Magnet Meltdown 

Will TUSD walk the talk of collaboration to do what’s best for magnet schools?

click to enlarge Cesar Aguirre’s youngest daughter attends Ochoa Elementary. He fears losing magnet funding would lead to the school’s closure.

MarÍa Inés Taracena

Cesar Aguirre’s youngest daughter attends Ochoa Elementary. He fears losing magnet funding would lead to the school’s closure.

Cesar Aguirre sees recent threats to strip five Tucson Unified School District schools of their magnet status—and possibly the funding that comes along with that label—as discrimination. To him, these schools are being punished for being "too brown."

"This case 40 years ago ... started with the intention of protecting our children, to improve quality of education of our children, now it is being used to harm our children, to take away the opportunities that we have been fighting for so long," he said at the TUSD Governing Board meeting last Tuesday. Aguirre's youngest daughter attends Ochoa Elementary School, which is among the group that could lose magnet status if the ethnic integration goals dictated by the decades-long desegregation lawsuit and court order are not achieved. "Growing up brown and poor on the south side of Tucson, I can tell you the one thing that got me off the streets, out of prison, kept me out of selling drugs, was education."

From scoring a D two years in a row, Ochoa is now rated B-minus, and Aguirre attributes the improvement to the magnet programs. (The programs, including the demanding International Baccalaureate for some schools, dual language, fine arts programs, and other alternative teaching methods, are there to attract enrollment of children and youth from throughout the city to create a more diverse student body, as well as to close the education achievement gap.)

In September, Willis Hawley—the special master appointed by the federal court to oversee the district's progress in desegregating—notified TUSD that elementary schools Bonillas and Ochoa; Safford K-8; Utterback Middle School and Cholla High School were at risk of losing magnet status. The lawsuit says no ethnic group can make up more than 70 percent of the student body, and at these schools Latinos continue to be the majority. For instance, at Ochoa, Latinos make up 77 percent of the student body, according to Hawley.

Aguirre wonders why the court and Hawley have negatively focused on the large percentage of Latino students attending the school, rather than celebrating and rewarding student success. Aguirre worries taking money from Ochoa will decrease enrollment even more, and result in the school's closure. (The board recently voted to give Ochoa—which has faced the possibility of shuttering before—$100,000 to re-establish learning spaces, known as studios, where students can get a broader view into math, science, literature and other topics.)

Parents and educators at last week's board meeting said they were sad the schools weren't given much room from the court to implement the latest magnet plans. They argued it's unfair to judge results within merely a few weeks into the school year. The district governing board has also expressed similar disappointment.

"Our schools, our superintendent, we thought we were measuring (the goals) at the end of the year, so to have (Hawley) come in and measure those goals(now), it feels like schools didn't have enough time," TUSD board member Kristel Foster says after a meeting with Hawley. "I am concerned about the impact."

But Sylvia Campoy—who's been involved in the deseg lawsuit since the beginning and is the representative for the Mendoza plaintiffs (Fisher & Mendoza v. Tucson Unified School District)—reminds Aguirre and TUSD that the whole purpose of the suit is integration.

Also, the district is in the situation that it's in because for years it's ignored feedback from the plaintiffs and the special master, and it has financially "starved" its magnet schools, she says. What's unfortunate, according to Campoy, is that TUSD's leadership is providing families with inaccurate information and portraying Hawley as a boogie man—with the purpose to defund schools and watch them burn, when that's not the case. It is on the district's shoulders, she says.

"You have got some magnet schools that have been sitting there neglected for 15 years, they are racially concentrated, what else could you expect?" Campoy says.

This school year began with the district taking nearly $1 million away from magnet schools, and with several faculty and staff vacancies, according to Campoy and Betts Putnam-Hidalgo, a critic of the board majority who's run for the TUSD board twice unsuccessfully.

"I do believe magnet schools need more time, but this time they need more time with the resources that they need ...," Putnam-Hidalgo told the governing board last Tuesday. "(The board) is withholding the resources."

What's led to today's events began with a 2013 court order pressuring the district to draft a magnet plant with integration and academic achievement goals, Campoy says, adding both drafts were, well, bad.

Then, in January of this year, the court issued another order. Magnet schools had eight months to develop plans to meet the goals required by the court. On the 40th school day, Hawley was supposed to review the schools, which were ordered to be integrated by 2016 and have met academic criteria demands by the 2016-2017 school year. According to Campoy, some magnet school administrators reached out saying they didn't even have a copy of the court order.

The schools in question get a combined deseg budget of $2.84 million, according to Hawley's report. While the district fear the schools will lose that funding, in a September notice Hawley wrote, "I believe that all of the schools should retain some funding beyond the regular funding formula ..." For students underperforming, "It is essential to invest in improving their performance ... (there are) programs that should be sustained because they keep students in the district."

"The situation cannot be a surprise to anyone paying attention, the court order handed down eight months ago was unambiguous, throughout the development of the magnet plans this spring, most, if not all of these schools were identified as being vulnerable to losing their magnet status," he adds.

Parents like Aguirre want to be part of the lawsuit, or for Hawley to meet with them personally. They say the plaintiffs and the special master are outdated. Things have changed in the district's demographics since the lawsuit began in the early 1970s. There are also charter schools and other learning options in place that contribute to disproportionate student bodies, Foster argues. The board member hopes the court and special master take that into consideration when deciding the fate of the magnet schools.

On Oct. 6, a proposal from the plaintiffs was presented to all parties. Among the demands are to fill all vacancies by Nov. 1, to have no vacancies at the beginning of next school year, and to allocate the nearly $1 million removed from the magnet schools.

"We understand that the 'devil is in the details' and the district has agreed to immediately begin working on the specifics required to make the Mendoza Proposal work," Campoy says in a deseg update. "It is the hope of the Mendoza Party that TUSD will fully embrace the Mendoza Compliance Proposal; will put an aggressive plan together in response to the proposal and will, most importantly, immediately and effectively implement the plan. This is an opportunity to 'walk-the-talk' of collaboration. The ball is now in TUSD's court (figuratively and literally)."

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