School for Scandal

Principal Mike Stiles was turning Dallas' troubled Sunset High around - until a critical misjudgement threw him into a political snakepit

In the spartan room that serves as Michael Stiles' office, the only hint of color is in the former principal's necktie--a busy pattern of black, white, and brown children dressed in rainbow hues, their hands interlocking like paper dolls on a blue silk background.

In contrast, the walls, bookshelves, and table around Stiles are all strikingly beige. There are no Xeroxed inspirational thoughts tacked to the walls, no trophies, no apple-shaped pencil cups--none of the sentimental knickknacks that most educators scatter about their offices.

In short, Stiles' space at the Nolan Estes Learning Center in South Oak Cliff conveys a sense of exile. And that is no accident.

The Dallas Independent School District banished the 42-year-old Stiles here last summer. Administrators assigned him a lofty-sounding title: instructional specialist for expelled elementary school youths. And over the past few months, he has designed a curriculum to help reshape the behavior of DISD's littlest troublemakers.

But Stiles is used to working with children, and only three have been sent his way all semester. "The program isn't real well-known yet," he says. "So I'm hoping it will pick up."

Working with kids is what Stiles says he likes to do best--what, by most accounts, he has done best for two decades. Yet there will be no children at his next stop in the DISD bureaucracy--a desk job in food services. Beginning this month, Stiles will be working with computers, bringing the school lunch program on-line. Stiles notes gamely that the pay in the post will be good, closer to the $60,271 he made annually in his principal's job. Besides, he says, it will remove him from the ugly game of DISD political dodge ball.

Sitting on one of those hard resin school-issue chairs, his black-loafered feet stretched out in front of him, Stiles has described his new job with all the passion of a TV test pattern. The man is tired. The pitch of his voice rises only when he starts to unravel the tangled saga that placed him in this academic Siberia.

At this time last year, Stiles, a 20-year veteran of DISD, was serving as principal of Oak Cliff's Sunset High, presiding over the resurgence of one of Dallas' most troubled schools.

That's when a small cadre of teachers, parents, and Oak Cliff community activists discovered that some 400 Sunset students were enrolled in nearly 1,300 sections of the Peer Assistance Leadership program. PAL is a state-approved elective that allows 11th and 12th graders a chance to tutor younger students, or to do volunteer work. Though students are supposed to be permitted to earn only one credit toward graduation, many Sunset kids were taking the "class" two and three times a day--a handful as many as six times daily. Most enrolled in PAL were grading papers and running errands for Sunset teachers. Still others were streaming off campus during the day. Dozens of students were getting perfect grades for doing nothing.

Led by a teacher with a record of stirring dissent in a past DISD job, the whistle blowers complained to Stiles and his superiors. Though Stiles and his bosses set in motion a plan to correct the problems, the whistle blowers then aired their grievance in the media--in particular, WFAA-Channel 8.

The station's report--in which Stiles' detractors charged that the principal knowingly misused the PAL program to inflate attendance figures and to boost the school's academic standing--produced an uproar. Though Stiles' bosses had known about the problem for weeks--and already accepted the principal's plan to correct it--the embarrassing public disclosure was met with a fresh, harsher response.

The week the TV report aired, DISD administrators suspended Stiles and his dean, Zulema Ortiz. They launched a formal investigation days later. When it was over, DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery demoted Stiles and Ortiz, slashed their pay, and banished them from Sunset. Neither may be considered for another school administration post for two years.

Robby Collins, the district's special assistant in charge of personnel, led the probe. "It was just a mess when I got there," he says. "It was two weeks of day-and-night work to get to the facts. This situation was unique, to say the least."

The media accounts made Stiles and Ortiz look, at worst, like academic scam artists--and, at best, like bumbling fools. Both declined at the time to defend themselves to reporters.

But testimony during the investigation, as well as its conclusions and recent interviews, reveal a far more complex picture. DISD records, for example, show that Stiles and dean Zulema Ortiz, in less than two years, had legitimately begun to turn around Sunset--long one of the district's lowest-performing schools.

After Stiles' first year, the school's abysmal performance ranking--25th among DISD's 27 secondary schools--had jumped to eighth place. The inventory measures such variables as test scores, numbers of graduates, dropout rates, college entrance exam takers, and enrollment in honors classes.

During that year, Sunset's dropout rate fell almost 3 percent; enrollment in honors courses climbed from 2 percent to 10 percent. And overall attendance in 1993-94 increased by one percent--at a school plagued by a history of truancy, a major accomplishment, worth an $8,000 attendance award from the state. "We put the money in our campus activity fund," says Stiles. "Every six weeks we bought Cokes and pizza for the students who had improved their attendance and grades."

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