"It's our turn to be heard"

With Hispanics the majority among Dallas schoolchildren and a Latino superintendent in their corner, Jesse Diaz and other activists say

Yvonne Gonzalez's eyes were brimming with tears. To the small group assembled at her office conference table, it was clear that she was moved; it was clear she was sharing a lot of pain. Which, considering Gonzalez's typically tough-as-nails reputation as the newly appointed superintendent of the eighth largest school district in the country, was a pretty startling sight.

Gonzalez had been in her new job only nine weeks. To describe her short tenure as rocky would, of course, be an understatement. Because from the moment Gonzalez took the reins of power in the Dallas Independent School District--on the January day that all three black school board members stormed out of the board room protesting her appointment--Gonzalez has been the target of distrust and disdain from a handful of black activists.

For her part, Gonzalez has responded with spears, not tears.
First she dismissed out of hand a demand by the New Black Panthers and NAACP president Lee Alcorn that she appoint an African-American to replace her as deputy superintendent--the position she had held under her predecessor, former DISD superintendent Chad Woolery.

Then Gonzalez eliminated a high-ranking administrative post held by a black woman named Shirley Ison-Newsome. The position had been created last spring by Woolery specifically to appease Alcorn and the Panthers, who were angry with him for hiring Gonzalez.

Most recently, Gonzalez spent $12,000 to build a formidable glass wall in her office suite at DISD headquarters to separate her and her staff from intruders. Gonzalez attributed the move to an unannounced visit from two Black Panthers, who came striding through her open office suite one February day, demanded a meeting with her, then sat and waited more than four hours for her answer. (Gonzalez finally emerged from her office--escorted by district security officers--to set an appointment.)

Gonzalez was indeed tough. But, she insisted, completely colorblind in her actions.

"I am going to do what is right for kids," she was quoted as saying when she demoted Ison-Newsome amid a flurry of personnel changes. "I did not look at race, gender, or ethnicity as the driving force."

But if Gonzalez's more private utterances are an indication, that may change.

Today, Gonzalez was meeting privately with a handful of Hispanic activists who were members of the district's Latino Advisory Council--a group formed to bring issues of concern regarding Hispanic students directly to top administrators.

In the past, the group had found it difficult to get on Superintendent Chad Woolery's schedule--and virtually impossible to get him to react to their concerns--but that had not been the case with Gonzalez.

In the three months Gonzalez has been superintendent, she has met twice with Latino Advisory Council members. On the agenda for this second meeting was an 11-point plan of action the group had given Gonzalez several weeks earlier. They wanted her commitment on a variety of issues, including Hispanic staffing levels, drop-out rates, and bilingual education.

But before the group's leaders could get down to business, two Hispanic mothers who had been included in the meeting steered it down a different path, seeking an audience for their personal stories of woe.

Pulling out photographs to document her allegations, 37-year-old Maria Gomez explained how her severely handicapped son Marco had been beaten on the thighs by a school aide at O.W. Holmes Middle School. Worse, Gomez claimed, the aide had covered up the abuse afterward--supposedly destroying a note of complaint Gomez had written to the school the next day.

The superintendent clearly was moved. Staring at the photos, then at the woman, Gonzalez hung on her every word. As the woman went on in great detail, Gonzalez's studied gaze never wavered. When Gomez finally finished, the superintendent reached across the polished tabletop to squeeze the woman's hand. "I'm not going to make excuses or defend the indefensible," Gonzalez said tenderly. "It hurts me to be in this position where an employee hurts a child."

Then it was 37-year-old Mary Cardona's turn to speak. Cardona, who lives in East Dallas, spoke earnestly of her frustration with schools that refused to send home materials written in Spanish to families where English was not spoken. Worse, there were many parent-teacher conferences, she said, where no translators were ever present.

Gonzalez nodded in sympathy. "In any category you choose, there's no doubt that Hispanics are underrepresented," Gonzalez said. "We do not have a sufficient pool of Hispanics anywhere, and that needs to be addressed. And when I bring that up with the board and the [administrative] cabinet, I draw fire."

At this point, two others at the table--Hispanic activists Alfred Carrizales and Jesse Diaz--seized the moment. Districtwide, they complained, Hispanic drop-out rates were appallingly high; the number of bilingual teachers was lamentably low; and on every rung of the DISD employment ladder, there was little Hispanic representation.

"Right or wrong, you are going to be held responsible for the neglect of not preparing for the influx of Latinos," Diaz said. "Because you are Latino, we expect you to take care of these problems pronto."

Instead of recoiling at the harsh words--similar to the fighting words offered by black activists on the other side of this battle--Gonzalez did just the opposite. The litany of problems expressed by her visitors seemed to overwhelm the 44-year-old superintendent, who spent the next 30 minutes describing--in surprisingly frank detail, considering that a reporter was among those present--just what she plans to do to satisfy the group's demands.

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