School for Scandal

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

Without consulting Stiles, Marquez decided to house Project Excel in a separate building across the street from the school. Stiles says Marquez also ordered him to give Parker unbridled access to every student's records--access other faculty members were denied. By its second year, Excel had 125 students.

"It was something they had never done before," Parker says. "At Sunset, the teachers always patted the Hispanic and African-American students on the head and said, 'You poor little things. You're behind. We need to do you a favor.' But the favor is always to stick them in remedial classes. The favor is never to challenge them.

"So they gave these kids remedial reading. They denied them textbooks and gave them something called 'hands-on' geography where they studied maps and globes. All dummy courses."

Parker, several Sunset teachers say, helped herself to the best students from their classes, in many cases kids who were already taking established honors classes. She did so without the customary authorization from Stiles. With high-achieving students a rare commodity at Sunset, their teachers did not cotton to giving them up.

"Just pure pettiness," Parker says of her co-workers' reactions. "Some of those teachers got real ticky. But I got maybe 15 out of the 125 from their classes. These children were at risk for dropping out. Many of their parents didn't speak English. Many of their families had never had a high-school graduate. We saved a lot of kids."

Though Stiles and Sunset teachers dispute her characterizations, Parker's personnel reviews on file at DISD show outstanding performance, especially in her teaching methods. Even Stiles acknowledges her ability in the classroom. "If Rose Parker kept to educating students, she could be a very good teacher. But she was so distracted with trying to achieve things for herself that it undermined her relationship with the entire school."

At Sunset, Parker rarely attended faculty meetings, a move other teachers perceived as arrogant. Her memos to Stiles and Ortiz were often shrill, whining about the "unforgivable" physical settings and the "framework of total harassment by the faculty and dean at Sunset" in which she had to work. In one memo to Ortiz following a clash over student transfers into Project Excel, Parker wrote, "Hopefully, even if you continue to attempt to derail the only hope these children have of receiving a college prep program, they will be cognizant enough to find the appropriate forum for their problems. After all, they have just studied 14th Amendment guarantees of equal access."

The memos usually came after Stiles denied Parker's requests for special programs and extra money for Project Excel. "Right away I would get a call from Richard Marquez, telling me to give her what she wanted," Stiles says. When Parker requested $2,000 for a special arts program for her students, Stiles said no. Later, he says, he learned the money came out of his budget anyway, without his signature but authorized by Marquez. (Parker says she dug up this money herself, from community grants.)

From Stiles' perspective, the trouble with Parker's methods was that 134 other teachers at the school had for years been denied more rudimentary items--like classroom space. "I had 37 floating teachers that year, people who had no room to call their own. They were carting piles of books around, sharing space with other teachers. Giving one teacher everything she asks, for what--100 or so students--seemed a little impossible by comparison."

Parker's tight relationship with Marquez developed with the help of Mary Ann Climer, a longtime Oak Cliff activist, who introduced them. Although they live in Oak Cliff's upscale Kessler Park neighborhood, well within Sunset's boundaries, Climer's three children attended the Booker T. Washington Magnet High School for the Performing Arts--widely considered one of the district's plum schools. And Climer's children were students of Rose Parker, who taught at the arts magnet from 1984 through August 1992.

For years, Climer has sat on various committees of Sunset parents and neighbors. Many teachers there know her, and value her ability to get things done. Climer takes credit--and Stiles applauds her--for greasing the wheels at DISD and getting seven new portable classrooms at Sunset last year.

But many faculty members view her as a busybody. "As my daddy in Oklahoma would say, Mary Ann Climer don't have no dog in that fight," says Sunset teacher Johnson. "Yet she's up here demanding and posturing and generally making it worse for people who are already working in a difficult situation."

Climer scoffs at such appraisals: "I guess your opinion of me depends on whether I'm reporting you for academic fraud or getting your school new portables.

"I live in the neighborhood, and those are my neighbors' kids. You know, I'm sitting here being an advocate for these Sunset parents, many of them don't even speak English, and I get criticized for it. These parents don't know how to work the system."

When Parker and Climer met again one year later at Sunset, they wasted no time in adding Leticia Mata to their ranks. Mata is clearly not one of those helpless parents Climer describes. She had learned how to work the system through her work since 1991 in Dallas Area Interfaith, the grass-roots social activism group made up largely of urban, minority churchgoers.

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