"It's our turn to be heard"

With Hispanics the majority among Dallas schoolchildren and a Latino superintendent in their corner, Jesse Diaz and other activists say

"We were lucky," Martinez adds. "At least I had a supportive principal and knew people in the Multilingual department. I used my influence and pushed and pushed."

At Roger Q. Mills elementary school near the Dallas Zoo, Hispanic students had another problem. Once an overwhelmingly African-American school, Mills found itself with 20 non-English-speaking students spread out over six grades. A first-grade girl was put in an all-English-speaking class, which was traumatic for her, Carrizales says. The other 19 students--ranging from second to 6th graders--spent all morning together in one class with an ESOL teacher. In the afternoon, the older students went to regular classes.

Carrizales says the children's parents were upset about the arrangement, but were afraid to confront the school's black principal, irrationally fearing she might retaliate against their children. So instead they turned to Carrizales for help. It took two months for the principal to set up a meeting, Carrizales says. Shortly thereafter, the school got a bilingual aide to assist the teacher. Had the district known about the situation earlier, says one official, it may have been able to provide the school with another part-time ESOL teacher.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, when no special programs existed for Spanish-speaking students, kids were tossed into regular classes to sink or swim. When their numbers started spiraling upward and too many were sinking, schools started offering them bilingual classes for a year or two, just enough for them to pick up some conversational English.

Things have changed. "The idea now is that being bilingual is a gift, not a handicap," says Evangelina Cortez, assistant superintendent for DISD's Multilingual/Multicultural department. "Eventually we would like to see each student learn two languages, but we're not there yet."

State law mandates that students in kindergarten through 6th grade with limited English be taught by certified bilingual teachers, who must be fluent in Spanish and English. Limited English Proficient (LEP) students in upper grades are taught by English-speaking teachers trained in special techniques to help strengthen students' command of the English language. There's a critical shortage of bilingual teachers in DISD. At last count, the district needed 517 bilingual teachers, as well as 10 ESOL teachers. Though current research shows it takes about five to seven years for a child to learn another language, the shortage of bilingual teachers is making the process stretch out even longer in DISD.

In the early '90s, the district began offering bilingual teachers $3,000 yearly bonuses. But this didn't go far in beefing up the ranks of bilingual teachers.

Trustee Kathleen Leos says the shortage of bilingual teachers extends nationwide, but for DISD to use that as an excuse is "hogwash." "Have we done everything possible to get aggressive about recruitment and retention?" she asks. "No."

Last year, shortly before he resigned as DISD superintendent, Chad Woolery had started paying some attention to the needs of the growing Hispanic student population. He ordered a report on Hispanics in the Dallas public schools, which ostensibly mapped out a plan for the future.

Instead, the report downplayed almost every problem, particularly the drop-out rate. "The district is making great strides in reducing the dropout rates," the report boasts. "In 1987-'88, about one out of every five Hispanics dropped out. The dropout rate has been reduced to 5 percent."

But behind the scenes, many district officials knew those numbers were meaningless. "You can't believe the district's drop-out figures," says a former trustee. "The numbers essentially have been cooked."

Not exactly; there's no evidence that the district intentionally deceived the public. But the way the state requires school districts to calculate the drop-out rate--only counting the number of students dropping out in their senior year--gives DISD a convenient way to hide reality. Most drop-outs, in fact, leave school well before their senior year--so the district's figures don't detect them. Most drop-outs, in fact, quit school after ninth grade, according to statistics compiled by trustee Jose Plata, who surveyed the high schools in his District 7.

It wasn't until Yvonne Gonzalez came along that the district began figuring the drop-out rate in a more realistic way, by looking at the number of students who enter ninth grade versus those who graduate four years later. Considered this way, the drop-out rate for Hispanics is a shocking 27.8 percent. The way the district traditionally calculated the numbers, the rate was only 2 percent.

For blacks, the corresponding drop-out rate is 18.4 percent, and for Anglos it is 15.9 percent. This "longitudinal" drop-out rate is probably even higher if you take into consideration the number of students who drop out in 7th and 8th grade. Gonzalez admits the district hasn't even begun to get a handle on those numbers.

At a "State of the District" speech Gonzalez gave in February at the Anatole Hotel, she told the audience the truth about DISD's drop-out rate. These bleak statistics galvanized Hispanic leaders. The Latino Advisory Council, in conjunction with several other Hispanic groups, including Dallas' LULAC councils, put together an 11-point plan calling for early intervention for children thought to be drop-out risks, and more efforts to assess the language needs of Hispanic students and to hire more bilingual and ESOL teachers.

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