Mesa parent Guadalupe Fontes moved from Mexico two years ago to a land that charter schools forgot. Never mind that Arizona leads the nation in the school choice movement, or that dozens of charter schools dot the East Valley.
None of the tuition-free public schools have opened anywhere near the Palm Cove Apartments in far west Mesa where Fontes lives with her two children and many Spanish-speaking neighbors.
Fontes, a former school secretary in Mexico, said she had not even heard of charter schools until a reporter approached her this week. She said she thought Emerson Elementary School in the Mesa Unified School District was her only choice.
Many Palm Cove residents who have lived in the United States for 10 years or more said the same thing.
"If somebody had told me there was an option here, I might have picked a charter school for my children," Fontes said. "But who’s going to tell us?"
A survey released this week by the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options in Washington, D.C., suggests that many other immigrant families would consider charter schools, too, if they knew about them. Overall, pollster Margaret Kenski talked to 304 Hispanic parents in the Valley this month and found that more than six in 10 supported school choice issues such as private school tuition vouchers and charter schools.
But the council also found that many immigrants such as Fontes have been left out of the loop on school choice. Mercedes Mercado-Ochoa, a Hispanic activist who works as a substitute teacher in the Mesa district, has made the same observation.
"We are finding that it’s not just charter schools that they don’t know about," Mercado-Ochoa said. "It’s the entire system they don’t know about."
CHARTER SCHOOL VOID
The 18 square miles of west Mesa between Country Club Drive and Loop 101 — the Bermuda Triangle of charter schools in which Fontes lives — has no charter schools for any children in grades three through eight. Overall, the area has only two small charter schools that served a combined 75 students in 2004.
The Mesa district, meanwhile, serves more than 16,000 children within the zone that includes many transient, lowincome and Hispanic neighborhoods. That means only one in 215 students west of Country Club Drive attended a charter school last year.
East of that line, more than one in 10 Mesa students attended charter schools.
Lucie Monell, who teaches English to Fontes and about 60 other immigrant parents at Emerson, said few charter schools reach out to Hispanic families in far west Mesa and serve their needs. She said the lone parent in her class who knew about charter schools visited one recently and was told she would have to pay fees to enroll her child — something state law forbids.
The Arizona Department of Education reports that students in school districts across the state in 2004 were nearly four times as likely as charter school students to be English learners.
The ethnic divide persists despite a 1999 report from Arizona State University researcher Gene Glass, who concluded six years ago that nearly half the charter schools in Arizona showed "substantial ethnic separation."
Sandy Holzer, an administrator at Gem Charter School near Center Street and Brown Road in Mesa, said many charter school operators lack the resources to market their schools effectively in Hispanic neighborhoods.
"The majority of the students that we get here are through word of mouth," Holzer said.
Only 15 percent of Gem students were Hispanic in 2003-04, while Kerr Elementary School across the street in the Mesa district was 40 percent Hispanic. Holzer said her school maintains bilingual staff members and welcomes Hispanic families, but she does not have the marketing budget to change charter school perceptions in the neighborhood. One false perception, she said, is that charter schools charge tuition.
TRAINING NINJA PARENTS
Empowering Hispanic parents with good information about charter schools in Arizona has become the mission of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options.
Rebeca Nieves Huffman, president of the organization, launched a Valley campaign this spring to turn quiet Hispanic parents into "ninja parents" ready to go out and fight for their children.
"We’re here to charge up the regular moms and dads," Huffman said. "When you empower one parent, it spreads like wildfire."
The Mesa Arts Academy, just outside the west Mesa charter school void at 221 W. Sixth Ave., has already seen the passion of Hispanic parents fired up about the education of their children.
Half the students at Mesa Arts Academy are Hispanic and 70 percent overall live below the poverty level. Yet the charter school exceeds state averages in reading, writing and math and outperforms its neighborhood rivals in the Mesa district.
Academy director Sue Douglas said the reason her school attracts so many Hispanic families is simple: "Because we welcome them."
The school, located at the Mesa branch of the Boys and Girls Club of the East Valley, has bilingual staff members, teaches English classes to immigrant parents and offers after-school programs that include things such as ballet folklorico.
"They push you to learn," said Pedro Torres, a Hispanic parent who serves as president of the charter school’s parent-teacher organization. "None of these kids are left behind."