By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
T he ugly battle that would divide a school started innocently enough, as such battles often do. It began with two unfortunate and seemingly unrelated injuries to children, the sort that could happen anywhere. But here, at Ascher Silberstein Elementary School in Pleasant Grove, they served as seeds, triggering within the school's parents and administration a rapid growth of tension, blame, and distrust.
The first accident happened before school on February 18, when MariaCruz Mugartegui, a third-grade student at Silberstein, broke both her arms after the swing set she was playing on collapsed. MariaCruz, 10, was standing on the swing when the set snapped; she fell forward onto her forearms, fracturing them. The second incident occurred down the street from the school when a car struck a woman and her niece while they were crossing the road, badly bruising both of them. Community members blamed the accident on the burned-out school-zone sign--and the school's longtime principal of seven years, Fred Daniels, for not getting the sign fixed. (He maintains that those injuries weren't connected to the school.)
Parents, who had already circulated a petition to get the playground equipment fixed, were livid after news spread of the injuries. MariaCruz's mother, Veronica, is still incensed. That's because, despite the faulty playground equipment, DISD won't help her foot about $4,500 in medical bills, and she and her husband have no health insurance.
"It's their obligation to pay," says Veronica Mugartegui, who has obtained a lawyer and plans to sue. While officials say DISD isn't at fault since the injury happened before school hours, Dallas attorney Andy Sommerman, who is representing the Mugartegui clan, believes his clients have a solid case for negligence since other parents warned the school that the swings were dangerous.
Taylor Ford says he feared such accidents would happen. A year and a half ago, he noticed that the flashing lights on the school-zone sign in front of Silberstein had burned out. Fearing for children's safety, Ford, parent of a prekindergarten student and husband of a kindergarten teacher at the school, complained to Daniels about the darkened sign. Months passed, but the sign wasn't fixed. Daniels says he submitted work orders, to no avail, to district officials. Meanwhile, other Silberstein parents had safety-related worries about rickety playground equipment at the school. They took photos of the swings and submitted a petition to higher-ups insisting repairs be made.
These complaints led to parents' voicing other, long-festering concerns. As at many schools in Dallas, parents at the mostly Hispanic elementary shared a plethora of criticisms, many of which centered on the fear that their offspring weren't receiving a top-notch education at Silberstein. Low test scores, flaccid curricula, incompetent instructors, and inadequate care of disabled children were but a few complaints leveled at school officials.
One grievance, however, loomed above all others at Silberstein. The big beef: simmering frustration among many Spanish-speaking parents over the difficulty of communicating with English-speaking school administrators and teachers.
Until recently, parents told the Dallas Observer, there was no regular bilingual staff in Silberstein's front office. Often, Spanish-speaking parents were turned away or forced to wait for a translator to speak with school officials, a frequent problem in many Dallas schools. While a bilingual receptionist was recently hired, parents still complain about snags in communication: For instance, no fifth- or sixth-grade teachers speak Spanish. (Children often serve as translators, but they are notoriously unreliable at this since they often fail to translate instructors' criticisms.)
Distress among Hispanic parents mounted. Eventually, a spark was all that was needed to release long-repressed fury. And that's what happened in February, when MariaCruz Mugartegui's fall crystallized parents' anger, causing them to band together in a rowdy forum to impeach PTA president Mary Hoskins (an unprecedented occurrence in DISD) and vent years of built-up rage on principal Daniels. (Hoskins and Daniels are black.)
As the Byzantine array of recriminations continue to fly, officials at other nearby elementary schools see Silberstein's experience as a textbook illustration of how not to manage race relations. "We had some of those problems," said an official at another Pleasant Grove elementary school, who said his school maintains peace by ensuring translators are numerous and present.
Eventually, however, an abundance of bilingual staffers may not be enough to stem racial friction in a school system that is wrought with demographic change but that's not responding fast enough to meet the demands of change. For a system that often struggles to maintain peace between students is proving, in Silberstein's case, to be ill equipped in mending rifts exacerbated by black-brown mistrust.
In a replay of ongoing struggles, "black and brown" racial conflict appears to be growing as groups with different histories and agendas battle for political control. For example, while DISD's dropout rate is about 50 percent districtwide, it's probably even higher for Hispanic students, say activists, who complain that the district still has its priorities attuned to a black-white divide of years past.
They blame a 30-year-old desegregation decree for a focus they say shortchanges them, although black leaders insist the decree is still needed because it helps provide equity for all groups. Complaints from the Hispanic community are growing louder as Dallas' schools and neighborhoods turn increasingly Latino--in fact, for the first time, Latino students became the majority in DISD this year.