Area advocacy group to have voice in Arlington school district's diversity effort

ARLINGTON -- Taking another step to address diversity issues within the district, Arlington school officials have agreed to include a local advocacy group in their review of its student conduct policy as well as its efforts to recruit minority faculty and staff.

The Arlington Concerned Citizens Coalition will get to appoint three members to the Student Code of Conduct Committee, which recommends student discipline policy changes to the school board. It will also take an active role promoting the district to minority job seekers and will meet with school officials about recruitment and other issues.

The decision to work with the coalition stems from meetings among district officials, the coalition and a moderator of the Justice Department's Community Relations Service who was invited to guide the talks. The parties have been meeting since fall.

Coalition members say some staff responses to misbehavior may be based on outdated or culturally biased thinking, resulting in a disproportionately large number of minorities being sent to alternative schools. They've also said that the district's employee ranks need to reflect the district's largely minority makeup.

"We're not interested in just talking," said Arlington NAACP President Rita Sibert, who helped organize the coalition, something she described as a "microcosm" of ethnic groups. "We are already beginning to see some changes. They're small, but we expect more aggressive changes."

Superintendent Jerry McCullough said he welcomes the coalition's help in recruiting minority staff, including helping the district strengthen recruiting ties with historically black colleges and universities and other resources. The district has also initiated other programs out of an awareness of its changing demographics.

"It's a positive step in that we're going to be working together," McCullough said.

As the district's minority population has grown, so have some minority leaders' concerns that the district's staffing and policies do not reflect the changing ethnicity of students.

Last week, local civil rights activists called the district's hiring practices discriminatory. They have also called for a switch to single-member voting districts to better represent minorities and low-income families.

Recent diversity efforts

Ethnic minority students have been a majority in the district for 10 years, now making up 71.5 percent of the district's 63,000 students. Hispanic students have outnumbered Anglo students since the 2006-07 school year.

Meanwhile, only about 22 percent of teachers and 26 percent of administrators are non-Anglo, officials said. Seven of 70 campuses have African-American principals, and eight have Hispanic principals.

It's a disparity seen at other area school districts, including Fort Worth's, where 85.7 percent of 79,000 students in 2007-08 were minorities compared with 38.4 percent of teachers.

As a result, the Arlington district has responded with several initiatives in the past two years:

The Workforce Diversity Committee was created to explore ways of increasing recruitment of minority teachers and administrators, cultural sensitivity and more staff diversity at the campus level.

Cultural Awareness and Respect Equals Success kicked off during the past school year. Employees took a three-hour diversity training program focusing on comments and actions that may be unintentional but reflect a lack of cultural awareness, Deputy Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos said.

A three-year, $500,000 federal grant initiated Students Obtaining Academic Results to provide upper-classman mentors for at-risk freshmen. About 600 eighth-graders were paired with academic and athletic leaders at high schools.

"When they wrote the grant, we were having a large number of minority kids dropping out, so we found a way to get them involved in school," said O.J. Kemp, assistant athletic director and SOAR director. "But it's for all races."

Student conduct

Although their main goal is an ethnically balanced school work force, coalition members said they have been particularly interested in influencing student conduct policy. The district appoints 40 members to its conduct committee, which comprises staff, students, parents and other community members.

Starting next year, three of those seats will be filled by the coalition.

Richard Gonzalez, a coalition member and former president of the Arlington League of United Latin American Citizens, said it is disconcerting that students in the first and second grades are being sent to alternative schools.

"We want to ensure that the student code of conduct is implemented in a fair manner and that the punishment fits the crime," Gonzalez said.

The district, which has been looking into recidivism rates for young students sent to alternative schools, has agreed to change that part of its policy now. Starting next year, first- and second-graders who need to be removed from their classes will attend special classes at Thornton Elementary School under a pilot program, Fresh Start, Assistant Superintendent Jimmy Walker said.

Gonzalez said working civilly with district officials will accomplish that and other goals.

"This doesn't need to be headline-grabbing or controversial," he said. "Our objective is not to give the district a black eye."