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Frustrated Hispanics Call for School Boycott in Denver

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Members of Denver's Hispanic community are becoming increasingly frustrated by what they view as dismal progress toward hiring Hispanic teachers and administrators and better educating Hispanic students. So frustrated that they are calling for a return to 1969--a return to protest.

That year, some 3,000 students, mostly Hispanics, walked out of their classrooms one day to draw attention to high dropout rates, low academic achievement, and a lack of cultural sensitivity. Hispanics then made up nearly a quarter of the 96,600 students in the Denver public schools, but only 3 percent of school administrators and 2 percent of teachers.

Last week--a quarter-century later--a community coalition was calling on students to walk out of their classes again.

The issues have not changed much in the past 25 years, said Nita J. Gonzales, a two-time school board candidate and a co-chair of the Latino Education Coalition, an umbrella group of 22 Denver-area Hispanic groups.

Today, Hispanics make up 43 percent of Denver's 62,700 students and 13 percent of its teachers, officials said. About 31 percent of the students are white, 21 percent are African-American, and about 4 percent are of Asian descent.

The walkout was scheduled for last Friday, when students were urged to leave their classes and walk to the state Capitol.

Tactics Questioned

Many of the group's complaints center on Denver's 15,000 limited-English-proficient students. Since 1984, a federal court order has stipulated how Denver's L.E.P. students are to be taught.

"The district for too long has looked to the order's minimal requirements and kept the community at bay instead of looking to provide quality education," said James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

Ms. Gonzales and other advocates want to make Latino issues a top priority of Superintendent Irv Moskowitz, who took over the system at the beginning of the month. So far, they say, school officials have been receptive to their 25-page plan to improve education for Hispanic students.

Among the plan's key demands are calls for the district to more aggressively recruit bilingual teachers, include Hispanic parents and community leaders in policy decisions, and boost the number of Hispanic students who go to college.

The school board president, Tom M. Mauro, said the board is reviewing the group's plan to determine what steps can be taken immediately. He cautioned, however, that the board "will not adopt the plan en masse."

Mr. Moskowitz said that, though he objected to the walkout, he supported many of the group's goals. "We have to extend our efforts a good deal more than we have been doing to accommodate these kids' needs," he said.

Jo Thomas, the director of bilingual and English-as-a-second-language education, said some elements of the court order impede efforts to serve L.E.P. students. For example, teachers who do not speak a second language can teach in bilingual-education classrooms with the help of a bilingual paraprofessional.

"We have more of those teachers than I feel comfortable with," she said.

Mr. Moskowitz said district officials would consider whether to seek revisions in the bilingual-education order.

As the proposed walkout neared, some observers questioned the coalition's tactics, and whether the group truly represents the city's Hispanic community.

Agnes Romero, the mother of two children in Denver's schools, said her children would not participate. "If our kids are doing so poorly, keep them in class to learn," she said.

Ed Cordova, the principal of Denver West High School, said he supported the coalition's goals, but suggested that the group was driven by political motives--a charge coalition leaders have denied.

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