Hispanics seek the school district's attention.

Lost Race 

Hispanics seek the school district's attention.

Hispanic community leaders are struggling to be heard in the Kansas City School District, where racial tension between whites and blacks has long dominated politics and undermined education.

The biggest concern is that Hispanic students are finding it tough to hang on in the district beyond sixth grade. About 3,370 Latino children -- more than 60 percent of the total Latino student population -- are in the unaccredited district's elementary schools. But fewer than 75 Hispanic students graduate each year. "Something happens to those children when they reach middle school," says Yvonne Vasquez Rangel of the Coalition of Hispanic Organization's Education Committee. "It's puzzling. We're trying to figure out where those kids are."

The coalition fears the missing students have dropped out. It's doubtful that Hispanics are going where many white kids in the district go after elementary school -- private schools -- although the coalition is investigating that possibility.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority population in the metro area, but the school district's focus remains riveted on other racial issues. "It's been black and white," says coalition president Christina Esteban. So the Hispanic coalition is preparing to play hardball.

Shut out by Mayor Kay Barnes and the Urban League of Greater Kansas City (a major patronage power in the school district), the Hispanic coalition went to the press this fall and successfully demanded a seat on the highly secretive "collaborative" committee that is apparently trying to prevent a state takeover of the district.

Once on the mayor's committee, the Hispanic coalition's representative, Mary Lou Jaramillo, on October 16 criticized a letter of support Superintendent Bernard Taylor was to present to the state board of education on October 19. While the letter outlined at length the concerns of the African-American community, there was nothing about Latinos. Jaramillo pointed out that 13 percent of the district's students are Hispanic.

Clinton Adams Jr. -- a black man whose reputation as a longtime meddler in district affairs won him a seat on the mayor's committee despite his apparent lack of official responsibility with any significant local organization -- disputed Jaramillo's facts during the secret meeting, saying that a mere 5 percent of student enrollment is Hispanic. When Jaramillo reiterated her hard statistics, Adams reportedly said "he did not care about Latinos," according to an e-mail summary of the meeting from Jaramillo to fellow Hispanic coalition member Sandy Aguirre-Mayer. (Adams would not comment to the Pitch.)

That night, Esteban addressed the school board and re-emphasized statistics on Hispanic students in the school district. Then she challenged the superintendent to invite a Hispanic scholar to serve on his panel of educators from around the country advising the superintendent on rehabilitating the district. Later that month, a Hispanic educator joined Taylor's panel.

The coalition, formed in 1985, shifted its focus to education in 1999 after members heard activists and professionals speak at a national conference of Latino educators in San Antonio. Two months later, the coalition had organized an educational summit where parents, students, educators and community leaders set goals that included increased hiring of Latino teachers and principals in district schools, greater cultural awareness in education ("not just black and white") and greater student retention in the district.

Coalition members say they're starting to understand what it takes to get things done in the district. "We're a little more savvy," Jaramillo says. In coming months, the group plans to comb the community for school board candidates to run in April's elections. "We're not here to create animosity," says Rangel. "We just want a place at the table."

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