School for Scandal

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

Though Stiles didn't know it, the state permits seniors who already have accumulated enough graduation credits to obtain a waiver to leave campus early each day--essentially what they were doing under the PAL program. Some 250 of the 400 PAL students at Sunset were seniors, and many had already met their graduation requirements. At Sunset, however, no one had obtained such waivers--and the waivers certainly wouldn't have allowed anyone to receive a perfect grade for leaving campus.

The mess can be partly attributed to some rather murky guidelines. The Texas Education Agency, for instance, says only juniors and seniors can take a PAL course. But the 1994-95 DISD General Information Bulletin describes PAL as open to grades 10 through 12.

More than a dozen teachers who testified at the PAL investigation made it clear they didn't really understand how PAL was meant to work. They thought it was indeed a teacher assistant program. "Ms. Ortiz gave this to us, something that talks about Peer Assistant protocol," biology teacher Donaldson said in her deposition. "...To us, 'peer assistant' simply meant teacher assistant..."

The PAL investigation shows Ortiz was overwhelmed with scheduling problems.
By June 1994, the two remaining counselors, bitter and overworked, had quit. "They'd had enough. They were reassigned in the district," says DISD's Robby Collins. "So Mike [Stiles] and Zulema [Ortiz] were hand-scheduling everyone until they could find replacements.

"When Zulema was picking the course code for PAL, the testimony shows she truly thought she was choosing a teacher assistant course. She picked the wrong course number and assigned it to those kids."

In her deposition, Ortiz admits frantically scheduling students into multiple PAL sections to place them somewhere--but planned to go back and fix the problem later. "Call it part ignorance, part just being overwhelmed with not enough support staff to rely on," she told Collins. "I felt, 'let's just get them in there and then let's correct--let's delete duplicate courses later.'"

DISD reassigned Ortiz this fall to a teaching post at Stonewall Jackson Elementary School in East Dallas.

Stiles finally did locate two counselors--just days before the 1994-95 year began. One came from Wilmer-Hutchins ISD and the other had retired 10 years earlier from Richardson ISD. Because neither knew much about DISD policy, Collins says, they were in no position to correct Ortiz's mistake.

Sunset's leaders were living a nightmare, born of their own sloppiness, a woefully crowded school, and political wrangling.

But it would not be left to Stiles to call his mistakes as he saw them--or to correct them. Rose Parker and her supporters would not allow him that luxury.

"Have you got about a week?" Rose Parker asks over the phone when I call her for an interview. "Because that's how long it will take to get a full understanding of what was going on at Sunset High School. I have a pile of documents a foot high to show how that school is denying students access to education."

Parker, a 44-year-old Anglo, taught for two years at Sunset. With nearly 21 years experience in DISD, she has taught elementary-school and high-school history, social studies, and journalism. Proud of her academic pedigree, she notes that she has 12 hours of training in gifted and talented education. "I have a bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degree. Except I didn't finish my dissertation," Parker offers, early in our meeting at a Greenville Avenue restaurant. We are sitting at a massive oak table with claw feet that could easily accommodate six people. Parker's documents are spread over half of it.

When we agreed over the phone to meet, she described herself this way: "I have short dark hair, and I'm fatter than I want to be." Parker is indeed ample--though fat overstates it--and dressed in a gauzy, gray-blue tunic and pants. Her hair is spikey, and shagged on the back of her neck. Each ear is studded with four diamond posts, with brass and silver drop earrings dangling from the lobes. It is a measure of her relationship with her peers that, at Sunset, according to English honors teacher Clarence Johnson, "We often referred to her as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark."

Parker shuffles through the papers before us and produces DISD's official school performance ranking for 1993-94. It shows Sunset's rise, among 27 DISD high schools, from 25th place to eighth. Stiles is especially proud of the ranking.

But now Parker is madly jotting her own numbers, arrows, and big question marks all over the document, hoping to show that the district's assessment is all wrong. She digs out another paper that shows Sunset's graduation rate in 1993 and 1994 to be the lowest since 1970. Asked its source, she smiles obliquely and says: "I just got it. It's confidential."

Parker, it turns out, has a knack for compiling documents and keeping records on those with whom she disagrees. DISD files contain copies of a half-dozen of her letters to Stiles, Ortiz, and district officials concerning PAL and assorted other grievances. And she provided me with her own handful of memos as well, documenting several run-ins she had with Stiles.

Ironically, Parker--like Stiles--came to Sunset with a nudge from Richard Marquez, who hand-picked her in the summer of 1993 for a program known as "Project Excel." The program was meant to identify Sunset students--preferably as freshmen--who had been enrolled in English as a Second Language courses and who were improving academically. Parker and three other teachers would supervise the students and teach them for most of the day. The goal was to put them on a college track.

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