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Hispanic and Black Parents Voice Educational Concerns

`WE need people in the community to step back into the schools,'' says Paula Arnold, president of the Houston school board. ``Now the community is just standing back taking shots.'' Most of those shots have been aimed at former Houston schools superintendent Joan Raymond. And most frequently, they've come from the city's large Hispanic community, which represents the biggest portion of students in the Houston Independent School District.

Enrollment in the 194,000-student district is 43 percent Hispanic, 40 percent black, 15 percent white, and 2 percent other ethnic groups. But only 9 percent of the district's teachers are Hispanic.

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Last year, a group of Hispanic activists filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. ``There's been an ongoing investigation concerning the hiring of counselors, teachers, and the lack of physical facilities for Hispanics,'' says William R. Morris, executive director of the Houston Center for Hispanic Advocacy.

In the fall of 1989, students at Stephen F. Austin High School, a 98 percent Hispanic school in southeast Houston, walked out of classes to protest what they viewed as an inferior education.

``Kids were seven weeks into the school year and didn't even have books yet,'' Mr. Morris says.

``The administration at that school was in terrible need of change,'' acknowledges Dr. Raymond. ``When we put a task force in there, we started to see some positive change.''

Timothy Salem, an English teacher at the 2,800-student Austin High School, says it is a ``very different school now.''

A Hispanic principal was brought in from another district, and Austin now has 14 counselors on its staff. ``That's more per capita than any other school in the district,' says Rose Hicks, area superintendent for southeast Houston.

Meanwhile, blacks in the district are concerned about their own situation. ``I guess we'd have to have a walkout here to get attention,'' says Gloria Jones, who has been principal of Osbourne Elementary School for 20 years. This 95 percent black school is in a tough area of north Houston.

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Just across the street from the cyclone fence surrounding Osbourne are boarded-up homes with littered yards. President Bush recently visited the neighborhood to highlight the drug problem.

But Mrs. Jones has never met Joan Raymond personally. The superintendent was invited to visit the school several times, but she never responded.

``I can understand how busy a superintendent is but the personal contact is important,'' says Jones, who is known as ``Mama Owl'' by her 500 students. The nickname is taken from the school symbol that Jones initiated soon after becoming principal there in 1971.

Black-student enrollment has been declining in the Houston schools - from 91,000 in 1977-78 to 76,000 in 1989-90, according to the district.

During that time, many blacks have moved to the suburban Houston districts, which have seen a sharp rise in minority enrollment over the past decade. But other black parents are putting their children in private schools.

At Houston Preparatory Academy in the shadow of downtown Houston, the majority of the students are black. The office-building-turned-school is filled with diligent, well-disciplined students.

Harline Landor, a teacher in the Houston public schools, sends her sixth-grade son to Houston Prep rather than the local public school. ``I wanted a school that had strict discipline,'' Ms. Landor says. ``I didn't have time to experiment and dillydally with public schools.''

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