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Hispanic Leader Charges Students Racially Isolated

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A leader of one of the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy groups was expected to urge the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights this week to investigate the racial isolation of Hispanic public-school children--a phenomenon that has received little national attention but is reported to be as severe as that among black children.

"We don't know what needs to be done; our own communities are ignorant about this," said Arnoldo S. Torres, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (lulac), who was to make the presentation to the commission Monday. "But it's of significance enough for the whole country to know about it."

The most recent statistics on Hispanic school segregation come from a study released last fall by the Joint Center for Political Studies, a public-policy research group. The implications of that report, Mr. Torres said, have been largely ignored.

The report, commissioned by the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights to analyze trends in the segregation of both black and Hispanic students, found that while the segregation of blacks decreased between 1970 and 1980, "the data on Hispanic segregation trends tell a very different story."

By 1980, 68 percent of Hispanic students were in predominantly minority schools, compared with 63 percent of black students, according to the report, written by Gary Orfield, professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

A second study by Mr. Orfield, released in January, found that the segregation patterns for Hispanic students in several states with large urban areas had become severe. (See Education Week, Feb. 2, 1983.) In the 1980-81 school year, the report found that: in New York State, 56 percent of Hispanic children were enrolled in 90-to-100-percent minority schools; in Texas, nearly 40 percent were in such schools; in New Jersey, nearly 35 percent were; in Florida, 25 percent; and in California, 22 percent.

The segregation of Hispanic pupils is increasing most rapidly in California, Illinois, and Florida, and to a lesser degree, in Texas and New York, the Orfield study found. It warned that because the Hispanic population is also growing rapidly in several of these states, especially California, the problems of segregation "will become even more severe."

When the first report came out last fall, Mr. Torres said, lulac tried to focus attention on it by inviting representatives of 25 advocacy groups to hear Mr. Orfield speak. But only two came, he said. Now, he has decided to turn to the civil-rights commission; the segregation issue has become lulac's "number one priority," he said

"Hispanic children are now the most segregated of any group," Mr. Torres said. "Yet we don't think local governments or any institutions have recognized it. Attention has focused primarily on the black child."

Federal officials are not the only ones ignoring the issue, he says; some Hispanic advocacy groups are doing the same. "They think education issues mean bilingual or higher education. That's ridiculous. Unfortunately, some organizations have identified only with those two issues. A lot of Hispanics are not aware that the Hispanic child is the most segregated child in the whole community."

Mr. Torres said he believes that segregated education for Hispanics will lead to inferior education, as it did in the case of black children. But he emphasized that lulac does not know what the solutions are. A recommendation for busing might be rejected by Hispanic families, who tend to disapprove strongly of travel for their children, he said, adding that different communities may pose different problems. "What's true in Houston may not be true in Chicago," he said.

Other Hispanic advocacy groups reacted to the lulac initiative with varying degrees of enthusiasm. In Washington, a lawyer for The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund called it "a step in the right direction."

In New York, Ms. Maria Santiago-Mercado, chairman of the national board of Aspira of America, Inc., an association of Puerto Rican groups concerned with education, said she thinks the civil-rights commission is the right place to go for help. Aspira tried to find a sponsor for a study on the issue as early as 1976, she said.

Ms. Mercado also agreed with Mr. Torres that segregated schools tend to offer inferior opportunites. "Too many kids are being left behind," she said. But she predicted that there would be some opposition to integration efforts from both parent groups and school administrators.

The president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund responded with more caution to lulac's initiative. Although he called segregation an issue of "major concern," Jack John Olivero warned that "large clustering" of ethnic students is not inherently bad. "Segregation doesn't necessarily lead to poor quality. ... You can't have preconceived opinions about this," he said.

Mr. Olivero said he thought that recommendations about the problem could be useful only if each community and the opinions of its citizens were studied and evaluated separately. He noted that one of the best school districts in New York City, District 4 in East Harlem, is a highly segregated district. "Some communities would see value in clustering ethnic groups," he said.

A member of the civil-rights commission, Mary F. Berry, said she strongly favored meeting with lulac to hear about the issue. "We are concerned about the increasing isolation of the Hispanic child," she said, adding that if Hispanic children can become more integrated into society, they will have a better chance of finding jobs.

But she said advocacy groups' strong support of bilingual education may create an obstacle in resolving the problem. "People want to maintain bilingual education at the same time they're worrying about isolation. The bilingual policy tends to gather them together. "You've got these two opposite tendencies."

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