Last in the Class

Why nobody will erase the board at Wilmer-Hutchins, the worst-run school district in Texas

Eleventh-grade English at Wilmer-Hutchins High wasn't what Tiffany Pullum had hoped it would be. Instead of reading novels or writing compositions, her class dozed in front of Bad Boys, Forrest Gump, and just about any other Hollywood video the kids thought to bring in and unspool.

"The teacher told us we were gonna write about the movies, give a plot and theme and all that, but we didn't write about anything," says Pullum, an effusive 16-year-old who skipped a grade and wants to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy next fall.

Then as the first week of Pullum's senior year unfolded in August, a counselor mistakenly scheduled her into three hours a day of appropriately named "work release" rather than the classes she needs to graduate. Drinking in the disappointment of yet another Wilmer-Hutchins screwup, Pullum found herself wishing she could do what she did last year--sneak into the high school in nearby Lancaster.

She and her older sister had slipped over the city line and went to classes there until an attendance officer got wise to the bogus home address her mother had used to get them in. Then, unhappily, it was back to "the Hutch," the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District, a notoriously mismanaged district of 3,200 students in southern Dallas County, a small corner of American public education gone horribly wrong.

Actually more a creature of Dallas than its namesake towns, the district is located partly in southeast Dallas and partly in the semirural suburbs of Wilmer and Hutchins, where commuters share space at the filling stations along Interstate 45 with men in bib overalls gassing up tractors.

By the district's own estimates, about 600 students wake up in homes in the Wilmer-Hutchins attendance area and steal into schools in other districts, particularly the Dallas Independent School District, which is just north across Simpson-Stuart Road. Because most of their parents don't make private-school wages, these students escape into other public school districts using the addresses of relatives or friends.

Things have been so bad for so long in Wilmer-Hutchins that Pullum is a second-generation refugee under this black-market method of school choice.

Seated on a sofa in the small living room of her well-kept Highland Hills home, Tiffany's mother, Cynthia Pullum, remembers how her mother had used her grandmother's address to send her to DISD's South Oak Cliff High School some 20 years ago. "It was better than riding their broken-down old buses to that high school in the country," Cynthia says.

Around her on the walls are at least a dozen family photographs, including one of her oldest daughter, Kimesha, in cap and gown. Kimesha is a freshman at Prairie View A&M this fall, and Cynthia Pullum worries whether the time Kimesha spent at Wilmer-Hutchins set her back too far. "That makes you worry the most," she says.

On the way out, passing a large Jesus portrait hung next to the Pullums' front door, the thought occurs: Even Jesus would have a hard time getting an education around here.

Stretching from the cedar-sided cottages and brick-trimmed homes of the Pullums' neighborhood to hay fields and farms on the southern Dallas County line, the Wilmer-Hutchins school district area is home to about 17,800 people. According to U.S. Census figures, they are 70 percent African-American and solidly blue collar.

One in 15 adults holds a college degree. One in five people lives in poverty. The majority own their homes.

Despite its urban demographics and location just a few minutes from downtown Dallas, much of the school district has an incongruous rural feel. Within Dallas city limits, pig farms sit cheek by jowl with burglar-barred houses in sprawling subdivisions built 25 or 30 years ago. The shops along Hutchins' Main Street--the W&W Grocery "Home of the King Burger," Linde's Hair Salon, and Evelyn's Flowers--give it a faded, smalltown feel. Nearby, Wilmer-Hutchins High sits on a two-lane macadam road.

For years, this corner of Dallas County has been ground zero for things nobody wants in their part of town. There's the Hutchins State Jail and the McCommas Bluff landfill, a mountainous city dump fed by a stream of garbage trucks that grinds down Old South Central Expressway like so many worker ants.

It's hard to find a new house, store, or building anywhere in the district. People tend to blame that economic torpor on the abysmal state of the Wilmer-Hutchins schools.

As a group, the high school, middle school, junior high, and five elementaries usually end up last or close to it among Dallas County's 15 districts on state-administered standardized tests. In 1993, a particularly bad year, only one out of seven eighth graders passed all three test sections of the TAAS test, which covers reading, writing, and math.

Although district officials may tell you otherwise, Wilmer-Hutchins' problems don't exist because of a lack of funds. Millions of dollars in state aid have been flowing in for years to erase the gap between Wilmer-Hutchins and the area's wealthier districts.

What its leaders do with it is another matter. This is a district where every piece of high-school football equipment disappeared last year, and nobody bothered to call the cops; a place where TVs, VCRs, and office furniture are ordered, but never show up in the schools.

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