School's Out

Cecilia Mendoza Calls It Quits At Tucson High.

CECILIA MENDOZA restored order to the city's flagship high school and then faced down Tucson Unified School District's petty political operatives, but now the Tucson High School principal is going back to Cali.

Fresh into the fall 1995 semester, the classic campus of Tucson High erupted in riots, one that involved a crush of 300 students and a response from 120 cops.

Drop-out rates jumped; achievement sagged. Students' trust was at an all-time low. They sniffed out inequity and were particularly fed up with unequal treatment from administrators. Fights, drugs or weapons by one group were swept aside. Lesser infractions by another group brought stiff penalties including expulsion. Administration succeeded in pitting groups against one another.

Help from Tucson police, necessary at times, became problematic because TUSD brass, most significantly Superintendent George F. Garcia and then-Board Member Gloria Copeland, chose instead to get into pissing contests with police.

Instability at Tucson High in 1995 was precipitated by the sudden resignation of Principal Henry Lujan, who left as the start of the fall semester neared. Less than a week after the Tucson High brawls, Mendoza was hired.

Mendoza left her native California -- she was then the principal of a high school in the East Bay community of San Lorenzo -- and took over at Tucson High in December of 1995. Though she reached the top in pay among TUSD principals at $73,500 a year, Mendoza initially took a pay cut to move from San Lorenzo.

When she arrived, Mendoza stayed with Carolyn Kemmeries, a first-term TUSD Board member who was then a TUSD administrator who had been called in to serve in an interim capacity at Tucson High.

Mendoza showed independence from the start. She didn't accept the TUSD administration take. She walked and studied the campus. She met with students. She met with parents. She met with neighbors. She met with merchants. And she met with police and others with expertise in gang and violence prevention.

She beefed up the school monitor corps, but more important, reworked their schedules and tasks to make them more effective.

The results were clear. A changed atmosphere swept over Tucson High. Attendance problems dropped. Fights and turf wars were contained or prevented. Achievement rebounded.

"Cecilia Mendoza has shown the value of an outsider's perspective," said Rosalie Lopez, a first-year TUSD Board member. "She has shown that perspective is very valuable. She turned Tucson High around. And there has been performance improvement every year under Cecilia. Whoever follows her will benefit, as the school and community have, from Cecilia's hard work and her talent. She gets the credit."

The 43-year-old Mendoza, a former softball coach at the University of San Francisco, is pleasant but circumspect during an interview. Perhaps that's because she's retained attorney Anthony Ching and is considering legal action against TUSD.

She's quick to give credit to her staff and to the students. A key for her was to treat students with respect and consistency.

Problems arise when students detect the slights or inconsistent treatment from faculty and administrators, she says.

"It's a tough job and she did a tremendous job," said Eddie Contreras, a father of a Tucson High senior and a member of several Tucson High associations.

Despite her success at Tucson High, Mendoza's job was constantly made more difficult by TUSD headquarters and by Copeland and other meddling members of the Board.

During one fracas, minor in comparison to the 1995 riot, Copeland appeared on the campus and issued orders. She kept Mendoza targeted for petty harassment.

That came to a head last year when Copeland and her allies on the Board, Joel Ireland and Brenda Even, bounced Paul Hatch, one of Mendoza's popular and effective assistant principals, to help shore up poorly run Catalina High School.

Parents and staff were alarmed. Letters protesting Hatch's transfer were prepared by the Concerned Citizens for the Future of Tucson High Magnet School and sent to Tucson High parents. School ID numbers were used for the mailing and $880 from a Tucson High discretionary account covered the cost.

Although the fund was supported by revenues from soda machines, the former Board, which included Copeland, Even, Ireland, Mary Belle McCorkle and James Noel Christ, ordered investigations of Mendoza that costs thousands of dollars but produced little more than conflicting opinions. And just as Lopez and Kemmeries were replacing Copeland and Even, Garcia asked County Attorney Barbara LaWall to investigate with an eye toward felony prosecution.

The move was too petty even for LaWall, a first-term Democrat and career prosecutor whose office is frequently criticized for pursuing minor cases with inordinate vigor and money. LaWall wisely declined. And Hatch, ironically, has been transferred back to Tucson High.

As Mendoza set about to run her school, supporters say some of her TUSD bosses continued to seek to undermine her.

Garcia never sought to repair or maintain a professional relationship, petulantly telling Mendoza one evening at a Tucson High function: "We are judicial adversaries."

"It was all this punitive garbage from 1010 (TUSD headquarters) that led to this," Contreras says.

When word leaked earlier this summer that Mendoza was up for a job as a principal in Sequoia, Calif., Garcia's staff pounced with speed not seen in TUSD bureaucracy to demand a letter of resignation from Mendoza. Twice she had to turn away a courier sent by Assistant Superintendent Larry Williams to pick up the resignation.

Mendoza says she was concerned that there be a smooth transition and that a replacement, even interim, would be able to work or consult with her.

Contreras says Mendoza was successful because she understood the unique nature of Tucson High.

"This is the largest school. It has the most diverse population. It is a magnet school and a desegregation school. It has the highest visability. Cecilia recognized this and her replacement will have to," Contreras says.

Independently, Lopez and Contreras have been successful in changing Garcia's recruitment plans. The original closing date of July 9 was changed first to July 16 and then to July 26 and the search was widened for a limited national pool.

Among possible local candidates are Abel Morado, principal at Santa Rita High School; Ross Sheard, principal of Utterback Magnet School; and Kelly Langford, director of African-American Studies for TUSD whose career began as a teacher in 1976. Langford was a favorite of Copeland's.