For the first time, the Tucson Unified School District has a formal plan on how to narrow the achievement gap that still exists between Anglo and minority students despite more than 30 years of court oversight and $1 billion in taxpayer money.

The district already is making progress, too, increasing the number of minority students enrolled in the Gifted and Talented Education program and Advanced Placement classes.

The question is: Will the plan be enough to solve TUSD's problems without an enforcement mechanism?

Even TUSD Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen isn't sure if the plan is the answer, and she acknowledges that implementing some of the programs without extra funding may prove difficult.

"Given the current context and knowing what you know at this minute, you put together this plan as best as you can, knowing that it's a living, breathing document, and we're going to learn along the way and make adjustments," Fagen said.

Internal and external monitoring should help keep the district on the right track, said Rob Ross, TUSD's legal counsel.

But some wonder if the district was ever on the right track, considering the mixed results of the billion-dollar desegregation effort.

TUSD still has 28 schools that are racially identifiable - having at least 90 percent minority students. Of those, 15 come from the list of 28 schools that were identified in the 1973-74 school year. Three of the original schools have closed.

Significant achievement gaps still exist between Anglo and minority students, and disciplinary inequities are wide.

Coupled with a lack of funding for the plans, success may continue to be just as debatable, critics say, although some point optimistically to the fact that the only other district in Arizona that also was under a court order to desegregate has seen relative success since the order was lifted five years ago.

The TUSD plan on how to go forward was drafted by the plaintiffs and the district, but that hasn't stopped the Hispanic plaintiffs from appealing the judge's ruling to lift the order.

It's not that they don't like the plan, said Cynthia Valenzuela, head of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, saying it's a good road map for getting to a more equitable education system.

But Valenzuela wants court oversight to continue for two more years to give everyone a chance to see if any improvements are actually happening and, if not, tweak the plan.

Sylvia Campoy, one of the plaintiffs' representatives on an independent citizen board that monitored the desegregation effort, said there isn't enough trust yet to lift the order.

"The assumption is that given they've had 32 years to deal with desegregation, they must have done what they had to do," she said. "The fact is, they haven't done what they needed to do, and there's little trust that they will do it if the court isn't watching."

Focusing on the future

The "Post-Unitary Status Plan" was put together with the future in mind, no longer concentrating on equal facilities - the focus of the ruling that put TUSD under the desegregation order in 1978, Fagen said.

Instead, it looks at what the best practices are in education for the next century and what would be beneficial to students.

"We really wanted to paint a picture of TUSD moving forward as an urban district with all the right components of success for all students," Fagen said.

Some of those components involve providing transportation for students who elect to go somewhere other than their neighborhood schools and encouraging voluntary movement and more diversity among students.

While open enrollment is allowed now, transportation isn't provided if students aren't attending their assigned schools or going to magnet programs.

To facilitate that movement, the district has broken up its schools into three categories based on demographics and educational achievement - factors such as percentage of minority students, socioeconomic status of students and academic achievement.

Schools in Group A have a minority population higher than the district average, a higher proportion of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and a higher proportion of English-language learners and below-average academic performance.

Group C schools are the opposite. Students transferring from A to C or vice versa would get higher priority for transportation than students who want to move to another school within the same group, because that wouldn't increase diversity.

A Group B school would fall in the middle, roughly matching district demographics.

The busing of students to choice schools is likely to create a "bump" in transportation costs, Fagen said. However, she expects the cost to balance out as the number of students who were part of forced busing phases out.

Not having that busing option would create a barrier for some families.

Schools also are being encouraged to come up with a theme for their learning styles, but they're expected to cover the costs from their existing budgets, which have been slashed. Examples of themes include a focus on technology or science, or incorporating the arts into academic lessons.

Cholla jumps in

Cholla High Magnet School already has embraced the opportunity to reinvent itself, implementing an International Baccalaureate program last year.

The program aims to provide a globally recognized curriculum with rigorous academics.

The cost of the program - nearly $939,000 so far - is covered by desegregation funds.

The population of the southwest-side high school is almost 86 percent minority - 15 percentage points higher than the district's minority population.

"The idea behind offering IB at Cholla is to give kids of color an opportunity to have a rigorous curriculum, which they hadn't had at this school for a long time," Principal Frank Armenta said.

Armenta is a product of the desegregation movement. His elementary school, University Heights, was closed, and he was bused to Jefferson Park.

"I remember thinking, 'Why are they closing my school? Is it not good enough?' " Armenta said. "I felt like an outsider."

His own experience makes him glad that Cholla students don't have to be uprooted to receive a good education.

But he hopes that the IB program - the only one in Pima County - brings in students from other parts of the city.

Cholla is collaborating with Safford Magnet Middle School to offer a sixth- through eighth-grade IB program. Armenta hopes that will result in Safford students going to Cholla rather than their usual school, Tucson Magnet High School.

Cholla senior Destiny Lopez moved from Michigan to Tucson during her sophomore year. Upon arriving, she heard that Cholla was a bad school in respect to academics and behavior.

Her honors classes weren't challenging, but Lopez was drawn to the IB program.

"I have a big interest in other countries and cultures, and to know that I could be learning the same things as kids around the world sounded amazing," she said.

Her history class relies a lot on analyzing documents rather than reading textbooks, which Lopez said "dumbs it down."

"When you make those connections, you get a deeper understanding rather than regurgitating facts," she said.

Close to graduation now, Lopez no longer buys into the rumors that Cholla is a bad school.

