School for Scandal

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

Stiles says that when he took over Sunset in the fall of 1993, Marquez--a former Sunset principal and beloved in its predominantly Hispanic neighborhood--never believed he would stay for long. "Richard really had another person in mind for the job, from outside the district. He wanted me there for a year, just long enough to put this person in place. And I was OK with that at first."

But Stiles warmed to his new job. And his first year, in which Sunset leapt in the district's performance rankings, made him confident he could make a difference. "After that first year, I really liked it," Stiles says. "Not only did I decide not to leave, but I was planning to stay for at least four years. I had a goal to see my freshman class graduate."

Zulema Ortiz came on board at Sunset with Stiles. She had spent 10 years in DISD in elementary and middle-school teaching and administration. She refused to discuss the PAL scandal or her tenure at Sunset with the Observer, but testimony from Collins' investigation shows she was highly liked.

"These two people--you'd be surprised what they did for those students," Sunset biology teacher Catherine Donaldson testified. "Ms. Ortiz went out of her way. I've never seen as many football players who love that lady. They have never hung around a dean like that before. She filled out SAT forms for the parents who couldn't. She did all of that on her own time, and those kids can vouch for her."

Marquez, now superintendent of the Harlandale School District in San Antonio, did not return phone calls from the Observer. Nor did he respond last spring to requests for his testimony at the DISD investigation.

Stiles says his decision to dig in at Sunset--"because what the school needed more than anything was consistency in leadership"--prompted Marquez to try to undermine his power as principal. The two frequently clashed on policy.

Two years before the PAL problem, Marquez had begun experimenting with his new-age education theories among his 19 Oak Cliff-area schools. And Sunset became his favorite petri dish.

High truancy and poor academic performance were constant problems. Yet Marquez directed his principals not to fail students, because, he said, an "F" crushes a struggling student socially and psychologically. More than a month into the 1992-93 school year, Marquez was advising principals not to fail kids who had yet to show up at school. That directive rattled officials at the district's central office, who said they had no knowledge of Marquez's directive. "This doesn't comply with what we ask to happen in our grading policy," then-deputy superintendent Chad Woolery told the Observer in October 1992. "We need to grade students on the work they do."

DISD's Collins says Marquez was set straight on the line of authority in such matters. But Marquez continued to pride himself on tinkering with the system.

Going into the 1993-94 school year, Marquez decided--this time with school board approval--to revamp the guidance counseling system at Sunset. Three of the five counselors, who handled student scheduling, were transferred. They were replaced with a psychologist and a social worker, who would see to the students' emotional needs, and a computer programmer. But, as the staff at Sunset soon found out, two counselors weren't enough to schedule 2,500 students.

Marquez's pilot program, in force only at Sunset, created a logistical nightmare. Counselors struggled to place students in the correct class, but many fell through the cracks.

Complicating the scheduling mess was the school's March 1993 switch from the traditional seven daily class periods to eight. The change was to accommodate the Texas Education Agency's mandate to require 22 credits for graduation.

But at Sunset, the faculty soon learned that, by their senior year, many students had already earned the required credits. Although the system allows them to graduate early, many chose to stay through their senior year out of sentiment: They wanted to graduate with their friends.

"It was tough to keep discipline over the ones who really didn't want to be there," Stiles says. "They registered for electives, but we were so crowded we didn't always have all the course offerings they wanted. And we didn't have the luxury of a study hall; there wasn't enough room. Study hall had been done away with a year earlier to make room for other classes."

So Stiles looked to the state-approved Peer Assistants Leadership course, in place at several DISD schools, to cope with the overload. Marquez, he says, approved the plan enthusiastically.

Stiles and Ortiz saw it as a godsend--a chance to keep seniors busy while giving them a chance to better their community. At least that was the idea. "Zulema [Ortiz] took on the goal of overseeing PAL," Stiles says. "The students were assigned to a teacher, who would give the grades and turn them in to Zulema."

The program was meant for juniors and seniors only. They were to receive only a single credit toward graduation. But it didn't work out that way.

It would later be discovered that some students earned credit for as many as four blocks of PAL. Evidence from DISD's investigation also showed that students seldom worked as tutors or mentors in the community; most worked as teachers' aides. Still others reported to no one, and simply left campus for the day. A number of sophomores were also enrolled in the program.

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