It is midafternoon. As a shrill electric bell signals the end of another day of classes, a tall, middle-aged man in a dark blue suit and a red tie leans down to talk to the young woman walking by his side.
Dr. Roger Romero, superintendent of the Wilson Elementary School District, tries to make himself heard over the after-school cacophony of dozens of adolescents shrieking in Spanish and English as they bolt from classrooms. He raises his voice: “What do you want me to call you, anyway? Do you like to be called Miss Rubio or Ms. Rubio or Tammy or what?” “Call me Tammy,” replies Tammy Rubio, dressed in a bulky salmon-colored pullover, black stirrup pants and black flats. The newly elected member of the Wilson Elementary School District Governing Board is eighteen years old, but she looks younger than some of the eighth graders who bump into her as they race down the concrete walkways.
Rubio may well be the youngest school board member in Maricopa County. She won the election last fall as a write-in candidate after door-to-door campaigning in the district barrios.
Romero, 48, is also a new arrival in the district. The former assistant superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District hired on at the Wilson district just a few months ago.
The superintendent and his school board are faced with a difficult challenge: Running a school district with one of the lowest achievement rates in the state, and one of the highest rates of student withdrawal in Maricopa County.
Their district is tiny, with only two schools, Wilson Elementary School and Wilson Primary School, which sit across from each other on 30th Street just north of Van Buren. A vast majority of the students withdraw before the school year ends. Roughly a quarter of the students come from transient homeless families. Another quarter come from migrant Hispanic workers who move frequently.
A quarter of the pupils in the almost completely Hispanic district speak only Spanish. Some, recent immigrants from Mexico or Guatemala, have never used indoor plumbing. Others enter school completely illiterate, yet old enough to be in eighth grade.
Of the 850 or so students in the district, 97 percent are poor enough to qualify for free breakfast and lunch. Sometimes, these are the only meals some students will eat in a day.
MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 The area surrounding the schools is rough. Stabbings are frequent in the Van Buren motels, and prostitutes wander up from that street to strut their wares in the school zone. School board president Mercedes Robles often shoos the women away. But lately she’s been more diplomatic, after she noticed that one of the prostitutes is also a school mother.
All this takes its toll on the children, who often try to put the best face possible on their own transient lives. Take, for instance, an all-too-common vignette that plays itself out as Romero and Rubio stop by the band room on their tour of the school.
A fat boy barges in to collect his brother. “We gotta clean our lockers,” the fat boy says. His younger brother reluctantly tucks his drumsticks in the back pocket of his jeans and heads toward the door. “We’re movin’ to the north side; we’re gonna go to a real nice private school,” the fat boy says with bravado, to no one in particular. It is painful for teachers to watch such scenes, and to know that for homeless kids like these, school is the warmest, most welcoming place they know. Ironically, the buildings of the Wilson School District are clean, modern and superbly equipped. The teachers are among the highest paid and best qualified in the state. Although the children are poor, the school district has a rich industrial tax base that contributes generously to the district’s $3.3 million budget for two schools. What’s more, the school’s impoverished student body qualifies it for numerous federal grants.
Wilson is a district ripe for innovation, and Roger Romero says he wants to make the school a national model for similar inner-city Hispanic schools. The Wilson District offers a window into Hispanic education in the Valley. It is a Hispanic school run by a Hispanic school board and superintendent. Whether the school fails or succeeds is a measure of how one Hispanic community tends to its educational needs.
Romero is controversial. He resigned as assistant superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District last year, for reasons he says are ” political.” He implies that he objected to its failure to provide bilingual education. Romero, like other Hispanic activists, is an ardent advocate of bilingual teaching. He believes that teaching kids in their native tongue improves achievement and self-esteem. Now he has a chance Col 3, Depth P54. 10 I9.14 Pedro and his wife have struggled for years to learn English, but have never been able to grasp it completely. When their son George was in first grade, each day the teacher would pin a note to his shirt, telling his mother to speak with him in English. “What does the note say?” his mother would ask in Spanish.
This is one reason Pedro values the teaching of English to Hispanic kids. ” The primary language of America is English,” he says. “We need to know English to defend our rights. If one doesn’t know the Constitution, one is dead. Spanish is the language of our culture. We must know it to know our culture.”
Pedro’s children, including George, a school board member, and Grace, the district’s community liaison, attended “the old Wilson” schools at 24th Street and Buckeye.
Grace is going to college now that her own children are older. She also works part-time for the district, rooting out family problems that may affect children’s performance. George Ruiz takes pride in the fact he mastered English, graduated from high school and went to college. He became one of the barrio activists who marched for grape boycotts, and he was one of the founders of Chicanos por la Causa, a high-profile Hispanic business and activist group. He decided to raise his sons, who both attend Wilson Elementary School, in the same area where he grew up because of the warmth of his family and old friends. But things have changed since his childhood, with the influx of homeless people and industrial development. He racks his brains trying to figure out the best way to tend to homeless and illiterate migrant kids. Neither George Ruiz nor his father can say why 50 percent of Wilson graduates drop out of high school. The Ruizes mention many of the same reasons the experts list–poor mastery of English, shame at not fitting into the dominant culture, poverty.
