Cartwright's chief can handle challenges
Arizona Republic
Mar. 18, 2005

Michael Martinez is a savvy school superintendent who knows policy as well as he does politics.

In Arizona, he knows the players and the landscape. Martinez, who grew up in and around the mines in Globe, understands pits, caves and mountains.

Since taking over in the Cartwright School District last year, he has used his landscape training well, and he understands that his district faces tremendous challenges as it attempts to, as he says, "make productive citizens" out of the more than 20,000 students under his and the school board's supervision.

Cartwright, which encompasses the Maryvale area of west Phoenix, has been and still is the target of the legislators and anti-immigrant activists and their efforts to do away with bilingual education, make English the state's official language, stifle all-day kindergarten and implement wider interpretations of Proposition 200.

They haven't singled out Cartwright by name, but they might as well have. Cartwright is more than 80 percent Hispanic, and about half of those students are considered English language learners. The district is a popular landing point for undocumented immigrants who have little English skill.

Its tax base is not broad, many of the students and their families are poor, and the district can't match the pay of the other better-off suburban school districts. Cartwright's symptoms are not unique by any means. In Phoenix, Roosevelt, Isaac, Phoenix Elementary and other districts struggle with the same challenges.

Martinez doesn't see the hurdles as a way to feel sorry for himself or the district.

"We need to respond to the community needs," Martinez told me last week in his office. "The minority has become the majority, and we need to respond to that diversity. We have language challenges and refugee pockets. Language is a big, big push for me."

Martinez, a youthful 55, served as Globe superintendent for 10 years before taking the reins at Cartwright and was an assistant superintendent at Roosevelt in 1988-94. Not that he needs validation, but this more than qualifies him to know a little about the subject.

He's keenly aware that helping students with "language acquisition" isn't politically popular right now, but what's he supposed to do when these students keep taking desks in his classrooms?

"I can't dwell on that (anti-immigrant movement)," he said. "I'm dealing with children, and I need to make them productive citizens."

Martinez isn't flipping his nose at voters who endorsed Proposition 200. The Arizona State University grad is being pragmatic. He's not a lawmaker. He's not a Border Patrol agent. He's not a law-enforcement officer.

He's a school leader who might be able to make a difference in the education of thousands of legal and undocumented children as they grow up and move forward. He can try to make sure that they learn English. And math and science, too.

Martinez and the board have some good ideas and are implementing them slowly. There's no reason they shouldn't succeed.