"I really take pride in what has been offered to me, and we're not a bunch of gangsters," Lopez said. "We care about society, the world and what goes on."

She has been accepted to New Mexico State University and plans to study psychology.

There are 32 seniors in the IB program at Cholla this year. Of those, 29 have been accepted to state universities already.

Progress in Gifted program

Another area where progress already is being made is the number of minority students in the Gifted and Talented Education program, with a 13 percent increase from last year.

The surge is due to an increased effort in informing parents about testing for the program, GATE coordinator David Niecikowski said.

In the past, signs were put up around schools about testing dates, and parents were expected to pick up forms at the school.

Now, all students in kindergarten through eighth grade have postcards sent home to alert them to the process. If a parent opts out of testing for a child who is considered gifted, another letter will be sent home to encourage it.

The extra effort with the GATE program is a key component of the post-unitary plan for academics in general - providing understanding of the options available and the know-how to access it.

Another element of the plan - restorative practices - works toward creating those same relationships with students and using them in cases in which discipline is necessary. Restorative practices encourage staffers and students to engage in conversation about specific behavior and the impact it had on the people around them. Also, the students are required to reflect and consider what they can do to repair the harm that has been done.

The hope is that this will help alleviate the racial disparities that exist in discipline.

Last school year, 9 percent of TUSD's Anglo students were suspended at least once, compared with 16 percent of blacks, 11 percent of Hispanics, 15 percent of American Indians and 5 percent of Asian-Americans.

"We have seen the way we were doing things - given the data we have - was not in the best interest of the students," TUSD Assistant Superintendent Jim Fish said. "We were following prescribed protocols that gave no opportunity for communication."

Auditing's appeal

The plans for internal and external auditing appeal to people such as Sonny Aros, who sits on the Tucson High site council and has long served on district volunteer committees.

"That should go a long way to holding the district more accountable. We also have a different kind of district and superintendent now, and my experience with them is that they are much more aware and responsive to issues of equalization than they have been in the past."

Fagen believes the accountability factor will help with transparency and show that the district is working toward the goals that have been laid out.

"The plan is not something that we thought of as just getting done and checking off our list," she said. "We believe strongly in it."

Added TUSD attorney Ross: "There is some sentiment that we should be guaranteeing results and should have over the course of 30 years, but really the obligation is to have the tools there so that success is an opportunity and that there are no barriers."

Even though TUSD will continue to receive desegregation money totaling about $64 million a year, it also will have to cover the costs of the internal and external compliance officers, a marketing campaign and expansion of services in the student-equity office.

Any shifting of desegregation money would occur only if a program didn't fit in with the goals of the post-unitary plan, and at that point a transition plan would be created for that school.

"We're never going to have enough money to do everything the way we would like to," Fagen said. "But existing items that are completely in the plan, it wouldn't make sense not to fund those."

Success at Phoenix Union

Hope for TUSD may lie just 120 miles to the north, where the only other district in the state that was under court-ordered desegregation has achieved success since the order was lifted.

The Phoenix Union High School District, which serves about 25,000 students and has demographics similar to TUSD's, has improved dropout rates, increased attendance and developed magnet programs, district spokesman Craig Pletenik said.

Phoenix Union also has seen a vast increase in the number of students taking the Advanced Placement test, going from 161 Hispanics taking it in 2005 to 883 last year.

A look back at the district's AZ Learns labels in 2002 shows more than half of its schools were underperforming. Fast-forward to 2009, when only one school was labeled underperforming, 14 were either performing or performing-plus, and one was labeled as excelling.

The district also continues to receive $46 million a year in desegregation funds to maintain the balance that has been achieved.

"We couldn't do without that funding," Pletenik said. "We feel there is still a need for desegregation beyond ethnic balance - for equal opportunity.

"The kids in our district are primarily low-income, but there is no reason they shouldn't be afforded the same educational opportunities as everyone else."

According to a 2009 report from the Arizona Office of the Auditor General, Phoenix Union met its court-ordered desegregation goal as early as 1992 but didn't ask the court to close the case, which would have ended the federal oversight, until 2004.

About The series

Sunday: What did 31 years of integration accomplish?

Today: Where does TUSD go now?

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Some aspects of the plan

Here are some of the other goals laid out in TUSD's Post-Unitary Status Plan. To read it all, go to contents/distinfo/pup/pup.html

• Create a plan that focuses on gains for all students and increased equality in student performance using measurable goals and indicators.

• Kick off a marketing campaign to increase awareness of TUSD programs.

• Increase staff diversity through a national recruitment campaign - but a lack of funding will prevent that from happening in the near future.

• Provide teacher support during the first two years and offer assistance to struggling teachers in their third through fifth years.

• Increase diversity in the Gifted and Talented Education program, as well as in honors and Advanced Placement classes.

• Increase racial diversity at University High School.

• Administer discipline in a fair and equitable manner, striving for no racial disparities.

• Shift from a culture of punishment to one of discipline that focuses on teaching students how to behave responsibly.

• Expand the Mexican-American studies department.

• Use the Mexican-American studies and African-American studies departments to contribute to the commitment of greater academic and social equality.

• Provide an adult advocate to each student to facilitate exploration of self and others, career paths, development of personal goals, problem solving, fostering family connections and monitoring academic achievement.

• Conduct an annual post-unitary status report, and hold a public hearing regarding the plan and report.

Arizona Daily Star

Star reporter Rhonda Bodfield contributed to this report. Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at 573-4175 or