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Minority Students Avid Fans of College Readiness Program

April 08, 1985|SCOTT HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

Geometry has no appreciation for cultural differences. You could ask a Chinese-American like Tania Haw, or a Japanese-American like Runa Saito. Or you could ask Stella Simone, who immigrated with her family from Italy, or Loan Nguyen, who came here as a refugee from Vietnam.

The four girls, sophomores at Clairemont High School, were sitting around a table the other day, commiserating about their geometry troubles. Still, they said they felt lucky to be in that particular classroom, and they wondered whether a fifth friend, Debbie, could transfer in.

Tania gave Stella a puzzled look. "Does Greek count?" she asked.

Tania, Runa, Stella and Loan are participants in AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a much-praised program designed to place minority students and those from low-income families on a fast track to college. They are among about 125 students who every day go to Room 206, the province of teacher Mary Catherine Swanson, for extra help with their studies and a bombardment of encouragement about the value of higher education.

At the moment, AVID is available only at Clairemont High in the San Diego schools. But there are discussions aimed at expanding the AVID concept into other schools. Educators and trustees in the San Diego Unified School District see AVID as a means of furthering integration in the classroom.

Although San Diego officials have won praise in recent years from court officials for their efforts to comply with court-mandated integration, "re-segregation" at the school site remains a sore point.

Under the guidelines established by the federal Office of Civil Rights, a classroom is considered ethnically balanced if the ratio is within plus or minus 20% of the ethnic makeup of the school's student population as a whole. The most recent survey of the San Diego schools, conducted in 1983-84, found 6% of the 14,260 individual classes to be ethnically imbalanced. That figure was encouraging to many officials--but it still meant that 835 classes were imbalanced.

Moreover, 745 other classes were found to be ethnically imbalanced for "justifiable" reasons--though "justifiable" is a debatable term. For example, it is clear why ethnic imbalance occurs in bilingual classes or a course like AVID. But some people wonder why the court and the Office of Civil Rights consider such an imbalance justifiable in the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program. Indeed, district officials have been engaged in an active campaign to identify and recruit more minorities into the GATE program.

To many, such ethnic imbalance represents a vestige of institutional racism in San Diego schools. While regular course offerings tend to be balanced, they say, Anglo students predominate in the advanced courses and minority students predominate in remedial courses. Many educators and parents believe that minority students are often unjustifiably "tracked" into remedial or regular courses and should instead be in more accelerated courses.

In the educational lingo of San Diego schools, this issue is known as "equity placement." The debate has raged for months. One side urges action to erase what it sees as unfair practices, and the other side urges caution, warning that the curriculum may be "watered down" if minority students allegedly being "held back" are moved too swiftly into more advanced courses.

The push for a demanding education is a constant in debate over ethnic balance. "Very often I think students are not pushed into challenging enough courses," said Supt. Thomas Payzant. His statement closely reflects the trustees' stance.

Two weeks ago, San Diego school district trustees finally managed to hammer out a policy definition for "equity placement":

"Equity in student placement means equal access to the highest degree of quality education for all students. Access is here defined as entrance to courses based on meeting established criteria for enrollment."

As the debate continues, district officials are trying to figure out a way to implement the policy. And that is where AVID may come in.

"From what I've seen of the model at Clairemont, I think it has a lot of potential," Payzant said. "We could have similar programs, and it may vary from school to school."

Trustee Kay Davis has proposed that the district allocate funds to expand the AVID concept to all 15 comprehensive high schools in the district in 1985-86; the program would be extended to every junior high school in the 1986-87 school year.

While district officials say they are supportive of the idea, Payzant stresses that budget constraints might limit the program, which requires extra funds to pay for tutors. District officials are also negotiating with private foundations to provide grants to expand AVID.

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