Losing Faith

Dallas Area Interfaith wants to give the city's poor and disenfranchised a voice in politics. But all critics see is another grab for power.

Conversations about school improvement were being conducted simultaneously among teachers, who worked on restructuring the entire school day. With special waivers granted by TEA, Roosevelt instituted block scheduling. Instead of seven 55-minute periods, the school day now consists of four 90-minute periods. "This helped us address the needs of the overwhelming number of academically challenged students," says Marvin Traylor, Roosevelt's principal for the past nine years. "It allows students to complete a year's work in a semester. If they fail, they don't have to wait to summer school to take the course over."

Today, Roosevelt's performance has put them in the top quarter of Dallas public schools. In just three years, the number of students who passed the math portion of the TAAS test jumped from 20 percent to 70 percent. Last year, 80 percent of the students passed the reading and writing portions of the TAAS test, up from 52 percent the year before. Attendance has shot up 10 percent, which earned the school a $59,000 district award, the highest amount any school in the district received.

"We're kind of a quiet success story," Traylor says. "But we're not where we need to be." Traylor gives Interfaith credit for spurring the reforms at Roosevelt. "They were instrumental at the outset in helping us stress the importance of parental involvement. And the grants we received through the Alliance School initiative enabled us to do a lot of things. The ideas were there, the resources were not."

Interfaith is now working with a dozen or more schools that have signed on to the Alliance School program. It was from meetings with parents and community activists involved with these schools that the issue of after-school programs emerged--the issue that would ultimately divide the school board along color lines and make Anglo members suspicious of Interfaith's motives.

"In all our meetings, the number one issue parents raised was the safety of their children from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.," says organizer Leonora Friend, who headed Interfaith's education initiative. "But safety wasn't their only concern. They also wanted activities that would enhance their children's learning."

Eighty DISD elementary schools have some type of after-school program, while another 60 elementary schools do not. Interfaith's approach increased the number and variety of programs at several schools and created new programs at a few schools that offered nothing. And the programs Interfaith helped create in the district were impressive. Take Obadiah Knight, for example. Located near Love Field in a predominantly working-class Hispanic neighborhood, Obadiah Knight had a small after-school tutorial program, funded by the Episcopal Diocese. Then two years ago, Interfaith convinced the city and school district to fund after-school programs in the 10 schools with which the organization was working.

Together, the city and district kicked in $400,000. Half of it came from federal community block grants administered by the city's Parks and Recreation Department. The other half came from the school district's budget--after the board narrowly approved funding in a 5-4 vote. Kathleen Leos was the only Anglo member who voted in favor.

With the infusion of $40,000, almost 300 Obadiah Knight children enrolled in after-school activities including music appreciation, stained glass making, and crocheting (taught by school principal Manuel Medrano). Others spent their time in a homework center, TAAS tutoring sessions, computer lab, or practicing with a newly formed school football team.

Having tracked the students in the after-school program, Medrano found that their performance in school improved. Their daily attendance increased, as did their grades and behavior. "Children with discipline problems improved 99.9 percent," Medrano says.

The other Interfaith schools were seeing similar trends. In a study conducted by Peter Witt of Texas A&M on two of Austin's after-school programs, he found that students who participated in the programs increased their grades and attendance by 4 to 5 percent points. He also says their self-esteem improved significantly.

The school year wasn't even half over before Interfaith began pressing the DISD board for significantly increased funding to after-school programs. Interfaith leaders initially asked trustees to support a proposal for $2.5 million for all schools. They would eventually--and reluctantly--whittle their request to $340,000, to be paid from the district's operating budget of $770 million.

Interfaith leaders complain that despite the success of the programs, the board did nothing but put obstacles in the way to defeat them. First, the board said that the district needed to write a policy governing after-school programs that would cover the application process, develop standards for quality care, create an evaluation process, and do a school-by-school needs assessment.

This policy had been under development for several years since the school board--which has been awarded a dependent care planning and development grant--convened a coalition of youth service organizations, called the Consortium for School-Age Child Care. The consortium made several recommendations, many of which were carried out--such as model after-school programs at three Oak Cliff schools. But the momentum on the issue died, because the district did not have funding for a coordinator of after-school programs, something the consortium called for.

To its credit, Interfaith brought the issue of quality after-school programs to the fore again. The Consortium for School-Age Child Care was once again pressed into action. It met throughout the spring and summer to hammer out a district policy. Interfaith helped organize the press conference that kicked off the initiative, but did not show up at any subsequent meetings, leading trustees to conclude Interfaith wasn't really interested in working cooperatively.

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