The problems at Silberstein Elementary--too few bilingual teachers, a PTA divided, tensions between black administrators and Hispanic parents--are a microcosm of the issues DISD faces districtwide

Meanwhile, some observers worry that Superintendent Bill Rojas' administration is not helping. Former acting superintendent James Hughey relied on four race-based advisory panels, including the Latino and African-American committees, in his decision-making. But Rojas put the panels on ice when some members questioned his leadership style, particularly his "paranoia" theory of management, and he has yet to restore their role.

Critics worry that Rojas, by shutting out the advisory panels, has sealed an avenue for groups to telegraph concerns, get answers, and head off racial tension. Seen through this lens, Silberstein's experience is perhaps a foreboding of the future of a district that this school year turned 52 percent Hispanic--eclipsing black enrollment, which accounts for nearly 38 percent of the student count. (Whites currently make up less than 9 percent of enrollment.)

Yet the awakening in Pleasant Grove--from Silberstein and, in a similar fashion, a recent community-organizing effort at nearby Urban Park Elementary--reveals great grassroots potential for improving DISD.

John Reese, left, a full-time ACORN organizer assigned to Pleasant Grove, worked with Johnny Rodriguez, a grandparent who led the effort to improve Urban Park Elementary.
John Reese, left, a full-time ACORN organizer assigned to Pleasant Grove, worked with Johnny Rodriguez, a grandparent who led the effort to improve Urban Park Elementary.
PTA President Dionne Rodriguez, promoted after the previous PTA leader was impeached, with her son Nathanial, 5, and daughter Amelia, 7.
PTA President Dionne Rodriguez, promoted after the previous PTA leader was impeached, with her son Nathanial, 5, and daughter Amelia, 7.

"The tide is turning," says Alfred Carrizales, education chairman for the League of United Latin American Citizens' North Texas chapter and former head of DISD's Latino Advisory Committee. "Whether you like it or not, you're going to have to deal with the Latino community." The only questions are, When? and How?

It's April 6, and a crowd of parents, children, and concerned people from the community is gathering outside of Ascher Silberstein Elementary School, a flat-roofed, H-shaped structure on a hillside overlooking a floodplain that winds south to the Trinity River. As at other DISD elementaries, rows upon rows of portable classrooms pock the building's southern side. Built for about 600 students, it now holds more than 900.

The school opened in 1956 during one of DISD's biggest construction booms. Named after a German Jewish immigrant who came to Dallas in 1869 and later established a scholarship fund, the current Silberstein school was established as a segregated white school. (A previous Silberstein school built in 1924 changed its name after becoming a "Negro" institution, according to DISD histories.)

MariaCruz Mugartegui, a smiling and happy child who says she's doing well in school, today is still wearing thick casts on both arms (which have since been removed). She's with her mother, who has brought copies of her medical bills to show anyone who will listen. MariaCruz helps translate for mom, but has difficulty because she doesn't know English for many adult words, such as abogado (lawyer).

Standing next to her is Charles Perry, a neighborhood activist who helped win improvements at Urban Park Elementary. He has come to support Silberstein's parents, insisting that a scribe not filter their concerns through a racial lens. "They tried to make it a racial issue," says Perry, who is black. "It's not like that. My kid goes to DISD. Why can't you fix the swings?"

Eventually the group enters the building's double doors and walks down a ramp toward the school's auditorium to the monthly PTA meeting. Inside, two police officers lean against the wall and a translator sent by DISD who is wired for sound passes out headsets to Spanish-speaking parents and visitors. Soon, about three-quarters of audience members have donned headsets. Only teachers and a handful of other parents do not.

A noticeable frisson is in the air, residue from the last two PTA meetings, which were well attended, disputatious, and a stark contrast from pre-February PTA functions, which only a small number of people attended. MariaCruz Mugartegui's accident on the playground altered that dramatically. At a February 24 meeting, Taylor Ford, an informal leader of the parents, called for Daniels' resignation; on March 2, PTA president Mary Hoskins was impeached after Ford and others learned she gave principal Daniels accounts of meetings held at parents' homes.

One city PTA official has come to observe the meeting. He admits that as far as PTA meetings usually go, Silberstein's recent experiences are off the charts. "There's a base of parents who don't understand the PTA's role," says Joe Mir, a vice president of the Dallas Council of PTAs and a community liaison officer at Eduardo Mata Elementary School. "Sometimes parents feel PTAs have absolute rule." But PTA leaders don't dismiss the parental uprising. "You have a community of parents who felt they were not being listened to, so they used the power of the vote," says William Robinson, the council's president. "It's very unfortunate what happened."

Tonight an election of new PTA officers is scheduled, and there are at least 100 parents and teachers present. Kids squirm in their seats and run laughing through the aisles. Some go outside to swing on metal bars near a side stairway to the school. In front of the auditorium stands DISD trustee Ron Price, who, when questioned by a reporter, ridiculed complaints against Daniels as "crap" and "a lot of emotional garbage."

His analysis: "You have one person coming in and starting discord among a group of people." Who is that person? "Him," he says while pointing across the room to Ford, who earlier distributed several fliers critical of Daniels' stewardship. Racial hostility at the school, Price argues, is sapping teacher morale. "Anglo and black teachers want to leave, but you can't scare away your teachers," he says.

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