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Lowell's Growing Pains Some parents disagree with principal's approach.

BY: Felicia Cousart Matlosz and Angela Valdivia Rush THE FRESNO BEE - November 3, 2000, Friday

When Sandra Vasquez took over as principal of Lowell Elementary School on Valentine's Day this year, she wanted to fan the enthusiasm of parent involvement and raise the level of student performance.

The 29-year veteran -- in her first job as a principal -- holds a meeting every month during which any parent can talk to her about anything. The school has hired a Hmong liaison for the 665-student year-round campus to increase communication and is pushing to expand parent-education programs.

This year's state Academic Performance Index, based on how students do on an annual state test, showed Lowell youngsters doing better. The school jumped from 382 to 419, an improvement of 37 points. It's still a far cry from the state goal of 800 but good enough that Lowell could snag a share of state reward money for improved scores.

Despite these steps of progress, not everyone is happy at Lowell. A group of parents disagrees with Vasquez's approach and, on Oct. 26, took its case to the Fresno Unified School District board of trustees. The parents said the district had ignored their concerns for nearly three years and that they wanted Vasquez removed.

The small campus is near downtown Fresno, in the heart of a neighborhood where many families are poor. About 70% of the youngsters are Hispanic, 17% Asian, 6% African-American and 5% white. The disgruntled parents say they just want what's best to give their children a chance at a better life.

The recent uproar surprised Vasquez, who was at the Oct. 26 meeting with 25 current and former Lowell teachers there to support her. None chose to speak up that evening. But after a Bee article about the accusations appeared the next day, the teachers and others came to her defense.

"She has a lot of integrity and honesty," said parent Marty Martin. "She is working hard and does not deserve the flak she is getting."

"It's a great school, and all of our staff members work very well together, and we're all really committed to the success of our children," said Patty Ruppel, a second-grade teacher who's been at Lowell for seven years.

Teacher Judy Robertson, a 12-year veteran at Lowell, agreed: "There are many, many, many good things happening at our school, and unfortunately those things don't get recognized."

The accusations thrown out to the district trustees were eye-poppers such as: Vasquez had called the Immigration and Naturalization Service and police to an Oct. 19 school site council meeting. Vasquez won't allow students to speak Spanish. She had closed the Parent Center.

These are all accusations that Vasquez adamantly denies.

"I've always tried to be fair to everyone, and I do go by guidelines," Vasquez said this week. "I try to keep people informed and to have parent education in all the schools I've worked."

As for the accusations:

Don Riding, officer in charge of the INS Fresno office, said that "I never received a phone call and none of my staff ever said anything to me about it, nor did we send anybody."

Riding explained that, even if his agency had gotten a call, its policy is not to step on school grounds to make an arrest.

Vasquez said she did call the police that Oct. 19 evening after several parents and teachers asked her to do so. The meeting had degenerated into an angry confrontation, according to some witnesses, after a disagreement arose over the the election of two parent representatives to the 12-member board.

Ruppel said that "all students are encouraged to speak in whatever language they're comfortable in. We have never sent a child to the office for speaking Spanish."

The Parent Center has never been closed.

On Thursday, Superintendent Santiago Wood spoke to nearly 100 parents who had gathered in the Lowell cafeteria for the English Learners Advisory Committee meeting.

He emphasized the district's commitment to make Lowell a model school whose approach could be replicated throughout Fresno Unified. In a spirited and strong voice, Wood told the crowd that conflict and disagreement will hinder working together to make the school better.

Wood, who has visited Lowell more than once, outlined his plans: A facilitator, retired Fresno Unified principal Ruben Barrios, will gather information during the next 90 days to lay the groundwork for more parent involvement. A mediator will come in to help the communication process. A long-term plan will be drawn up, in collaboration with the Parent Institute for Quality Education.

Wood also said district officials would recommend to the board next week that the school's council election be set aside, based on direction they've received from the state Department of Education. The issue centers on following proper election rules and procedures. New ballots are going out to all families to ensure equal opportunity to vote.

"I may have said some things tonight that you may not agree with, but I'm going to talk to you face-to-face and let you know what my position, what my belief and what my stance is," Wood said. "We support you. We want to celebrate you. We want to honor you as parents."

Wood's statement about setting aside the election riled some people. Guillermina Velazquez, a bilingual teacher at Lowell and secretary of the school site council, said after the meeting that "some of the parents are unhappy about it."

But both she and parent Francisco Guillen, president of the council, welcomed Wood's involvement and three-step plan. Guillen said: "I'm open, and I'm waiting to see what happens" and that "everybody will know what's going on" through Barrios' work.

Velazquez, who blames the principal for the election problem, said "it's good news" that Wood is involved: "He has decided to step in because he knows there are problems."

The reporters can be reached at fmatlosz@fresnobee.com or avaldivia@fresnobee.com or 441-6330. GRAPHIC: TOMAS OVALLE -- THE FRESNO BEE Sandra Vasquez, principal of Lowell Elementary School near downtown Fresno, is surprised by some parents' push to have her removed.