The Truth About Townview (Part I)

How John Wiley Price and Chad Woolery have made students pawns in Dallas' racial politics

It was a cold, bleak 7:45 in the morning--the second Monday in January, the first day of school after the winter break--and Townview Center, the most expensive, most eagerly awaited school ever built in Dallas, was being picketed for allegedly grave racial injustices being perpetrated inside.

Newspaper, TV, and radio reporters clamored to get close to Price, who had been protesting at the school since mid-December, crashing into a war between parents and administrators over Townview's Talented and Gifted Magnet. What were the commissioner's concerns today? What did the school district have to do to make things right? What was his message to the people of Dallas?

As usual, it wasn't easy on the ears.
Price was upset, he said, because Townview's executive principal, Dr. Ora Lee Watson, had just become a casualty of the TAG war. She had been removed from her position at the school and replaced by her boss, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Leon Hayes--a racially inferior human being, in Price's opinion.

"She was replaced by a Negro, and there is a difference," Price explained to the rapt reporters. "We're dealing with an Oreo, and that's Leon Hayes. You can't pee in our face and tell us it's raining."

As the reporters pressed in closer--filming Price, recording Price, jotting down his every word--2,173 school children streamed by the media circus on their way to school. The vast majority of the kids were more interested in getting out of the cold than listening to Price's complaints.

Price, of course, had plenty. Everything about TAG seemed to touch a racial nerve with him: its "insubordinate" Anglo principal, its activist Anglo parents, its staunch Anglo and Hispanic support on the Dallas school board.

TAG parents had long been upset, complaining to anyone who would listen that the move to Townview in the fall of 1995 had severely watered down the academically rigorous program their kids had previously enjoyed on the Pinkston High School campus. For months the issue had festered.

Now a majority of the school board wanted the problem fixed. But Price was there to see that it didn't happen. TAG, he declared, was an elitist program that catered to arrogant Anglo kids who wanted special privileges and a disproportionate amount of district resources to isolate themselves academically and socially from the overwhelmingly black and Hispanic student body at Townview.

Standing inside Townview that January morning--two months after the issue had flared up in the press, a month before it would throw the Dallas school district into a full-fledged crisis--it was hard to reconcile Price's claims outside the building with what was going on here, far away from the TV cameras.

Three floors above the street fray, where no one could hear the screams of "No Justice! No Peace!" 32 high-school juniors--14 whites, 11 blacks, four Hispanics, and three Asians--were gathering for a TAG geography class. No racist Anglo cabal here. No special privileges. In fact, the class was so overcrowded that kids were perched on the edges of desks and sprawled out on the floor.

Within minutes, the students were instructed to break up into small groups to work on an ambitious independent-study project. I watched them pair up randomly, with no apparent regard for race or ethnic origin--a feat, I couldn't help thinking, that their elders on the school board had never been able to accomplish. Then I watched--stunned, given the impressions of TAG that the daily media had left in me--as a teen-age white boy affectionately placed his arm around a black boy, who promptly put his head on the shoulder of a white girl standing next to him.

"It's like an orgy with the junior class," a student later told me, when I asked if this was typical behavior. "We're all really close."

"Pardon me for sounding ill-informed," I told the kid, "but considering what's going on in here, why is John Wiley Price out there picketing you?"

"I don't know," the lad shrugged, "but it's not about us."

Those waging war on TAG have cast their efforts as a battle against nothing short of "institutional racism"--a not-so-distant cousin of the overt segregation that characterized public schools in Dallas just 35 years ago.

Protesters have vilified former TAG principal Susan Feibelman--an "insubordinate, white, Jewish" woman--for supposedly refusing to take orders from a black woman, former Townview principal Watson.

They've vilified TAG parents as selfish, white, middle-class opportunists trying to rob impoverished black kids of a decent education.

They've complained of a "Jewish conspiracy" between Feibelman and the "white, Jewish" school-board president, Sandy Kress.

Finally, they've held TAG up as just another outrageous example of how the Anglo-Hispanic majority on the school board--the notorious "slam-dunk gang"--systematically excludes the three black board members, keeping them from playing their rightful role of overseeing the system's $1.4 billion annual budget, 150,000 kids, and 16,000 employees.

But none of that is the real story of Townview.
The Observer has spent two months investigating Dallas' hottest racial issue from the inside out: interviewing school-board members, administrators, principals, teachers, students, parents, academics, and community leaders about the crisis; spending time inside the school; and examining thousands of pages of DISD documents.

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