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On May 16, the D.C. Board of Education, acting under orders from Superintendent Franklin Smith, voted to close seven schools in the District. The board said it would use three criteria to guide its decisions on which schools would get the ax: dwindling enrollment, underutilization of the school building, and high cost of repairs. But critics allege that the closing of the Carlos Rosario Adult Education Center shows the board actually employed one other criterion: race.

The Rosario Center, after all, is a nationally recognized program serving 2,000 students from 109 countries. It operates at capacity. And Rosario’s building is so sound that two nearby schools, Fillmore Arts Center and Hardy Middle School, will be moved into its location on 35th and T in Burleith.

Rosario’s problem is that it serves area Latinos, who have never gotten a fair shake from the school board. The decision to shutter Rosario proves that five years after the Latino riots in Mount Pleasant, the willingness of the city’s elected officials to accommodate Latinos has vanished in a blot of red ink.

Jim Ford, a staffer for the D.C. Council’s education and libraries committee observes that, “every time schools have to be closed it seems like some school that predominantly serves a Hispanic population pops up on the list. It certainly makes one wonder when you see an Oyster, a Lincoln, a Bell [schools with large Latino enrollments], and now a Rosario on the list, all schools that are enrolled to capacity, if not over capacity, and are doing a good job educationally. There seems to be a pattern here, and the pattern, in my opinion, is somewhat perverse.”

Beatriz Otero, executive director of the Calvary Bilingual Day Care Learning Center, says the Rosario decision is hard evidence that the school board doesn’t care about Latinos.

“The leadership sets the tone for what the values of that organization will be. So when you have a leadership that expresses biases and a leadership that consistently supports certain levels of discrimination, you get members within the administration who talk about ‘those people,’” she says.

Blanca Belloso came to D.C. from El Salvador 16 years ago. She is in her second year of English at Rosario and says she went back to school because she was tired of enduring discrimination without being able to speak up for herself. For seven years she held down a $7.50-an-hour job as a cook in Crystal City that offered no benefits other than three days paid vacation a year. “I couldn’t protest because I didn’t speak English,” she says. “There were Americans at the restaurant, but if something needed to be cut, the boss would take it away from the Latinos. We all needed the work, so nobody wanted to complain.”

Rosario helped Belloso navigate the bureaucracy that once stood between her and the green card that enables her to work legally in the U.S. She is now applying for U.S. citizenship.

In addition to helping students like Belloso secure citizenship, Rosario (formerly the Gordon Adult Education Center) for 26 years has offered immigrants classes in six levels of English as a second language (ESL), literacy, high-school equivalency (GED), and culinary arts. Many Latinos have used the center to vault out of the poverty imposed by their language handicap and immigrant status.

Superintendent Smith has indicated that Belloso and her classmates will likely be scattered—like ashes—in Roosevelt Senior High and Bell Multicultural, but specific plans for the program will not be disclosed until June 17. Still, Smith’s fix would force adult students to compete with regular students for facilities. With adult classes restricted primarily to the evening hours, the 1,300 morning and afternoon students at Rosario will be mostly out of luck, and students who want to take more than one class will have to shuttle between buildings. Communication between teachers at different levels will be severed. The current students at Rosario say it’s not a practical or equitable response to the District’s financial crisis.

Hugo Palma, who works two jobs in Georgetown restaurants while taking fifth-level English, doesn’t know if the afternoon hours will fit his shifts. As an immigrant in the District, Palma has run into his share of barriers. “When you apply for a job,” he says, “even if it’s just to mop floors, they ask, ‘Do you speak English?’ If you say no, there’s no job for you.”

Palma, who came from El Salvador without a high-school diploma, was planning to study for the GED at Rosario, but the classes might now be inaccessible to him. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to achieve all the goals I had. I’ve worked hard, not only for myself but for those that are coming behind me,” he says.

Latino leaders see the closing of Rosario as emblematic of the school system’s complete disregard for non-English-speaking immigrants at all grade levels. Not that Latinos have political weight in the District: There are no Latinos on the school board, the D.C. council, or the control board. With a frantic scramble for limited resources under way, the lack of representation for Latinos means they will be coming out on the short end in tough times.

Henry Fernandez, chairman of the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) and a champion of educational access for Latinos, says, “They are people who can’t vote, don’t have a lot of money, and who feel very powerless. It’s easy to close that center because the immigrant population is virtually helpless,” says Fernandez, who is the city’s only elected Latino official.

Pedro Aviles, executive director of the Latino Civil Rights Task Force and a Rosario graduate, says District Latinos lack leverage.

