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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.

"The buck has got to stop," says Apel. "We have these new state standards [for academic proficiency], yet they're calling in teachers who give too many Fs. If you're going to meet those standards, you are going to have more Fs, especially at the beginning. We have to stop giving students opportunity after opportunity; there has to be accountability across the board."

Seick says the district is "very concerned about students who are doing marginal work and getting passed on." She notes that the district held back 214 students who didn't attend the required summer literacy program last year; they will have to repeat a grade. "I did not waive one single student," she says. "If the students did not complete the requirements, they were not moved on."

As the district moves to beef up high-school math and science requirements and meet tough new state standards, she adds, even a grade of D will no longer be sufficient; demonstrating proficiency in a subject will require a satisfactory grade of C or higher. Despite the prospect of parent uprisings, that standard will apply to every student, she says.

It's too early to gauge the success of DPS's latest get-tough approach, but it's safe to say that the discreet practice of passing along students who are struggling academically hasn't done much to boost achievement levels. And while the west-side schools have made recent strides in reducing the dropout rate, Patricio Córdova argues that the district isn't doing enough to truly engage, challenge and educate its Hispanic students. He notes that there were 1,428 Hispanic high-school juniors in DPS in 1995-96; the following year there were only 822 Hispanic seniors, a level of attrition far above the official dropout rate.

"How do you explain the fact that Latino students get to twelfth grade and still don't have basic literacy skills?" he asks. "Where does that start? How come Irv Moskowitz keeps getting away with saying we just need two or three more years? Don't you think that if these kind of dismal statistics impacted the white population, the community would be up in arms?"

It doesn't take a math teacher to figure out that one of the leading causes of poor grades, lousy test scores and deplorable graduation rates is poor attendance. According to DPS figures, on any given day roughly one out of every five high-school students is absent; in some high schools, teachers say, the figure is probably closer to one in three.

One way the district is trying to address the issue is by reducing the number of students suspended for bad conduct. It doesn't make sense, officials say, to kick students out of school over petty offenses, since such actions serve only to further impede their academic progress. Instead, the schools have come up with a range of alternative methods for dealing with disciplinary problems, including special after-school or Saturday classes for truants, programs and contests that reward students for being on time and in class--even anger-management workshops for hotheaded seventh-graders.

"Certainly, there are offenses for which there should be no negotiating," Bernadette Seick says. "But if a student is tardy or truant, is the best response to throw them out again?"

Last year DPS recorded its lowest level of suspensions in five years. That's proof, officials say, that all the counseling and prevention programs are paying off. At the same time, Seick notes, expulsions are up, indicating that principals are still determined to eject those students who pose a threat to school safety.

Not surprisingly, C'de Baca has a different take on the situation. Suspensions are down, he says, because principals are ignoring teachers' referral slips (disciplinary writeups) and refusing to take appropriate action against troublemakers, particularly in the west-side middle and high schools. The result is that teachers' authority is undermined, and well-behaved students have to put up with increasing levels of disruption and abuse. Only the most serious and chronic offenders are ever expelled, he insists, and only after a process that involves extensive paperwork and parental consultation.

"These kids will throw a referral in your face and laugh," he says. "They know referrals are a joke. And what are the other 25 kids thinking when that kid comes right back to class after the teacher kicked him out?"

Schools are required to report the number of suspensions, by race and gender, to the DPS's central office. Comparable data on the number of referrals isn't reported; but then, not every referral qualifies as a suspension-level offense--last year at North, for example, the ratio of referrals to suspensions was four to one--and some suspensions result from incidents that occur outside the classroom. In any case, statistical summaries can provide only a hint of what's really going on in the classrooms, because officials at different schools often come up with radically divergent ways of handling the same offense. Although DPS suspension and expulsion policies are supposed to be fairly inflexible in matters involving weapons, drugs or gang-related activity, there's actually considerable leeway in how individual principals interpret those policies.

In recent years, the notorious "wiggle room" in the district's disciplinary policies has prompted some black and Hispanic parents to complain that minority students receive a disproportionate number of suspensions. (Sometimes the complaints of unequal treatment come from white parents, too; recently the suspension of four students at George Washington High School--all white, all honors students--over a minor prank had parents on the warpath, claiming that an assistant vice principal had refused to take action against a black student who had committed a more serious offense.) But on the west side, the drive to keep kids in school has some teachers wondering what a student has to do to get suspended these days--much less expelled.

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