Denver’s school board president has vowed not to be kicked around by ethnic politics in the search for a superintendent, which advanced last week with the selection of three finalists.
But ever since the board’s ouster of Sidney ‘Chip’ Zullinger last spring sparked fury among Latino activists and the board’s two Hispanic members, it has been clear that the wishes of Hispanics – 53 percent of Denver Public Schools students – will be a factor.
Latino activists originally opposed Zullinger’s appointment because he had no experience with bilingual education.
But he stole their hearts in the summer of 1999, shortly after arriving from South Carolina, when he walked the streets of northwest Denver to learn why they were asking DPS to open its first dual-language school there.
‘We invited him, boom, he was there,’ said Pam Martinez, director of the parents’ group Padres Unidos. ‘He got to know Mexicana parents, he got to know Chicana parents, Anglo parents in the neighborhood – we were all there walking with him.’
The school will open in August, but with Zullinger gone, the victory seems tarnished to Martinez.
‘With what happened to Chip Zullinger I am highly nervous and not confident that they will give someone the leeway they need to be able to move this district forward,’ Martinez said.
‘He was our first superintendent who really did decisive outreach and bridge-building with the minority community. I have not seen that since he left. They said there was a commitment to it; there has not been.’
Fortunately for board chief Elaine Gantz Berman, she and critics like Martinez have some common ground: they agree that a superintendent’s competence and commitment are more important than his or her bloodline.
‘It doesn’t matter what color the person is,’ agreed Yuriana De Luna, a sophomore at Manual High School and a youth organizer with Students 4 Justice. ‘But the new superintendent has to listen to the students’ voice, have good ideas about improving our schools and be willing to fight for change and for our education.’
Martinez said DPS’ Hispanic population is in ‘crisis,’ and there’s plenty of evidence to support that view. Hispanics significantly lag non-Hispanic whites by every measure DPS uses to gauge student achievement.
‘I think the entire board has been very clear that we’re looking for the best person and we’re not saying that the best person has to be a female, a male, a Latino, an African-American, an Anglo,’ Berman said. ‘We’re looking for the best person to lead the district. If that person happens to be a Latino, terrific.’
None of the three candidates can be called a Latino in the strictest sense, but two do have resumes and life stories that may appeal to Latinos. Libia Socorro Gil leads a largely Hispanic elementary-school district in Southern California that has mainly ignored a state law designed to erode bilingual education.
And, as the daughter of a Costa Rican father, Gil speaks Spanish, though ‘not as fluently as I should.’ She’s stronger in her mother’s language, Cantonese.
So what is she?
‘I’ve been asked that many times already,’ Gil said last week after her interview with the school board. ‘If you’re talking about how I check myself off on all those boxes, it’s definitely ‘other.”
Denver businessman Jim Polsfut is of Western European descent but is a fluent Spanish speaker who has studied in Costa Rica, done business in Mexico, and put time and money into trying to bridge Denver’s rich white and poor Hispanic worlds.
He even adopted a Mexican orphan. Seven-year-old Javier is making great strides in both Spanish and English at Denver’s Dora Moore Elementary School, Polsfut said.
‘It’s a very special circumstance that I, if superintendent, could not only support philosophically the need for reaching out to this 53 percent community of Hispanics, but I have a little boy in an English Language Acquisition classroom myself,’ Polsfut said.
If the third candidate, former Colorado community-colleges chief Jerry Wartgow, got the job, he’d start in the same position that Zullinger did: with no particular Latino credentials, but eager to start communicating.
‘I’d have to earn my stripes there and prove myself, but I would think that my record would demonstrate that I’ve been effective in that arena. I certainly am committed to inclusiveness,’ Wartgow said.
One sign that Latino activists lost the battle over Zullinger but may be winning the war for influence in DPS is what happened to Alma de la Raza, a project that provides culturally sensitive teaching materials to teachers who request them. Units include ‘Mayan Mathematics’ and ‘Spanish Exploration of Colorado.’
The project was to be substantially reduced in a 2001-02 budget cut. But after a deluge of complaints, it probably will lose nothing more than some storage space in an upcoming move, according to its director, Loyola A. Martinez.
‘A lot of community members were compelled to go before the board and write letters and make phone calls in support of continuing the only curriculum in Denver that addresses the needs of minority kids,’ Martinez said.
Is it possible, however, to go too far in catering to Hispanic children’s emotional needs? Juana Morales, the mother of four elementary-school children in Libia Socorro Gil’s district, thinks so.
She says she’s furious that her third-grade son, despite being a second-generation U.S. citizen, cannot converse in English.
She blames that on the fact that her son – like Javier Polsfut – is in a class where he’s taught almost entirely in Spanish.
‘I understand it’s for the good of the kids for somebody to speak to them in their own language, but if they don’t get practice (in English) I don’t think they will become fluent, and as they get older it gets harder for them,’ Morales said.
If she wanted her kids educated in Spanish, Morales said, she’d send them to school 10 minutes down the road in Tijuana.
‘The truth is that we live in the United States,’ Morales said. ‘If you do not know how to read and write correctly in English, it’s not going to help.’