“I think if we had someone on that board, we would have been able to cut some deals. We hope that as more Latinos become citizens and as the first generation turns 18, we will begin to have more political power during elections to elect someone who is Latino and who is going to represent our interests,” says Aviles.

Beatriz Otero agrees: The Latino community “is not yet expressing itself at the level that it should to demand what’s right. They are people at the mercy of those who provide the services,” she says. “A large majority of the Latino population falls under the category that says, ‘I have to keep my mouth shut in order to assure that I get at least the minimum.’”

Otero and others complain that most public schools have systematically marginalized Latinos. In 1989, a report from the Bilingual Education Task Force found that the schools had no coherent strategy for educating non-English-speaking students. In the aftermath of the Mount Pleasant riots, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights echoed the findings of the task force, highlighting barriers to immigrant education ranging from a lack of certified ESL teachers to recurring allegations of corporal punishment against Latino students.

The U.S. Department of Education has also panned the District for its persistent disregard for Latino education. Following a 1991 investigation by the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the school system gave assurances that it would formulate an educational plan for non-English-speaking students. But the plan has brought no progress for Latinos, and again the OCR is on the school system’s case.

According to a Feb. 21 letter sent to Smith by OCR, last year 1,644 “limited English proficient” students enrolled in grades 1 through 12 were not being served by an “alternative language program.” The investigation also concluded that the system is claiming to serve ESL students at schools that don’t have any bilingual/ESL teachers on their staffs. For example, four out of 14 schools offering alternative language programs in Spanish employed no Spanish-speaking teachers.

OCR concluded that the lack of qualified ESL staff “raises serious questions about whether the District is actually implementing the program models identified in its Plan.” If the District continues to flout equal educational opportunity laws it could be denied federal education funds. The Latino Civil Rights Task Force is also retaining a lawyer and considering filing a formal complaint of discrimination against the District’s public schools.

Otero thinks the Latino community is beginning to realize that the school board is not staked in the success of District Latinos. “The issue has to do with an administration which has not supported these kinds of efforts across the board, except at individual schools where there are principals who understand that you provide services to all children. But at other places, there is no understanding and, in fact, outright racism,” says Otero.

Ann Wilcox, Ward 2 school board member, was among the seven board members who voted in favor of the closings. She explained that Rosario was a target for cost-cutting in part because its adult programs are not mandated by federal guidelines. “The idea was to put compulsory programs in better buildings. We did specifically make the change at this point because we decided to close Hardy and Fillmore—that was the root of the bumping that took place. People just have to make some adjustments,” added Wilcox.

But the closings are adjusting Rosario’s students out of an education. Rosario actually serves 160 students between the ages of 16 and 18, many of whom dropped out of other programs. In 1993, Latinos had the highest dropout rate of any group in the District, so Rosario’s closing means these students are falling through the cracks of a flawed system twice.

Rosario’s new, atomized life could be short. Christopher Ladd, a teacher who is a veteran of school closings, fears that Rosario might suffer the same fate as the Lenox Adult Education Center, his former school. “After the program was moved from its building, the next step was to eliminate it completely,” says Ladd. It takes a vote by the board to close a school, but programs can be chopped at will, he points out.

Ladd thinks the Rosario closing is one that will haunt the District.

“Our school will have to be rebuilt in a less successful form in another 20 or 30 years. [Demographically], it’s just the wave of the future and they can’t vote against the future,” he says.

Parents can’t effectively advocate for their children if they don’t speak the language. Most of the student body at Rosario is made up of parents like Belloso who are not registered to vote and thus do not scare board members with their protests.

Belloso has shared other lessons with her kids as well.

“My son would say ‘Mami, you don’t know what it’s like to be ignored. You don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against.’ My job as a mother was not to breed resentment, but to give him strength. I would tell him, ‘You feel that way? Show them that you’re a Latino who wants to make progress. Show them that we’re not going to be parasites on the state, that we’re not going to be dependent on a monthly welfare check.’ My son is in the Army now trying to make a future for himself, but my daughters still need my help,” she says.

At Rosario, students and staff continue to mourn the loss of their site. At a recent student council meeting at Rosario, several said they were apprehensive that a move into a building in northeast D.C. would lead to racial confrontations with blacks. Another student, a black Latino, disagreed, saying, “We have this necessity to learn English. We are not in the position of demanding a special place. We want to learn.” A third added, “We are like the morenos. Why should we divide against another minority?”

Pedro Aviles said the program must live on “even if we have to get together in a hut under a mango tree.” Then again, there are no mango trees in the District.—Vanessa Bauzá