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Hispanics suspended at higher rate, school study finds

05/10/2000 By Christy Watson Staff Writer

The Oklahoma City School District suspends Hispanic students at a disproportionate rate and exempted too many Hispanic children from taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a report released Tuesday found.

The report on educational opportunities for Hispanic students in city schools was conducted by the Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in September 1998. The study also found that Hispanic students drop out of school at a rate higher than the district average.

The study included a day of interviews and presentations from educators, state officials, parents, a student and an official from the Latino Community Development Agency. Data used in the report largely was from the 1997-98 school year.

Acting Superintendent Guy Sconzo said a high number of suspensions and dropouts among minorities is not a new problem, but it's one he'd like to fix.

"They are problems. But I do believe those are among the reasons why, over the past couple of years, we have, and will continue to, put in place more alternative programs in the district," he said.

Earl Mitchell, who was vice chairman of the state committee, said, "the advisory committee believes that the school district, community agencies and the Hispanic advisory committee to the school district, working together in Oklahoma City, are capable of improving education for students of color in the areas of student suspensions, dropout rates, testing programs and curriculum innovations."

The number of Hispanic students in the district has exploded in the last few years, and growth is expected to continue.

The 11-member committee reviewed student suspension data by ethnicity and found that Hispanic students were suspended at a rate higher than white students. However, a review of the data by The Oklahoman found that black students were suspended at a much higher rate than any other racial group.

Sconzo said the district doesn't purposely suspend black or Hispanic students at a rate higher than white students. But the district needs to spend more time pinpointing why students are suspended and address those issues, he said.

District spokeswoman Cynthia Reid said the district no longer tracks suspension rates by ethnic group.

The report said the Hispanic dropout rate was 15.5 percent, higher than the districtwide rate of 13.9 percent. However, the report did not include numbers for other racial groups, and Oklahoma City school officials could not immediately provide that information.

Nationwide, studies have shown that the Hispanic dropout rate is higher than other racial segments.

Sconzo also denied an accusation in the report that the district purposely exempts Spanish-speaking students from standardized tests in hopes of raising scores.

The district follows state law, which gives students with limited English-speaking ability three years before they must take state-mandated standardized tests, he said. Students are screened to determine their English-speaking skills.

One school pinpointed in the report was Columbus Elementary. Ruth Mazaheri of the Latino Community Development Agency told the committee in 1998 that the school's exemption of Hispanic students artificially inflated the school's scores.

Columbus has the state's highest concentration of Hispanic students and tests all students who qualify, Principal Judy Jones said. About 70 percent of Columbus students are Hispanic, but 71 percent of the school's fifth-graders took the state-mandated Criterion Reference Tests this year.

Sconzo said he hopes those concerned about services for Hispanic and all students will work with the district to improve education.

"I do think, though, the report is very much about a desire to work with the district to really collaborate on solutions. I applaud that," he said.

"No school district, let alone us, is going to solve those problems in isolation of the people we serve."

The release of report comes on the heels of a visit by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights to the district.

Sconzo said the agency was following up on a 1996 complaint of alleged widespread discrimination against Hispanic students. The district and the civil rights office previously agreed on a corrective action plan, and agency representatives were in Oklahoma City during the last month to check on the district's progress.

The agency is expected to make a report on its visit, but district officials said they do not know when they'll receive the report.