Local Heroes!

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If you think there's glory fighting for desegregation in the Tucson Unified School District, remember that TUSD's desegregation battle has been going on for nearly 40 years.

Sylvia Campoy has been officially part of the case since 2004, when she began her volunteer stint representing the Mendoza plaintiffs on behalf of Tucson's Latino students. The case goes back to the early 1970s, when a complaint was first filed by Roy and Josie Fisher on behalf of African-American students.

The district is now in the unitary status phase, meaning it must work within the confines of a legal agreement negotiated among all parties last year—TUSD, the Mendoza and Fisher plaintiffs, and the U.S. Department of Justice—by a desegregation expert appointed by U.S. District Judge David S. Bury.

That agreement is now in the implementation phase, which at times brings all parties back to court when there are disagreements over how to essentially change a district inside-out to better serve students. The areas in dispute have included special education, magnet schools, English-language learning, a curriculum to replace the beleaguered Mexican-American Studies department, and a multicultural curriculum.

Campoy may have been the perfect choice to represent the Mendoza plaintiffs. A TUSD governing board member from 1989 to 1992, a former TUSD special education teacher and former director of the city of Tucson's Equal Opportunity program, she knows the district well. She's aware of the discrimination and equality issues, and has remained steadfast in achieving justice for the plaintiffs, even in the midst of other political storms, such as the fight for Mexican American studies.

And she also brings personal experience with discrimination in TUSD to the negotiating table. When the sixth-generation Tucsonan started the first grade at Roskruge Elementary School in 1956, she spoke only Spanish.

"I wasn't just a non-English speaker, I didn't understand it and had no expressive or receptive English language skills," Campoy says.

Back then, kids with even moderate English skills were often held back in first grade, and sometimes they were sent to special education classrooms. Campoy's teacher took the approach that every time a student spoke Spanish out of turn, the student would be separated from other students. Campoy said she spent a lot of time banished to the steps of the school's massive staircase or to special education classes.

"Somehow they thought I'd learn English more quickly rubbing shoulders with mentally disabled kids," Campoy says.

She also received lessons about other misconceptions at an early age. Because Campoy was a skinny kid who didn't speak a word of English, her teacher thought she must be malnourished, so she was sent to the cafeteria to drink extra milk every day. "When I look back, that first year of school was very negative, but at the end I was doing fairly well for still not speaking (English) well. The teacher thought she was going to retain me, but my mother would not allow it. She advocated for me and I went on to second grade."

Despite the language barrier, Campoy says she made friends with other girls in her classroom.

"They took me by the hand and inadvertently taught me English," she says, tears welling up in her eyes. "I don't know why that makes me emotional. I suppose it's because it's an example of kids teaching kids, and another example of why integration of all kids is important—special education and English-language learners."

Positive or negative, those early years informed the person Campoy was to become—a speech pathologist and special education teacher, a discrimination and equality expert now working on the TUSD desegregation case.

"Maybe those years could have done a lot of damage. Maybe they did some, but we overcame the challenges by doing a lot of work at home. My mother made sure I got tutoring in English," she says.

This is the second time TUSD has gone through a post-unitary status plan process, and the second time for Campoy, too. Bury approved a post-unitary status plan in 2009, but in August 2011 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to Bury and the district was forced to start all over again.

Now, as a representative of the Mendoza plaintiffs, Campoy talks to school groups and parents about the issues. She reminds district officials about what they agreed to do, and also works closely with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Foundation, known as MALDEF.

"Everyone signed on the dotted line. It's important to remind the district that it can't dance away from what it agreed to do. That would be insanity for our children. We can't delay the implementation of the plan. That's delaying equality," Campoy says.

It isn't unusual for Campoy to hear from critics that the deseg plan wouldn't be needed if the district and parents just focused on improving struggling schools. "But that wasn't happening before. There remain inequality issues, some still in place going back to when my grandfather was in school," she says.

"Look, to rid an institution of institutional racism, the approach has to be systemic, otherwise permanent changes don't take place," Campoy says.

She's also had opportunities to give people outside the city a fuller picture of what's going on in Tucson, such as in June, when she was honored by the Plaza Community Services organization, headed by Gabriel Buelna, director of the documentary Outlawing Shakespeare. The award was presented to her by Chicano studies professor and author Rodolfo Acuña at a ceremony in Los Angeles.

"It was one of those full-circle moments," she says.

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