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.

Last month a "needs valuation committee" appointed by the Denver Board of Education outlined a package of programs and capital projects for the district's improvement with a price tag of more than half a billion dollars. Facing a possible budget shortfall, the board is almost certain to seek a bond issue this fall in excess of $300 million to fund badly needed renovation and construction.

Community watchdog groups such as Padres Unidos, an organization of Hispanic parents, question the way in which DPS has chosen to allocate its present resources. They point to the ongoing problems in the district's bilingual programs--which in many schools suffer from a chronic shortage of books and qualified teachers--and to the delays and difficulties in developing a Hispanic culture course, El Alma de la Raza, which will finally be implemented in three schools next fall. The key issue, they say, is not that the district has set out to lower standards for the predominantly Hispanic schools but that schools in poorer neighborhoods continue to fall behind--a gap that can only widen in the post-busing era of neighborhood schools.

"I don't see a big difference in any of the inner-city schools," says Padres Unidos co-chair Pam Martinez. "The break is between the inner-city schools and more affluent, economically stable areas. I see a tremendous difference in expectations--and standards."

C'de Baca doesn't agree with most other Hispanic activists about what needs to be done. He believes in vouchers, back-to-basics instruction and hard-nosed discipline. He has a horror of many of the DPS's efforts to address the "special needs" of its burgeoning minority population, labeling such efforts as window-dressing and "Band-Aid programs."

"We blame it all on poverty, but I don't buy that," he says. "These kids will learn, but parents need to be involved and students need to be responsible, too--they need to come and do the work and shut their mouths. And the administration needs to let teachers teach."

Recently C'de Baca learned that he would not be returning to East next fall. In fact, he's not sure where he'll be. If he returns to DPS, he will once again have to go through what he calls "The Dance of the Lemons," the late-summer scramble to fill open positions with teachers who, by choice or administrative transfer, are adrift in the system. The way he describes it, the process is a lot like being back in gym class when they're choosing up teams for softball; the pool quickly dwindles to a forlorn gathering of the unskilled or undesirable--those who don't play well with others or simply don't play the game.

"I'm usually in the last round of those chosen," he says. "Most of these principals don't want me in their building.

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