Frustrated by years of low test scores and high dropout rates among Hispanic students, Hispanic leaders are gearing up for what they hope will be a major overhaul of Denver Public Schools – starting at the top with the superintendent and the school board.
The “Latino Education Campaign” kicks off tonight with a forum at the Pena Business Plaza. Organizers hope it will galvanize political action in the district, in which one out of every two students is Hispanic.
The group plans to put pressure on DPS by encouraging challengers to the school board. Four of seven seats will be up for grabs in the fall election, including that of Rita Montero. Montero is the board’s lone Hispanic, but some critics accuse her of being insensitive to the needs of the Hispanic community.
“We’ve got to show the school board we mean business,” said Rufina Hernandez, executive director of the Denver-based Latin American Research and Service Agency (LARASA). “The only way we can do that is by showing them out.”
Montero, who is running for re-election in November, defended the job she’s done representing the Hispanic community and the rest of her constituents in northwest Denver.
“I’ll put my record up against theirs any day,” Montero said. “I would ask them to make a list and show where and what issues I’ve not been sensitive to district needs, in particular with Latino kids, or any kids for that matter.”
The group also wants a say in who will be the named to replace outgoing Superintendent Irv Moskowitz, who has been criticized by Hispanic leaders in his five years at DPS. The new hire doesn’t necessarily have to be Hispanic, they say – just dedicated to improving the achievement of Hispanic students.
“The DPS system is not accountable for our kids,” said Denver City Councilwoman Ramona Martinez. “Hispanic parents are not just lying back anymore.”
“It doesn’t mean we have to put brown faces on the school board,” said Nita Gonzales, who runs a private school for Hispanics. “We want someone who will be sensitive to our concerns. No one there (DPS) is accountable for our community.”
LARASA is one of the main organizers of the campaign, which is just now getting off the ground.
Others that are involved or are being recruited include: Martinez; Gonzales; Rev. Lucia Guzman, executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches; James Mejia of the Mayor’s Office of Human Rights and Community Relations; University of Colorado at Denver professor Estevan Flores; Pierre Jimenez of the governor’s office of small business and development; Denver lawyer Adrienne Benavidez; Jose Mondragon, executive director of Servicios de la Raza; and Audrey Alvarado, associate dean of the graduate school of public affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver.
The group also plans a massive effort to get more Hispanics to vote in the November school board election. This week, group members are visiting Chicago, Los Angeles and El Paso to study schools where Hispanic students are succeeding. A major emphasis will center around getting more Hispanic parents involved in their schools.
But where they think they can effect more change is at the school board level, where policy is developed. The school board terms of Montero, Les Woodward, Sue Edwards and Laura Lefkowits are all up this fall.
Organizers of the campaign will not say publicly who they plan to support for school board. Nonprofits like LARASA are prohibited by law from endorsing political candidates.
“As a nonprofit, we can’t take political action, but we can advocate for change and better circumstances for the Latino kids trying to learn and succeed,” Hernandez said.
Montero, who has been criticized for her support of Denver’s new bilingual education program, which mainstreams students into regular classes after three years, said her critics are “only a handful” and don’t represent the opinions of the majority of parents.
Montero said she helped two northwest Denver schools get $ 2 million to build additions from leftover 1990 bond money that had been earmarked for something else. And she pushed for new “computer magnets” next year at North High and Lake Middle schools, both of which have high Hispanic populations.