Arms folded tight across his chest, Juan Lopez hesitates to share his family’s story. It’s difficult, he tells a translator, because he is proud of his origins in Mexico.
He feels sad when he talks about the country and family he left behind, the opportunities he never had.
But he opens up as he looks at the three reasons why he and wife Rogelia Hernandez have settled in Mesa: Their children — Carlos, 13; Lizette, 12; and Ricky, 7.
"I want them to be better than me," he says in bits of English smattered with Spanish.
Lopez and Hernandez grew up in a country where education isn’t a given. He left Mexican schools after ninth grade. She only completed elementary school, making tortillas, washing clothes and cleaning homes when she was 12 to help support her mother and siblings after her father died.
The couple want more for their children, all born in the United States.
"I tell them ‘School is first,’ " Lopez says. "Now is the time. Later will be too late."
The same could be said of all Latino children in Mesa, as their numbers continue to grow. By 2008, if trends continue, the Mesa Unified School District — Arizona’s largest public school system — will be one where minorities will be in the majority, with Hispanics composing the largest minority group.
Carlos, Lizette and Ricky Lopez and their Latino classmates are Mesa’s future — a future that depends on how much and how well these children learn now.
"It’s more than just whether your neighbor’s kid is getting a good education," says Susan Carlson, executive director of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition.
"It’s also whether they will be getting higher paying jobs and paying higher taxes to help with the city’s infrastructure. It’s those higher paid jobs that provide more revenue to our cities to provide that new library or to provide funding for the police department."
District and state records show gaps that must be closed if Latino children are going to take their place as Mesa’s next generation of productive adults and community leaders.
They have a lot of catching up to do.
This month, two of Mesa’s predominantly Hispanic elementary schools were the only schools operated by an East Valley district to be labeled "underperforming" by state officials.
Mesa’s Hispanic high school students rarely enroll in Advanced Placement science and math classes. Compared with their white classmates, they are less likely — and not likely at all if they haven’t mastered English — to pass the state’s graduation test.
They are more likely to drop out of school.
Superintendent Debra Duvall and her staff can recite a litany of programs they offer and initiatives they’re working on to help all students, including Latinos, be successful.
But the statistics alarm community leaders such as Napoleon Pisano, education chairman for the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens.
"I don’t have the solutions. But I do believe we can improve," Pisano says. "The school district is operating on an old model. Maybe they should look at what would be in our best interests — maybe year-round school or a longer school day."
Some other suggestions: Lower class sizes. Offer free full-day kindergarten at all schools. Hire more Latino teachers.
He pauses when asked if district officials are receptive to the concerns and ideas of Hispanic leaders. "I want to say ‘yes,’ but they’re receptive in that they recognize there is a problem. How to remedy that is where we’re stuck."
Mesa voters have never elected a Latino representative to the district’s at-large school board, even though in the past 25 years the district’s Hispanic enrollment has increased 251 percent, while the white enrollment has decreased 33 percent. West-side parent and Hispanic activist Carmen Guerrero missed winning a seat in the last election by 3,385 votes.
Arizona statutes allow governing boards of school districts that have become at least one-fourth minority — Mesa is 43 percent minority — to change the school board election structure from atlarge to geographic representation. Pisano and other Latino leaders say it’s time to consider such a change.
But Mesa’s governing board has not taken that step and its members indicate they have no intention of doing so any time soon.
"You should represent the entire unified school district, not one part of it," says board president Mike Hughes, who has served on the Mesa board for 11 years.
Pisano maintains a Latino board member would bring a different perspective to Mesa’s allwhite board, which over the years has often been dominated by members who live in the attendance area for Mountain View High School, the district’s high school with the lowest percentages of minority and poor students.
"Our nation is based on a representative form of government," he says. "It makes a difference."
Mike Cowan, the district’s associate superintendent, says Hispanic leaders do have valid concerns "in that our whole community needs to address our changing demographics. This is a community issue — not just an education issue."
EDUCATIONAL APPROACHES VARY
Differences between Mexican and American public schools can affect how well immigrant children and parents adjust when they move here. Source: Eugene Garcia, dean of the College of Education at Arizona State University; Mesa Unified School District.
1) The Mexican system is a national system — same curriculum, standards and textbooks. U.S. standards differ from state to state, and curriculum and textbooks differ from district to district.
2) In Mexico, students study the same thing at the same time. But when they transfer to U.S. schools or move from one American school to another, they may not be at the same point as their classmates.
3) Mexico requires children to attend school through sixth grade, but secondary schools, which are mostly private, parochial and Catholic are not available to everyone.
4) Mexican students who move to the U.S. may not have had the same access to education as their American classmates.
5) In Mexico, parents entrust the education of their children to the schools. In the U.S., schools want parents to be partners in their child’s education.
6) Mexican parents may not realize American schools expect them to be active participants.