TUSD, blacks at odds over deseg issue
District's draft plan to end court order is 'ill-conceived,' plaintiffs group says
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/education/282524
The Tucson Unified School District and a group of black plaintiffs are headed toward an impasse over a proposal to end a decades-old desegregation order.
Nearly a year ago, U.S. District Judge David Bury conditionally lifted a nearly 30-year-old desegregation order to bring TUSD schools into racial balance, pending approval of a plan to fix long-standing racial-equity issues and provide some assurance that the district won't lapse into the same sort of problems that led to the court order in the first place.
In an order that blasted the district for slapdash achievement data and halfhearted efforts to ensure that minority children had equal access to educational opportunities, Bury ordered TUSD to work collaboratively with affected community groups to devise a road map to equity.
But a coalition of black leaders held a press conference Monday to decry the draft plan that the district is circulating, saying the group has had no input and that the district's "ill-conceived plan" demonstrates its hostility.
Herman Warrior, a former TUSD administrator who serves on the negotiating committee representing the plaintiffs, said members of the group "believe that the district leadership team does not have personnel capable of producing a plan, or else they are acting in bad faith regarding compliance with the court order."
No one disputes that achievement gaps remain, even though the district received $800 million in desegregation funds and federal grants to pay for its civil-rights programs and projects from 1990 to 2006.
Last year the district collected about $62 million for desegregation efforts, which funded magnet programs and paid for extra teachers or smaller class sizes in some schools.
Still, in TUSD:
• Black children are less likely to be in advanced coursework.
• Black children aren't seeing enough teachers who also are black.
• Black children are suspended at rates much higher than one would expect, given their enrollment numbers in the district.
"We've been at this for more than 28 years, and we're no better off than we were $1 billion ago," Warrior said, including grants in his tally.
Warrior, a former assistant principal at Santa Rita High School, said he wasn't sure whether the concerns, if not addressed, could jeopardize the lifting of the court order. He said he hopes that doesn't happen.
The plan should establish clear benchmarks to resolve those issues, Warrior said. Instead, it's vague, with no accountability and no measurable objectives, he said. The group finally decided to hold a press conference to let the district know that members are frustrated and serious about wanting to see progress. "Our greatest concern is whether our kids can read and write," Warrior said.
If the order is lifted, it essentially will mean that the TUSD Governing Board will be able to run the district without first showing the court that any proposed changes won't hurt minority populations. For years, for example, students weren't allowed to attend some neighborhood schools due to concerns about upsetting racial and ethnic balances. And the court also had to sign off if the district wanted to open or close a school. Local control would eliminate the added cost and cumbersome delays inherent in court oversight.
But in many ways, little will change because the district already has taken steps toward this ruling for some time — for example, changing its enrollment policies last year to allow students to attend schools of their choice as long as there's room.
Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen said the district takes the racial shortcomings seriously, but she noted that the problems are long-standing and complex, and they've stymied districts across the country. "This is not just a Tucson issue, and no one has necessarily found a magic bullet yet," she said.
It won't be solved by coming up with a flow chart that funnels students with low reading scores into two reading classes a day, she said. Instead, she said, TUSD plans to keep meeting individual students' needs and plans to capitalize on a host of programs that have shown promise, including a new disciplinary approach designed to cut back on suspensions, for example.
The district, Fagen said, has not had much input from the plaintiffs, who were unable to attend several proposed meetings. The district did have eight productive conference calls with experts working with the plaintiffs, she said, and even offered to hire a facilitator to lead the meetings. The plaintiffs have not provided any specific language to address any shortcomings they see in the plan, she said.
Kelly Langford, president of the Tucson Urban League Inc., said the plaintiffs don't have any obligation to provide specific language, although they're working on doing just that.
"The patient doesn't tell the doctor what to prescribe," Langford said. "The district is the expert in academic matters. All we're asking for is a plan that holds the district accountable for changes, in language that everyone can understand."
Donna Liggins, president of the local NAACP, said "we're digressing," surmising that larger class sizes and an it's-just-a-job mentality on the part of some teachers are preventing the connection that black children need. "Our children need to know that somebody is there for them and that somebody cares about their education," she said.
Hispanic plaintiffs in the case could not be reached for comment Monday.
The district will hold public meetings Thursday and Monday to solicit comments on the draft documents. The public-comment period will end sometime in April. The Governing Board will have a chance to review the final document before it is submitted to the court in May.
If You Go:
• What: Public forums are being held to solicit comments on TUSD's plan to get out from under a long-standing desegregation order, which would allow it to achieve what's known as post-unitary status.
• When: The first forum will be held Thursday at Pueblo Magnet High School, 3500 S. 12th Ave., in the auditorium. The second will be held next Monday in the auditorium at Rincon High School, 421 N. Arcadia Blvd. The meetings will run from 6 to 8 p.m.
• For more information: Go to www.tusd.k12.az.us
Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 806-7754 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
DID YOU KNOW
Black students in Tucson were segregated from kindergarten through eighth grade at Dunbar School until 1951.
When desegregation came to Arizona that year, Dunbar was renamed John Spring Junior High School and was opened to all students.
Spring closed in 1978.
The Dunbar Coalition Inc. bought the building from the Tucson Unified School District in 1995 and is working to renovate the school and convert it into a museum and cultural center.
Go to www.thedunbarproject.org to learn more about that work.