Arizona Republic, The (Phoenix, AZ)
January 15, 2007

Author: Pat Kossan, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 4

Five decades after the civil rights movement began, segregation reigns in Valley schools.

Half of Phoenix-area students are White and nearly 40 percent are Latino.
Schools rarely reflect that makeup or even their own districts' composition.

But one district on the Valley's edge, Casa Grande Elementary, is bucking the trend: It doesn't allow the isolation of White students from Latino ones, or richer from poorer.

Casa Grande purposely draws its school boundaries to give classrooms a racial and ethnic mix that is close to the overall district. That often means three or four far-flung neighborhoods feeding into one school.

It has not been easy and for the first time in three decades, it is starting to crumble.

Forces that segregate Valley districts are gathering strength in Casa Grande. Parents in old neighborhoods want their kids to stay there. Many parents buying new homes in this fast-growing part of Pinal County want new schools within a quick walk or ride. The costs of busing kids in a 400-square-mile district are rising.

Casa Grande is sticking to its policy for now. But district officials know it's looking more and more like an old-fashioned social experiment.

The policy hasn't faced a legal challenge and likely wouldn't be affected by a recent U.S. Supreme Court case about schools that accept students based on race or ethnicity to ensure a good mix.

But Superintendent Frank Davidson said it's getting tougher to help parents recognize what he says is good for the greater community vs. what they want for their child. That's happening despite rising test scores.

"That's the way most parents come to it: What school do I want my child to go to? I want my child to go to the one across the street," Davidson said.

Separate but equal

When asked about the sharp color and wealth division of their students, school administrators in the Valley often say the same thing: They wish they had the option of creating a better balance.

Instead, they focus on making sure all of their schools look good, all of their teachers receive the same training and all of the curriculum and supplies are standardized. The neighborhood-school policy may separate students into haves and have-nots, but the physical campuses and education quality are equal, administrators say.

Many teachers prefer a classroom mix because children learn from each other and struggling students get real role models. Schools overwhelmed by poor children struggling to read or learn English have bigger teacher turnover and younger teachers.

Research by Gary Orfield of Harvard University shows that neighborhood school policy is rapidly re-segregating districts, mostly in the growing West. He worries that children growing up in predominantly Black, Latino or White schools aren't learning to navigate the real America or the global economy.

"One thing you can't learn in those schools is how to live and work in an adult world," Orfield said.

'Give me a month'

Geography helps Casa Grande Elementary pull off desegregation.

The fading agricultural district built most of its 10 schools close to its town center, and new development has been patchy in the hinterlands and more rapid near the center.

Many kids still must travel to school. Another few miles in one direction or another for integration's sake is not a big deal.

Community desire also has kept diversity the norm.

Casa Grande is a small town with a history of segregation and families with long generational memories. Old-timers don't want to return to the times when White families lived north of Florence Avenue and everyone else lived south.

The district took the lead in breaking the color line. David Hernandez, one of the district's first Latino principals, said he had to talk many White parents into letting their children attend his south-of-the-tracks school.
The parents feared the neighborhood and the quality of education. They feared that their children's speech would be peppered with Spanish.

"I told them I was poor all my life, look where I am," Hernandez said.

Tom Hollenbach was one of the young fathers who had grave misgivings about sending his kindergartner to Hernandez's school, fearing his son would not get a "progressive education." After discussing it for a few hours, Hernandez made him the same deal he made with other parents: "Give me a month with your child in this school. If you are still unhappy, I'll help you transfer to any school you want."

Hollenbach kept his first child in Hernandez's school and sent two more sons as well. He is convinced that his kids have an edge in life because they learned to live, work and play with all kinds of people.

He also has been on the school board for nearly 18 years and volunteered to coach baseball for 30. Now, he sells diversity to other parents. He and the board sink money into older schools to keep them looking good, train all teachers and make sure the curriculum is standard in all 10 schools.

"We don't have a rich school on one side and a poor school on the other,"
Hollenbach said. "I don't want a situation where a parent can ever come back and ask me, 'Why can't my child get the same education as your child at such-and-such a school?' "


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CAPTION: Keeping integrated; How it works for one school CAPTION: 1) Frank Davidson, Casa Grande schools superintendent, uses a map of Casa Grande as he discusses future growth hot spots. 2) Tom Hollenbach of the Casa Grande Elementary school board stands on the site of a planned development, one of many proposed for the fast-growing region.
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Front
Page: A1

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Record Number: pho162117658