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Latino community holds forum with superintendent

By Jeffrey Obser Daily Planet staff
Tuesday October 02, 2001

Parents and advocates of Latino students will gather Sunday at Rosa Parks Elementary School to exchange ideas with Michele Lawrence, the Berkeley Unified School District’s new superintendent, on possible remedies for the students’ unique difficulties in the school system. 

“We wanted to introduce the new superintendent to the Latino community in a formal way so they would get a sense of who she is, as well as what she plans to do within the district,” said Santiago Casal, director of the Cesar Chavez Solar Calendar Project, which seeks to commemorate the late labor leader at the Berkeley waterfront. 

A group of Latino community leaders met with Lawrence Thursday in a preliminary session that was scheduled for one hour but went on instead for two and drew praise from participants, according to Casal. 

“I was very surprised at how accurate her own perspective and perceptions were, her reading of the culture and climate that exists here in Berkeley, in the district,” said Father Rigoberto Caloca-Rivas, executive director of the Multicultural Institute, a Berkeley non-profit that sponsors minority outreach and education programs.  

“She seems like a very strong person in terms of, number one, stomaching the things that are happening in the Berkeley schools, but also stepping into (them),” said Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, executive director of Bay Area Hispano Institute for Advancement, which provides bilingual child care. 

The superintendent, whose maiden name is Barraza, is herself a Latina. She came to Berkeley from Paramount, a Los Angeles County school district that is three-fourths Latino. 

Caloca-Rivas and Leyva-Cutler will co-host Sunday’s event, offering brief opening remarks and translating when necessary. 

“It’s a very non-threatening kind of thing,” Caloca-Rivas said, “mostly to let her know that we’re not an invisible community here in this district.” 

High on the list of topics will be the pattern of depressed achievement levels among Latino students as a group. 

“We want to reduce the racial inequality that exists here in the educational system and at Berkeley High,” said Caloca-Rivas. “The main thing is to bridge that achievement gap.” 

“The Latino parents have been very concerned about the high dropout rate, and the equity issues around the quality of education they receive,” said Rosa Parks Principal Alison Kelly, who restructured bilingual education into two-way immersion programs at her school and two others before taking her current position. Two-way immersion gradually shifts students from mostly Spanish language teaching to mostly English instruction between kindergarten and fifth grade. 

“They tend to get tracked in (English Language Learning) programs, shelter programs, and the parents are concerned that this isn’t preparing them for university, not giving them the required coursework they need for college. The other part of it that the research is really clear about is the parental involvement and the educational level of parents. So it’s a combination of things and it’s very complex.” 

Leyva-Cutler said much could be accomplished by “the parents simply feeling welcomed at the schools. What happens when there is no Spanish-speaking staff at any of the schools?” 

Father George Crespin, the pastor at the Latino-dominated Saint Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Berkeley and another forum participant, also called for more Hispanic role models among the teachers and staff. At the high school, he said, the effort to create small schools “would be an important piece.” 

“I think in the primary school, making sure that no kid gets out of third grade unable to read and write in English (is important), because if kids don’t pick it up by that time, we see a gradual falling behind, and if we get the basics, that shouldn’t be a problem,” Crespin said. 

Bilingual education has often been passionately discussed at Latino advocates’ forums in the past, but Kelly said the new statewide policy of retention – keeping students back in English immersion until they reach grade level – has shifted debate to finding enough room in the immersion programs. 

“Because of that, bilingual education is not necessarily a priority,” said Caloca-Rivas.  

However, accountability of staff and teachers was second only to the achievement gap among the sources of frustration cited by the Latino advocates. 

“You really can’t evaluate people, because you can’t get hold of people, (and can’t figure out) their roles and responsibilities, who they are accountable to,” said Caloca-Rivas. “Everything starts to get very fuzzy and unclear when you start asking for that accountability.” 

Lawrence said Monday that her priority would be to implement “very simple basic things” such as holding teachers accountable who are not taking attendance, returning parents’ phone calls in a timely manner, and ensuring that parents either receive information sent home from school in their primary language or have access to translation services. 

More broadly, she said, parents of Latino students want their children to have access to more challenging coursework and to feel more connected to their schools. 

“There are numbers of processes that are not community friendly, that make either the immigrant or the uneducated parent, who has no background with school systems because of their lack of schooling themselves, have a much more difficult time negotiating through school systems,” Lawrence said. 

The forum will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7 at Rosa Parks Elementary, 920 Allston Way. For more information, call Beatriz Leyva-Cutler at 524-7300. Other participating groups include Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA), Mentoring for Academic Success (MAS), Chicanos/Latinos for Academic and Social Success (CLASS), Latinos Unidos, and the Duran Foundation.