George Ruiz hopes to ease the pain by developing a private foundation, funded by local industries, to buy clothes, food and medical care for the district’s poorest children. What they come back to again and again, though, is the need for high parental expectations: If parents don’t expect their kids to succeed in school, the kids usually won’t.
Sometimes the simplest things make a difference. “Clothes are a big thing,” says George Ruiz. “Clothes from Goodwill aren’t always stylish. We need to get these kids coupons so they can go to the store and pick out something to wear.”
CHARLEEN GRAHAM’S classroom looks like a typical schoolroom for six- and seven-year-olds. There are little round tables and little plastic chairs. There are blackboards and brightly colored posters. There are reading nooks and funny stuffed animals.
What is unusual about the classroom is that it is one of several “Welcome Rooms” the district started up this fall. Kids who enroll in school are brought here for a few weeks so that teachers can place them in appropriate classrooms.
An eight-year-old might be illiterate. A five-year-old might know how to read and write in both Spanish and English. A six-year-old may not know how to use the toilet.
In Graham’s room of about twenty kids, for instance, there are several children from the Salvation Army shelter who have just signed up for school. Since these homeless children will probably stay in school for only two weeks, until their time at the shelter is up, Graham simply tries to make them happy and comfortable.
Sometimes, Graham is puzzled by the children and sends Grace Ruiz out into the barrios to investigate. For instance, Graham wants to know why little ” Armida” is having so much trouble with her numbers and colors; the girl stares blankly into space for hours on end. “Alejandro” and “Amelia,” two children from a migrant family, are also performing badly.
Armed with a stenographer’s notepad, Grace drives a district sedan out into the barrios and finds Alejandro and Amelia’s family in a rundown apartment off 30th Street.
A teenager ushers her into a bare living room with two dirty plaid couches. The only other furniture is an old tire, serving as a table, a seat and storage for a few old toys. The room is cold from air that rushes through the crack between the door and the jamb. Three families live here. No one speaks English. In Spanish, Grace chitchats while she takes mental notes. Finally, she asks the mother, who is from southern Mexico, what sort of schooling her young children have had. Alejandro and Amelia have been to three American schools in one year, the mother says. In Cuernavaca, Mexico, last year, they both flunked school. Grace takes notes. Then she mentions casually that the district offers free English classes to parents, every Monday and Wednesday. “You can help them with their schoolwork,” she says. And she offers, in a way that offends no one, to drive the mother to the district’s clothing bank. She leaves her telephone number. “Call me for whatever you need,” she says. “I am at your service.” Then she shakes hands with each of the dozen or so people who have gathered in the room, then drives off in the district car.
She will suggest to Graham that the children, who were held back a grade in Mexico, be tested for learning disabilities.
Grace has more trouble locating Armida’s family. She stops at an apartment building where a man unpacks furniture from the back of a rickety flatbed, but no one has heard of the family. Grace is directed to a seedy motel on Van Buren, but the office is closed. She knocks on the doors of a few rooms, but no one answers. Finally, after speaking in Spanish to several people on the street, she finds Armida’s family living with two other families in a clean but rundown two-bedroom apartment in the shadow of the Squaw Peak Parkway. Three families are existing on $80 a week. “There isn’t any work,” Armida’s mother tells Grace in Spanish. “We can’t find work. Times are very tough.”
One of the mothers bursts into tears. Her husband was recently killed in a car accident. She feels lost. She has no papers. Grace tells her to go to Friendly House for free legal advice. The woman sobs and says she is afraid to get help, afraid that she will be deported without her children. ” Adelante, senora,” says Grace. “You must look to the future.”
Then Grace leaves her telephone number. She says she can try to help the family with food. She talks about the English classes. THE NEXT NIGHT, none of the mothers Grace visited is among the forty or so Spanish-speaking parents who show up at the Wilson Primary School cafeteria for English classes. The parents are divided into three groups, according to their abilities. The most elementary group is struggling with how to say the days of the week. “Today is Thursday,” they say over and over in unison.
At the second table, there are about a dozen mothers, a father and the older brother of an eighth grader. The instructor, Maria Alvarado-Hernandez, passes out construction paper upon which her students are to write different verbs, nouns and articles in English. They will tape the cards on a board in sequence, to make an English sentence. The moms giggle when they take turns at the board and read their handiwork. “The rabbit sleeps behind the tree,” one mom says. “Those ugly shoes are there,” says another.
