!Atencion, Por Favor!

Parents in northwest Denver say the school district doesn't listen--so they're making more noise.

Northwest of downtown Denver, a neighborhood peers out over the city's skyscrapers and railyards. In the late 1800s, Highlands was a pristine city whose residents were proud of their elevated metropolis, separated from Denver by a valley through which a highway now runs. The Highlanders pitied the poor souls below who had to breathe the foul emissions of nearby smelters. In fact, the air on the west bank of the Platte River was considered so pure that it became a haven for tuberculosis patients, who sought rejuvenation at a sanitarium on West 32nd Avenue and Eliot Street.

"To be a perfect Eden, a Utopia, was the dream and ambition of the whole town of Highlands, the people of the town were a very proud people," reads a description of the town compiled by the Potter-Highlands Preservation Association. Highlands residents "were proud of their homes...They were proud of their gardens, their trees, their churches, their schools."

In the late nineteenth century, the town's most elite street was "the Boulevard." Today, North Federal Boulevard is lined with taquerias, Mexican bakeries and small boutiques like Las Rosas, at 4100 Federal Boulevard, a flower shop serving all occasions, including quinceaneras, the traditional Mexican birthday celebration for fifteen-year-old girls. Neighbors gather at Highland Grounds, 3301 Tejon Street, to read El Semanario, La Voz, the Urban Spectrum and the North Denver Tribune. The residents of the neighborhood now called Highland are still proud people. Proud of their homes, their churches, their schools.

But Highland and its neighbors to the north and west still stand alone. They're isolated from other areas of Denver not just by physical boundaries but by ethnic and economic lines. The majority of residents in this part of town earn between $5,000 and $20,000 a year; most hold clerical or blue-collar jobs. Despite recent gentrification, northwest Denver is still largely poor and Hispanic.

And almost half of the Hispanic teenagers in the Denver Public School district drop out of school. Wealth and good schools have followed growth to the southern parts of town, but since busing ended in 1995, class sizes in northwest Denver have grown while resources have shrunk. Last November, the Denver Public School District asked voters to pass a $305 million bond to pay for new schools. The district got what it asked for, and a new elementary school will be built in northwest Denver. Now parents have a request of their own: They want a say in what the new school will offer.

In the quiet morning hours before RosaLinda's Mexican Cafe opens, Rosa Linda Aguirre opens the door to allow fresh air and sunlight inside her colorful restaurant at 2005 West 33rd Avenue. Three friends from Padres Unidos, a parent organization Aguirre co-chairs, have come to talk about esperanza, hope. It's what these parents have for their children's education--great hope for the new school on 36th Avenue and Zuni Street that will open in the fall of 2001. But that hope is mixed with uncertainty and fear.

"It's always the same thing with the DPS--they mean well, but we know what we want for our children, our community," Aguirre says, pounding her fist on the table. "We want to be involved 100 percent. This is our community, our children."

DPS officials often call on Aguirre to translate to Spanish-speaking parents. Two years ago she helped DPS notify neighborhood homeowners that if they approved the bond, they would get a new school. But school-board members didn't seek input from parents, Aguirre says. "Instead," she says, "they come and bring this big white elephant and say, 'What color ribbon do you want to put around its neck?'"

Aguirre and the other parents huddled in the booth at RosaLinda's say that for years, the people of northwest Denver have been fighting a losing battle for better schools. They say DPS is failing Hispanic kids because it has not kept pace with changing demographics. Of the 68,893 students currently enrolled in DPS, almost half are Hispanic: For 13,070 of them, Spanish is their first language. In 1984--the year the federal government required DPS to offer formal bilingual education after the Congress of Hispanic Educators sued the district--5,500 students were not proficient in English. Today 14,660 students are euphemistically labeled "English-language learners."

Test scores at the four elementaries that will feed into the new school are considerably lower than those in whiter and wealthier south Denver. More than 90 percent of students at each of the feeder schools are Hispanic; more than 85 percent of them qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. The Padres Unidos members gathered at the cafe feel that DPS deems their children less worthy of the tax money that is more abundant from homeowners who live where property values are high.

The parents have visited their principals and teachers, only to come away discouraged. With Aguirre translating, Guadalupe Lopez explains how parents visit schools only to be told to make an appointment 24 hours in advance. "And when no one speaks their language, parents don't go back to the school," Lopez says in rapid-fire Spanish.

"No parent should have to call 24 hours before visiting their child's school," says Aguirre, who often accompanies parents to schools to translate or to provide moral support.

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