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State Assessment Team to Return to Centinela for More Hearings : Schools: Some parents, students and board members said they were not able to speak freely in last month’s sessions.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The head of a state team assessing racial tensions in the Centinela Valley Union High School District said Tuesday that misunderstandings about his group’s role may be at the root of recently voiced concerns about the fairness of the team’s inquiry.

“This is not an investigation. We’re not looking for facts to be corroborated so that charges could be made,” said Marlin Foxworth of the state Department of Education’s Office of Intergroup Relations.

“We’re looking for perceptions, for how folks feel . . . so that we can make recommendations to reinforce the good things about the district or change the things people feel ought to be different.”

His comments came after several parents and students told school board members and others that they were not given an opportunity to speak freely during any of the more than 50 sessions held April 17-20 by Foxworth’s assessment team. School board members also have criticized the agency for excluding them from the sessions.

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As a result of the criticisms and to smooth the way for its recommendations about how to ease racial tensions, the assessment team will return May 14 to conduct a new round of group interviews.

The original meetings were scheduled in response to allegations that racism is rampant in the district. Although tensions have existed in the racially diverse district for years, they came to a head in early March as students staged two days of walkouts. They were protesting the resignation of a popular black principal who said he was being unfairly reassigned.

The state assessors typically interview only students, parents, teachers and community members, but not school board members or the district’s superintendent. The Office of Intergroup Relations, which conducts between six and 10 assessments statewide every year, takes that approach to “preserve the integrity and independence” of school officials, said Bart Aspling, Foxworth’s supervisor.

But on April 19, school board President Ruth Morales told Foxworth that board members wanted to attend some sessions. Foxworth explained that the policy insulates a school board from criticism that it has influenced the agency’s findings or recommendations, he said in an interview Tuesday.

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However, Foxworth said he agreed to discuss the matter with his colleagues and get back to Morales on April 23. He left a message on her answering machine on April 24 saying the team would allow board members to participate in a new round of sessions, he said.

They did not speak, however, and later that day, Morales sent a letter to Foxworth and State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig that raised questions about the fairness of the assessment.

Morales was in Mexico and could not be reached for comment this week. But board member Pam Sturgeon, who saw the letter before it was sent, said she concurred with Morales.

“The board is the one that asked for this (assessment) originally on Jan. 23,” Sturgeon said. “But we were totally ignored until the walkouts (on March 5 and 6), and all of a sudden they’re down here talking to people. In my opinion, it makes the board look bad because everyone is saying the board isn’t doing anything.

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“If nothing else, I feel the assessment team should have written a letter to the board explaining how they work,” she said.

A steering committee composed of 38 people helped the assessment team identify groups that wanted to participate in the meetings. To schedule the greatest number of meetings, the four-member assessment team split into groups of two, eventually speaking to more than 300 people.

Some sessions were devoted to students, others to teachers and others to the community at large. Each meeting was announced publicly, sign-up sheets were posted but attendance was restricted to no more than a dozen participants. As one assessor asked questions, the other took notes.

The assessors made a point of having non-segregated meetings to allow racial tensions to surface in an open forum.

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Although many parents and teachers said they were happy with the sometimes-heated sessions, others said they felt shortchanged.

Board member Jacqueline Carrerra said the racial mix of the meetings left many white and Latino parents and students feeling “intimidated, that at any point they may say something wrong and someone would climb down their throats. Other people there said they didn’t like the atmosphere because of some of the people they had to sit with. I also heard they felt the assessment was not impartial.”

In the last 10 years, the district’s racial composition has undergone radical changes. Although blacks, at 17%, and Latinos, at 53%, account for the bulk of the student population, the district’s faculty remains overwhelmingly Anglo. About 31% of the district’s administrators are black, and four of the five school board members are Latino.

Centinela Valley Secondary Teachers Assn. President Nancy Nuesseler, who was a member of the steering committee, said many teachers and parents were upset that they couldn’t meet in private with the assessors.

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“There was a great deal of concern on the part of many people--parents, teachers and students--(about) the way the assessment was set up. A lot of people felt the meetings were stacked” against white teachers and parents, said Nuesseler, who is white. “Especially since some people showed up four or five times to meet with the assessment team.”

But Foxworth said it simply wasn’t possible to schedule private meetings. The assessors were not swayed by the number of times someone showed up at a meeting, he said.

“There’s no way we can hear a community with one-on-one sessions,” Foxworth said.

Questions about the fairness of an assessment are natural in school districts that have struggled to cope with mounting ethnic diversity, Foxworth said.

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But he added: “We’re not as stupid as we look. I think people get really attuned to their point of view on an issue and start drawing conclusions about how easily manipulable are the people who hear them. But we’re used to listening to people very carefully, and we’re not too easily manipulable. Numbers are important in one sense, but they’re not the only thing that shapes our conclusions.”

NEXT STEP School board members, who were left out of previous meetings held by the Department of Education’s Office of Intergroup Relations, will be allowed to attend sessions beginning May 14. They are also open to the public and, depending on the level of interest, may be held over several days. The assessment team is expected to issue its recommendations for easing racial tensions in the schools by the end of the month.


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