Maria Vargas comes from Guatemala and has been taking the classes since September. In Spanish, she says her family has lived in the United States for five years. She and her husband, who works at an airplane-parts factory, have three children. “When we first arrived,” she says, “my daughter Jessica would come home from school and ask me a question about her schoolwork. She would cry and I would cry with her because I couldn’t help her.
“Now I can help the children with their homework a little. I want to help my children in every way I can. I still need to learn more English, but each time that I come I learn new words and pick up more of the language.”
At the most advanced table of parents, Pedro Ruiz, the father of George and Grace, is valiantly trying to perfect his English, a task that he has been working at for decades.
BILINGUAL EDUCATION is at the heart of the controversy over language and literacy in Hispanic education. Local Hispanics like Romero prefer bilingual classes. So do educators in the Bush administration. Advocates believe that a Spanish-speaking child who learns history or math in Spanish will “store” his knowledge and automatically transfer it into English once he masters the language. In most bilingual programs, kids are weaned from Spanish in three years. By that time, they should be solidly grounded in the basics. Romero believes bilingual education boosts academic achievement, and could lower the 50 percent high school dropout rate among Hispanics nationally.
Opponents of bilingual education say it slows children’s entry into the American mainstream, and doesn’t give them sufficient English to qualify for good jobs. Such critics often favor the use of English as a Second Language. Popular in inner-city schools, ESL attempts to teach kids English as quickly as possible.
Bilingual advocates counter that ESL is insensitive to cultural needs and discourages kids from staying in school.
Bilingual education was part of the reason for the clash between Roger Romero and the Phoenix Union High School District. The district was using ESL, but Romero says he advocated the introduction of bilingual classes for Spanish-speaking kids.
By the time Roger Romero became superintendent, bilingual classes were already being tested at the Wilson School District. He hopes to add more to the curriculum.
That’s because the bilingual classes seem to be working. Teacher Maria Alvarado-Hernandez says, “I have very high expectations, academically, for my students.” This class is a good example.
She passes out a study sheet on Martin Luther King Jr. to a class of eighth graders. Most of these kids have been in the United States only two or three years, several have arrived just a few months ago. Since they don’t speak much English, it’s clear that they will learn more if they are instructed in Spanish.
In their native tongue, they discuss Coretta Scott King, how blacks weren’t allowed to sit in the front of buses, King’s marches, the Nobel Peace prize, and King’s assassination. One boy reads an excerpt from the “Free at Last” speech: Soy libre al fin, soy libre al fin, Libre al fin, Doy gracias a Dios Todo Poderoso, Soy libre a fin.
What is frustrating to Maria Alvarado-Hernandez is that tomorrow, for no reason that will be explained to her, one of her students might be withdrawn from class when he is making the most progress. It is a fact of life in the Wilson district.
“We can’t use this mobility rate as a copout,” she says. “We still have to expect these kids to achieve academically.”
TAMMY RUBIO IS an example of the power of expectations. She was the only one in her group at Camelback High School to graduate. “All my friends got pregnant and dropped out and there I was, all alone at Camelback,” says Rubio, who graduated last spring. “I didn’t even have anyone to eat lunch with. “Now they have babies and are on welfare and some of the boys are in gangs, just moving around from one house to another. They don’t use their heads.”
Rubio says she stayed in school because her mother, who herself became pregnant as a teenager and never earned a high school diploma, insisted that her daughter graduate from high school.
It wasn’t easy. Because she attended parochial school her sophomore year, Rubio lacked credits. To graduate on time, she had to go to night school her senior year at Camelback.
This personal struggle is one of the reasons Rubio is so keenly interested in Hispanic education. It is the reason, along with the encouragement of a school counselor at South Mountain Community College, that Rubio decided to run for the school board. And she is proving that an eighteen-year-old can hold her own at a school board meeting.
At her first meeting last month, she publicly noted that the chairman of the board had called for a vote without first opening the topic for discussion. And she questioned the board’s wisdom in sending a nonbilingual teacher to a bilingual education class. A Hispanic man in the audience watched Rubio in amazement. “She will be chairman of the school board some day,” he said. “She will be in the legislature some day. Heck, she might even be governor some day.
“Kids like this,” the man said proudly, “are what it’s all about.”
The Wilson District has one of the lowest achievement rates in the state, and one of the highest rates of withdrawal in Maricopa County.
Some recent immigrants from Mexico or Guatemala have never used indoor plumbing.
The teachers are among the highest paid and best qualified in the state.
The area is tremendously diverse: Neighborhoods with nicely kept houses give way to slum apartments and motels for the homeless.
Three families are existing on $80 a week. The most elementary group is struggling with the days of the week. “Today is Thursday,” they say over and over in unison.
Bilingual education is at the heart of the controversy over language and literacy in Hispanic education.
“Kids like this,” the man said proudly, “are what it’s all about.”