Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/0205faculty05.html

Giving back to school
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 5, 2004 12:00 AM
Mel Meléndez

3 former Latino graduates of Carl Hayden come back to teach

Stephen Escudero, a Carl Hayden High School graduate, never viewed college as an option. Vanessa Valenzuela admitted to "always hating school." Mario Malaby took innumerable trips to the office for being disruptive and ditching class.

The three could have been part of a distressing statistic, among the 30 percent of Latino students in Arizona who don't finish high school. Instead, they're success stories and role models to the hundreds of students they teach every day at Carl Hayden High School in west Phoenix.

"We all wanted to give back to the school that helped us remain on track," said Valenzuela, 25, who teaches English. "We want our kids to know that they can have dreams and aspirations and make them come true. We're living proof of that, because it wasn't too long ago that we were them."

The three, all in their 20s, illustrate ongoing recruitment efforts by Valley school districts to close the growing racial disparity between teachers and students.

Minority students

Minorities account for nearly half of Arizona's public school students. But only 16 percent of their teachers are ethnic minorities, according to figures from the Arizona Department of Education. Closing that gap is a top priority because minority teachers serve as role models for students at higher risk for dropping out, said Craig Pletenik, spokesman for the Phoenix Union High School District, where 86 percent of its 23,000 students are minorities.

"I don't know of a school district here that's happy with its number of minority teachers. We all want more."

But diversifying those ranks isn't always easy when minority candidates are in such demand. Pletenik characterized the competition to hire them as "brutal."

Malaby, 26, knows that all too well. Now in his third year of teaching, the local boy with the jocoso (jocular) personality has taught in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. He is one of a rare breed: a bilingual, minority special-education teacher.

Coming back

"I like to travel and knew that as a special-ed teacher, I could move around a bit because of the special-ed (teachers') shortage," he said. "But my family owns a business across the street from Carl Hayden, so I always knew I'd come back."

Savvy school districts target former students for teaching slots because it often makes the difference in retaining them, said Josue González, an education professor at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Phoenix Union, which pays starting teachers $3,000 above the state average of $29,000, is developing a reputation for hiring alumni. They include four teachers at Carl Hayden, seven at Camelback, eight at South Mountain and 10 at Central. González thinks that's good business.

"A third of all teachers leave the profession within five years, and many are bolting from inner-city schools because they didn't know what to expect," González said. "But alumni hires know what to expect and have a vested interest in the school, so they'll likely stay on."

Few Latinos of either gender seek teaching credentials. For example, only 13 percent of the 4,524 students enrolled this year in the teaching program at Arizona State University in Tempe are Latinos.

Still, the percentage surpasses the total Latino enrollment at ASU, which is 11 percent. González credits various programs, including ENLACE, which targets minority high school students to entice them to go to college.

"We're starting to (make) incremental gains," said González, who oversees ENLACE. "They're baby steps."

Latino dropout rate

Arizona's Latino dropout rate is more than double the national rate, estimated at about 15 percent. Carl Hayden has about 2,350 students - 97 percent of them minorities. Of those, 92 percent are Latino, including 62 percent who live in monolingual Spanish-speaking homes, said Principal Steve Ybarra. Having teachers that culturally identify with students and parents can make all the difference in the world, he said.

"You have to hire the best teachers. Period," said Ybarra, who pauses to speak in Spanish to an English language learner.

"But when the best ones are Latinos and they happen to be former students, then you hit the jackpot. They know the school and understand its culture and nothing is going to stand in the way of their kids learning."

Reminding students

Valenzuela and Escudero, a 23-year-old World history and government teacher, often remind students that they're Carl Hayden alumni.

"I'll tell them, 'I know what you're doing because I used to do that. You're not fooling me.'" Valenzuela said. "I feel sorry for my old teachers now."

"It's total reparation to the 10th power," Malaby said, teasing.

The trio, who were friends in high school, said they're not on a first-name basis with many of their former teachers.

"It just feels weird," Valenzuela said.

She wishes more Latinas would become teachers to serve as role models for the girls who sometimes view college as an unrealistic expectation.

"They'll tell me, 'You don't have any kids and you got a college degree?' like it's this amazing thing," she said. "I tell them 'I was just like you. I used to get into trouble sometimes, but I remained focused because I wanted a career. You can do the same thing.' They need to see women that look like them that have succeeded."

Parent Joyce Grossman, whose kids attend the Magnet Traditional School in Phoenix, said it's important for school staff to reflect the city's multiethnic climate.

"I chose an inner-city school for my kids, where they're the minority, so that they could get the experience that comes with interacting with students of other cultures," she said. "So I'd love for my kids to have more minority teachers. All kids, including Anglo kids, need those diverse role models."

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