Zero for Conduct

Teacher Joseph C'de Baca says Denver's public schools are failing Hispanic students--by passing those who don't deserve it.

Joseph C'de Baca can see where this is going. He was supposed to be the third speaker on the agenda for the Denver Public Schools monthly public forum, but school board president Sue Edwards keeps calling other names instead. Magnet schools, anti-smoking campaigns, fair pay for janitors--the speakers come and go. The audience dwindles. The reporters call it a night.

Deep into the second hour of the meeting, a livid C'de Baca demands his turn. Security is summoned. By the time the East High social studies teacher gets his chance to speak, he's practically quaking--a bearded, black-vested desperado, aching to draw. He grips the podium tightly, as if trying to channel his outrage into the solid wood.

And then comes the finger.
At first C'de Baca plunges ahead with his presentation. He claims that Denver high-school principals are granting credit waivers to chronically absent and barely literate students so they can graduate. He accuses school officials of trying to intimidate teachers into passing students who don't deserve it. He blasts administrators for refusing to expel disruptive students, "even though they're terrorists." He denounces DPS superintendent Irv Moskowitz for trying "to manipulate the public and deceive them into thinking that you have reduced the Hispanic dropout rate." But after a few minutes the frustration boils up in him, his speech begins to unravel, and C'de Baca is stabbing his index finger in the direction of the school board.

"How dare you do this to our kids," he seethes. "How dare you! This is so unethical, and I've got the proof. Don't think I don't."

The moment deteriorates into a glare-off between C'de Baca and Moskowitz. "I can see why you wanted to put me last on the agenda," C'de Baca says. "You wanted to call security on me? That's your idea of getting rid of me? I think security needs to be called on you, Mr. Moskowitz."

The finger does not go over well. School board members hasten to assure C'de Baca that he's delusional; he's far from last on the agenda, for one thing. Three visiting high-school girls, all members of the DPS's student board of education, are appalled; the one from East says she's "disappointed" to learn that he's a teacher at her school. As for his charges of deceit and grade-rigging at the highest levels of the school system--well, the school board is getting tired of hearing about it.

"We don't spend a whole lot of nights sitting up trying to figure out great conspiracies," chides boardmember Bernie Milliner. "If you have all this information that you continue to come here and berate us with, I would welcome that information presented. You either have the goods or you don't. And if you don't, you need to stop coming here and taking up valuable microphone time."

C'de Baca listens stoically. What did he expect? At a time when the DPS leadership is congratulating itself on having lowered the dropout rate and slightly boosted the dismal graduation rate among its 67,000 students, the combative forty-year-old teacher has become the bearer of an extremely unpopular message--the assertion that the school district is cooking the books. For the past three months he's been haranguing the board and anybody else who will listen, claiming to have proof that academic standards are being subverted at West, North, and Abraham Lincoln, the three predominantly Hispanic high schools on the city's west side.

Among the DPS brass, C'de Baca is regarded as a troublemaker, a grandstander or simply wrongheaded--a nuisance whose reputation for bucking authority has landed him at four different schools in the past four years. ("I used to think he had some good ideas," says one former DPS official. "Now I think he's a lunatic.") They routinely dismiss his accusations as unfounded or wildly exaggerated. Take, for example, the issue of credit waivers, which officials say are issued rarely, at the discretion of the school principal; they may occur more frequently than principals like to admit, but there's no hard evidence that 10 to 20 percent of the 1997 graduates of West (where C'de Baca taught last year) received "a free walk," as he claims.

Even a few of his colleagues believe that the outspoken teacher is doing more harm than good. "Some of the issues he raises need to be addressed, but I think there are a lot of half-truths in what he's saying," says West teacher Alan Chimento, who's also tangled with school administrators. "He won't be happy until the district is totally dismantled."

Yet C'de Baca is hardly alone in questioning administrators' boasts of having made significant progress in turning the tide in the west-side high schools. In the wake of his school-board tirades, several other teachers have come forward with their own stories of classroom thuggery going unpunished, of being pressured to give passing grades to students who lack basic skills or don't even show up to class, and of being aggressively "counseled" or threatened with transfer to another school if they give too many Fs. His crusade has also struck a chord with Hispanic parents and community leaders, who've become increasingly critical of the way DPS is dealing with its growing Hispanic population, which now accounts for nearly half of its total enrollment.

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