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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.

An adamant conservative, C'de Baca would seem to have little in common with more liberal Hispanic activists, whom he tends to describe as "Chicanazis" bent on forcing their own social agenda and revisionist Latino history on the schools. But he shares with them a profound skepticism about the school district's efforts to address the poor achievement levels and staggering dropout rate of its Hispanic students.

"I don't know how much credibility Joseph has," says Patricio Córdova, former manager of the DPS Hispanic Education Advisory Council (HEAC). "That is not to say he isn't correct in certain areas. Everyone is focusing on the dropout rate, but what happens to kids who are still in school? Is there real teaching and learning going on, or is it just glorified babysitting to keep kids in school? In many cases, they have no more skills when they graduate than if they dropped out. And DPS doesn't want people to know the severity of the problem."

Last year, shortly before leaving HEAC, Córdova issued a scathing report on the state of Hispanic education in DPS. According to the district's own figures, the graduation rate for Hispanic students declined from 62 percent in 1991 to 46 percent in 1996, well below the state average; the 1996 dropout rate for Hispanic high-school students hovered near 18 percent. Standardized testing results indicate that Hispanic students are, on the average, twenty to thirty percentile points below their Anglo counterparts in math, reading and writing skills. The district has reported a reduction in the overall dropout rate, from 8.5 percent in 1996 to 6.5 percent last year. But DPS still graduates barely 60 percent of its students, and less than half of the Hispanics who make it to high school actually graduate four years later. (The graduation rate at North, which made the most dramatic improvement of all the Denver high schools, was 51 percent in 1997, up from 35 percent the year before.)

The issues surrounding education of Hispanics in Denver are compounded by the rising numbers of primarily Spanish-speaking students--more than 13,000--placed in DPS's bilingual program, which has become a target of lawsuits, of a mandate from the federal government for improvement, and of reform plans within the district itself. Ironically, C'de Baca supports the DPS plan to transform bilingual education into a three-year transition program, which is opposed by many of the district's Hispanic critics; but he also says that teachers are being unfairly blamed for what are essentially failures in administrative leadership.

"We're kind of like a circuit breaker in the middle of all this electricity," he says. "On one side is the administration, and on the other side are the kids and their parents. We're the scapegoat for everything that goes wrong, but they're missing the point. Even a lousy teacher can teach kids who want to learn, but you have to set a foundation of work ethic and diligence and accountability."

C'de Baca concedes that his confrontive, sometimes belligerent style can get in the way of his own quest for reform. ("I lost it," he says of his performance before the school board two weeks ago. "I was disappointed in myself.") But if people want to put the heat on him and other teachers, he says, he's going to do some finger-pointing of his own. At parents. At students, in some instances. And most of all, at school administrators.

"Lucifer runs this place," he declares. "This thing is straight out of hell. It's educational genocide. Those are harsh words, but I see it every day."

Like many other DPS teachers, Joseph C'de Baca doesn't send his own children to Denver's public schools. In recent years he's moved from the west side of town to the east and finally out to Parker. "I found I could not live in this dysfunctional school system, with all the negative energy, and come home to helicopters and sirens," he says. "So I just moved out."

His teaching career has followed a similarly itinerant path. Raised in a New Mexico orphanage and educated in Catholic schools ("We learned to read and write in first grade--that was non-negotiable," he notes), he began in DPS ten years ago as a wood-shop teacher at Hamilton Middle School, then moved on to Thomas Jefferson. After his department was scaled back, he became a social studies teacher, first as a "floating sub" filling in around the district, then at West last year. Last summer an administrative transfer--a mechanism principals can use to rid themselves of tenured teachers they may have disagreements with--brought him to East.

Throughout his travels, C'de Baca has never been shy about courting controversy. He writes frequent op-ed pieces critical of DPS and was a supporter of activist Nita Gonzales in her unsuccessful bid for a seat on the school board in 1993. He's launched his own after-hours "think tank," Hispanic Education Inc., which offers recertification courses for teachers and educational materials dealing with Hispanic history and culture. Among the organization's stated goals are "exposing mismanagement and fraud by school district administrations" and "reduction in entitlement and victim philosophies and attitudes."

Once active in the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, last year he spearheaded a mail campaign urging teachers to drop out of the DCTA, arguing that the union is arrogant and unresponsive and demonstrated its ineffectiveness in the 1994 short-lived teachers' strike. The campaign continues: This year 28 percent of Denver's 4,100 teachers opted out of the DCTA.

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