Sunday, August 24, 2008

Do Hispanics have a voice in North Forest?

A notable statement made in this article: "Hispanic parents' silence should not be read as apathy."

I would add to Mr. Gallegos' elaboration on this subject the fact that many of these parents, especially immigrant, are not welcomed and attended to in some schools on equal grounds as their white, or middle-class counterparts. Considering how some of the teachers appear to be responding to students according to this article, I think this unwelcoming treatment may be happening in these schools.


They are 30% of district's students but aren't part of board, administration

By ERICKA MELLON | Houston Chronicle
Aug. 10, 2008

During more than a decade of attending school in North Forest, Christian Perez, a first-generation American, had one teacher who looked like him.

"I just remember the Spanish teacher. The Spanish teacher was Hispanic," he said.

In June, the 18-year-old graduated from Smiley High School, where the student population mirrors the district — predominantly black but with a growing percentage of Hispanics.

Last year, Hispanic students made up nearly 30 percent of the district overall.

As politicians, parents and alumni rally to save the northeast Houston district from state takeover, they often tout its importance as a historically black school district.

A few of the district's trustees have decried the Texas education commissioner's move to replace the elected board with an appointed one as racist.

With North Forest facing possible closure, advocates worry that the Hispanic parents — many of whom are immigrants with limited English skills — do not have a voice, though some hope the serious situation inspires political activism.

State Sen. Mario Gallegos, the first Hispanic senator elected to represent Harris County, said the North Forest school board should have at least a couple of Hispanics to reflect the makeup of the schools.

"Once this North Forest issue is on the table and at the state level, some of those parents out there will be looking at it," said Gallegos, a Democrat who represents part of North Forest. "I would hope one or two — or as many as want to — get involved."

All seven of the elected North Forest trustees are black, and longtime observers say that no Hispanic has served on or even run for the board in recent memory.

None of the district's top administrators is Hispanic, and the board voted last spring, as part of a cost-cutting plan, to lay off the coordinator of bilingual and English as a second language programs. Most, if not all, the students in those programs are Hispanic.

Gallegos said the Hispanic parents' silence should not be read as apathy.

"They're low-income to moderate-income workers," he said. "They raise their families. They pay their bills — a lot of them are paycheck to paycheck — but they want their kids to have a good education. That's what the American dream is all about.

A look at test scores

"They might not be political right now," Gallegos added, "but when 30 percent (of the student population) comes to 50 percent, they will be. That's not too far in the future."

In the last decade, the percentage of Hispanic students in the district has nearly doubled. Enrollment is declining across the board, but last year the district had 5,890 black students, 2,418 Hispanics, 54 Anglos and seven Asians, according to state data.

Hispanic activist groups have been quiet when news has surfaced in the past couple of years about the serious academic and financial problems in North Forest.

But the Hispanic students, based on 2008 test scores, are ahead of their peers, performing significantly better in math and science and about the same in other subjects.

At a school district meeting last week, Houston City Councilman Jarvis Johnson, who is black, told those in attendance that they need to rally to help "our little black boys and girls" and "our Hispanic boys and girls."

Later, he asked, "How do we save this school district? How do we save this black school district?"

Jose and Ana Alanis, Mexican immigrants who have two children in North Forest schools, said some teachers and administrators seem to show preferential treatment to the black students.

Racial divide

"There is favoritism," Ana Alanis said in Spanish after a shopping trip for groceries at Fiesta.

Her oldest son, Kevin, a seventh-grader at B.C. Elmore Middle School last year, said his cousin has complained to him about a teacher's unfair treatment.

"She would pick on the Hispanic kids and not the black kids," he said.

Kevin Alanis said he doesn't think his own teachers are necessarily discriminating against him, but when he has asked for help in math, he said, "They just told me, 'I already taught you.' "

Linda Maze, the district's former bilingual and English as a second language coordinator, has filed a federal lawsuit against the school board and interim Superintendent William Jones.

She claims she was discriminated against because she is Anglo and was laid off as revenge for raising concerns about the programs for non-English speakers.

'Everything was wrong'
Maze has said that the district may have broken the law, accepting federal funding for teachers who were not certified and for students who were no longer enrolled in the special language classes.

"Students who were in the program should have never been in the program ," she said, according to a transcript of a May hearing.

"Just everything was wrong about the program."

Jones denied discriminating against Maze and said she and two other coordinators were laid off for financial reasons, according to the transcript.

Of the 586 teachers in North Forest last year, about 83 percent were black, while less than 4 percent were Hispanic, state records show.

Jones declined an interview request for this article, but North Forest spokeswoman Nakisha Myles said the district offers stipends for ESL and bilingual teachers and recruits at local job fairs and in Mexico.

Role models

In any district, educators say, students can benefit from having teachers of their own race or ethnicity.

"When I was in elementary school, I didn't have one single Hispanic teacher, and that bothered me," said Luis Cano, the principal of Juan B. Galaviz Charter School, a high school that caters to Hispanic immigrants in Houston. "Role models are important. That does affect a kid's self-esteem."

Perez, who graduated sixth in his class at Smiley, said he did not feel different as a minority in the district.

"I've been in that community all my life. I got accustomed to it," he said. "It wasn't that difficult for me to make friends with whomever. It was a nice experience."

Asked if he had thought about running for the school board someday, he said, "After college, maybe I will."

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