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06/16/2011 04:26:48 PM PDT - In a conflict studded with racial pitfalls and playing out at Trace Elementary School, a program to lure middle-class families back to public schools has run head-on into San Jose Unified's three-decade-old promise to integrate its classrooms. And as the district teeters along a fine legal line, it may end up alienating the very parents it once hoped to recruit.
At issue is a parent-participation program that created separate classes for students whose parents volunteered to help out at school. The problem: Parents from the largely white Rose Garden neighborhood turned out in droves, while far fewer parents from poorer, mostly Latino neighborhoods were present. As a result, the school ended up with mostly white students in its Parent Involvement in Education classrooms.
School officials say they tried to recruit more Latino families into the program, but for whatever reason, their efforts largely failed.
Now, to promote equal access, Superintendent Vincent Matthews suddenly announced he would expand PIE, as it's known, from 218 students to the entire 1,000-student school.
But parents insist that effort would dilute the program's effectiveness, and some are talking about transferring their kids out of Trace -- a school that has suffered a year of misfortune, including a major arson fire, alleged molestation at its child-care center and the embezzlement of parent-raised funds.
"Instead of solving the issue, they've smashed the whole thing," Vanessa Warheit, whose son is entering first grade, said of the district. "They've thrown the baby out with the bath water."
It's a story replete with ironies, of the district discovering that its proud innovation that helped raise Trace's academics apparently violated its desegregation pact; of a successful and popular program potentially being dismantled; of district leaders retooling a parent-participation program without consulting or notifying parents; and of would-be litigants seeking to ban race from decision-making suddenly finding that all classrooms will be integrated.
In the middle of the upheaval are Latino families, who say no one has reached out to them, and other families who flocked to Trace because of the program that enriched classrooms with parents who each volunteer at least 30 hours a year. On the one hand, the district must monitor the racial makeup of classes, under a 1985 court order from a discrimination lawsuit. On the other, California law forbids using race to assign students to balance classes.
So a key to the PIE program surviving lies in reaching out to Latino families, whose children make up 63 percent of the school.
PIE grew out of conversations begun in 2002, when parents living near Cory Elementary School expressed interest in sending their children to public schools. District officials and parents worked two years on a program to lure back white-flight families. The result was PIE, an arts-rich, parent-participation program modeled after successful schools in other districts. PIE opened at Cory in 2004, then moved a year later when the school closed and merged with Trace.
It worked as envisioned. In test scores, both white and Latino students at Trace score above the district average for their groups.
But three years ago, the district noticed that the PIE classrooms were so racially lopsided that one classroom had no Latino students at all. District officials previously thought that the program would just move toward integration, spokeswoman Karen Fuqua said. So San Jose Unified began assigning some non-PIE Latino students to PIE classrooms, first a few, then increasing to a 50-50 split last year, which meant fewer volunteers per classroom.
PIE parents said that as a result, learning suffered. Classrooms were more unruly and more kids strayed from task, said Jennifer Turco, the mother of a first- and second-grader.
Furthermore, "Parents were never told," Turco said.
Jim Valliant, the father of a Trace first-grader, views the problem as the district planning on using race to assign students to classrooms.
In March, some residents complained to the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, which demanded extensive district records. Racial balancing violates Proposition 209, which outlaws discrimination, foundation attorney Adam Pomeroy said.
Suddenly, on May 17, Matthews issued a letter declaring that next year, PIE would go schoolwide.
"All students," the letter read, "may be placed in a PIE classroom regardless of their own parents' ability or willingness to participate."
Plans to recruit
PIE parents questioned how the school could run a volunteer-based program without requiring volunteers.
But by law, public schools cannot require parents to participate. The main reasons Latino families avoided signing up for PIE, according to focus groups, were because of the formality of the contract, fear of fingerprinting, language barriers and lack of information. And, others say, parents who work two or three jobs have no time to spare for schools.
But elsewhere, largely Latino schools like Adelante in the Alum Rock School District have successfully persuaded families to volunteer 30 hours. It's important to get buy-in from teachers and to educate parents, former trustee Gustavo Gonzalez, who proposed a districtwide volunteer requirement, said: "Once that's done, they're on board."
San Jose Unified has pledged to beef up volunteer recruitment. It apparently hasn't yet begun. Spanish-speaking parents picking up their children from summer school at Trace on Tuesday said they had heard that PIE would be dismantled, not expanded.
"I don't have time, but if I have to I will," said Rita Segovia, whose children just finished second and fifth grades. Likewise, Juana Montes said she helped out last year, but it is hard to volunteer when she has a preschooler at home.
Teresa Arias said parents coming to class helps children feel proud.
And parents like Michelle Pirooz, the mother of a 3-year-old, hope that PIE survives. None of her neighbors on nearby McKendrie Street send their children to Trace. "I believe in public schools. I went to public school and want to be a parent who sticks it out."