Urban schools not measuring up
Mobility, language barrier top woes
By Betty Reid and Sarah Anchors
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 19, 2002
Urban schools often fall short when compared with their suburban counterparts
because their students have fewer resources, often battle a language barrier and
move more frequently, educators say.
The underperforming-schools label given to 70 percent of Phoenix Union's high
schools, 45 percent of Roosevelt's elementary schools and 69 percent of Phoenix
Elementary schools came as little surprise to educators grappling with typical
urban problems, such as a large number of foreign-born students, whose families
are often at the bottom economic rung.
Thirteen schools from the Creighton, Osborn, Cartwright and Wilson districts
also landed on the underperforming list. One bright spot in central Phoenix was
the Madison School District, whose seven campuses passed the state's scrutiny
with a label of maintaining or improving their performance.
Thirty-eight Phoenix schools, not including charter schools, were designated
The reason many students at a school like South Mountain High School are not
achieving is because they come from poor homes, said Earl Charles, a math
teacher in his 19th year and a school soccer coach.
"Kids who go to, say, for example, Mountain View (a Mesa school labeled
improving). Their parents are usually lawyers and doctors. Those kids don't have
to go home and worry if they're going to have clothes, food," Charles said.
When students live in a two-room apartment, have a limited English vocabulary,
don't have health care and worry about being shot in their neighborhood, they
can't focus on homework, he said.
Phoenix has a high concentration of troubled neighborhoods and underperforming
schools because of demographic changes, says Leonard A. Valverde, a professor of
Education Leadership and Policy Study at Arizona State University.
"We have high schools that are designed to serve 2,500 children but serve 4,500
students," Valverde said. "You are not building new schools, so what do you do?
You redesign it. You have to rethink. How do you deliver instruction in a
different way? We have a different student population. It's much more diverse."
Low-income families, including immigrant families, often find affordable housing
in the older parts of the Valley, such as central Phoenix.
The Phoenix Union High School District, with 13 feeder elementary school
districts, enrolls 23,000 students. Of those, nearly 85 percent are minorities.
The Hispanic student population has grown by 2 to 3 percentage points each year
since 1990, when the Anglo student numbers started to decrease. Hispanic
students now account for 69 percent of enrollment. Students who speak English
as a second language require more attention from teachers, yet some schools are
unable to afford teachers who work with students who speak a second language.
At least 5,000 of the 8,500 students in the Phoenix Elementary School District
are learning English, said Sonia Saenz, assistant superintendent for school
improvement. Students there speak 22 languages, ranging from Native American
languages to Somalian and Spanish. At Heard Elementary School, the school was
lucky to find and hire a bilingual instructor to teach a group of Somali
On top of having a tough time with English, many central Phoenix students switch
schools often. Saenz said 37 percent of Phoenix Elementary students are
considered mobile. These students move from school to school or district to
district, with some returning to the same school a second time.
Numerous reasons account for the moves, such as parental employment or changes
in family living situations.
About 43 percent of Balsz School students are transient, Balsz Assistant
Principal Taime Bengochea said.
"There are some classrooms that by the end of the year there are only five
students who were there at the start of the year," Bengochea said.
In that situation, testing from year to year doesn't show improvement in
students' ability, because the same children aren't taking the tests.
At Phoenix Union, educators determined that 67 percent of the students who
attended between 1998 and 2002 were mobile. The remaining 33 percent represented
students who completed all four years in the district and performed
well on AIMS.
The Madison Elementary School District also has a mixed student population yet
didn't have a single underperforming school. Superintendent Bob Jones oversees
the north-central Phoenix district, which has 5,000 students. Students perform
well on standardized tests and AIMS.
Jones' district includes families with diverse economic situations that vary
from the high to low. The student demographics, however, appear to be changing.
Sixty percent of Madison children are Anglo, while 33 percent are Hispanic. The
rest are Native American, African-American or Asian. Compare those numbers to
1993, when Madison's Hispanic student population logged in at 10.
Students there speak 30 languages, so Jones doesn't buy into the theory that
minority students contribute to low achievement.
"There is a myth out there - minority kids can't do as well as white kids,"
Jones said. "Minority kids, whether they are African-American or Native
American, they have an ability to learn as much as the other child."