Arizona Daily Star
by Daniel Scarpinato Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/113493
Sixth-grader Yleana Ar-vizu can't get into the school of her choice for one reason: She's Hispanic.
A student at Mansfeld Middle School, Yleana would like her to go to Roskruge Bilingual Magnet School, down the street, and her parents agree. But Yleana and hundreds of other children can't get admitted there or at many other schools across the city strictly because of their ethnicity.
Ironically, the nearly 30-year-old federal desegregation order that requires the Tucson Unified School District to use ethnicity as a factor in setting school enrollment has, in some cases, made being a minority student a hindrance.
"It's discrimination," said Yleana's mother, Mavel. "When I told my daughter, 'You can't go to Roskruge because you're Mexican,' she said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'Well, you could if you were white.' "
The transfer policies that stem from the 1978 order don't always favor whites. Anglos now are so sought after because of their status as a statistical minority in TUSD that a school might not release white students to the school of their choice because it would throw off the ratios at the students' home school. And officials say that as the minority percentage in TUSD steadily rises, divvying up students is becoming increasingly difficult.
TUSD now is the only district left in the state and one of 317 in the nation under a desegregation order — down from 423 in 1999 — and TUSD officials are aggressively trying to have the order lifted. They say the requirements of the original settlement have been met, though civil rights advocates worry that moving out from under the order could mean a return to discrimination.
Meanwhile, parents and principals say they're frustrated. Roskruge is 150 students under-enrolled because 160 students — almost all minority — can't be admitted.
Instead, recruiters are targeting students in typically "white" parts of town, they say, attempting to lure them to their schools so they can try to meet prescribed ethnic ratios set in the 1970s when the minority percentage in TUSD was just over half what it is today.
Those with choices are Anglo families east of Alvernon Way, recruiters say, because if those students move to magnet schools in Tucson's core, their attendance won't harm their home school.
"My experience has been — talking with many, many parents who have a strong interest in coming to these schools — they are very, very disappointed they are not in the right ethnic group," Roskruge Principal Maria Marin said.
Utterback Middle Magnet School Principal Debbie Summers shares the same issues at her fine-arts-focused school.
"I love what the desegregation order is about, and part of the joy of Utterback is that mixture," she says. But "it's real hard for me as a principal to turn away a child who comes to my school and says 'I want to play the violin.' That hurts me.
"If a child wants to be in a certain building and the parent wants them to be there, I'd gladly accept them. But sometimes I need to ask point blank: 'What ethnicity is your child?' "
Change is problematic
According to district figures, 575 minority and 19 white students are on waiting lists at magnet schools in the face of a total of nearly 1,000 open seats at those same schools. At some of those schools, a shrinking student population has meant the loss of a full-time principal and parental fears that schools are headed toward closure.
Although everyone admits the situation is problematic, there are differing opinions on how to alter things.
Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer and TUSD board members say their hands are tied until the court order is terminated.
But members of the Independent Citizens Committee — set up by the courts to monitor TUSD's desegregation progress — say the district could, and should, have the ratios changed rather than trying to have the entire order lifted.
TUSD officials argue that without court control, schools could be more flexible in managing enrollment. And administrators and board members have stressed that making diversity a factor in school assignments is important.
Of course, not being under the court order also could mean losing families.
Take the Klines, who have become fairly savvy when it comes to the local school scene.
"We've tried public, private, charters too, and we still don't know what the hell to do," mother Pam Kline said jokingly.
Kline would like her son, 14-year-old Alex, to attend Flowing Wells High School when he starts ninth grade next school year. The Klines live in the far northwest corner of TUSD's boundaries, and Flowing Wells is just a few miles from their home in the Tucson Mountains west of town — half the distance to Tucson High Magnet School, Alex's designated campus.
Flowing Wells gladly would accept the Klines and others if it could, district Superintendent, Nic Clement said. Yet it can't because TUSD's desegregation order restricts it from doing so.
"We talked about moving," Pam Kline said. "But we love our home."
And for all of TUSD's talk about the merits that would come with more freedom, a study released this month by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project — a think tank devoted to renewing the civil rights movement — finds that "resegregation" has occurred in schools when the courts let them loose.
"We're seeing with the dismantling of court orders, once that happens, even if local officials wanted to maintain desegregation policies, they wouldn't be able to," said Chungmei Lee, a Harvard research associate who worked on the study.
Sylvia Campoy of the Citizens Committee said she also worries that losing the order might result in resegregation.
"The question is what has this district done," she said. "Do we have a plan in place to deal with disparities in achievement levels? We haven't found one."
But to families like the Arvizus, the desegregation order looks like a roadblock.
"The bottom line is I don't think her race should play into this," Mavel Arvizu said. "I don't think it's fair."
● Contact reporter Daniel Scarpinato at 573-4195 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.