But since monitoring began, progress in bringing up Hispanic student achievement
has been slow.
Palomino Elementary School has the highest Hispanic population in the Paradise
Valley district and this year was labeled "underperforming," meaning that
students weren't making enough progress on standardized tests.
There still are bitter feelings in the community over former Superintendent Tom
Krebs' decision last year to change requirements for the dual-language program
Krebs took responsibility for the change, but some believe that then-School
Board member Tom Horne, now the state superintendent of public instruction, was
responsible for the decision because Horne ran for the state's highest education
job on a platform of eliminating
Horne denied the accusations. He has stuck to his campaign promises of
eliminating programs where students learn in Spanish or with Spanish textbooks.
There are exceptions for students with "good" English skills, but it's still
unclear what determines "good."
Cano, who has one child at Palomino, became concerned because he saw his
daughter struggling with her schoolwork. He talked to his
daughter's teacher about what could be done to help. But after the school's
"underperforming" label came out, he began to wonder if the
problem extended beyond his daughter.
"I'm really serious right now about No Child Left Behind," Cano said. He's part
of a group of parents that helped LULAC file a complaint
against the district in April.
The complaint is still under investigation, but the league believes that the
federal government will rule in its favor as it did in 2000 with
If the district is out of compliance with civil rights laws, it could mean
ederal monitoring and, in some cases, loss of federal funding. In
2002, the district was warned it could lose $3.6 million in federal unding for
not complying with special-education requirements for
students who are learning English. The district has not lost its funding.
Pushing the envelope
As districts struggle to find solutions to bring up the achievement of
Hispanic students in the classroom and on standardized tests, the
push from LULAC will continue, promises Silverio Garcia, who heads up the
league's state committee on education.
He is not only working with parents in the Paradise Valley district but has also
helped parents file federal complaints against Buckeye and
Littleton elementary school districts in the West Valley.
He also is trying to empower parents by creating LULAC councils in three other
Valley school districts: Isaac, Roosevelt and Wilson in
Garcia said parents' concerns in those districts are the same: They want
districts to provide the programs and lessons to bring up their
children's test scores.
"We're going to push the envelope until there is no envelope," Garcia said.
"Publicly elected officials need to do their job or resign."