Brown-out

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

The Silberstein conflict took on racial overtones when Ford and others accused the principal of practicing favoritism with black teachers, who make up the largest group of staff at the school (whites make up the second-largest percentage). Ford charged that Daniels chats amiably with black teachers but not Hispanic ones and that he stacked school committees that handle curriculum and other matters with black teachers. The teachers denounced that charge as false--instructors, they said, volunteer to serve on the committees--and swiftly labeled the parents racist.

Daniels says he shares that view. "I hate to say that, but I believe it was [racially motivated]," he told the Observer at an April PTA meeting, calling Ford's campaign one of "misinformation." Standing near him was Ron Price, who said that Daniels had a strong case for slander against the Ford faction if he ever chose to sue. But the principal said he wouldn't bite. "I would like to put this behind us so we can focus on the kids," he said.

The parents strongly deny having bigoted motives, insisting their sole desire is to improve the school their children attend. But a rash of anti-black graffiti that appeared on outside walls of portable classrooms in early April--one graffito read "Niggers Go Home"--gave fodder to detractors who say otherwise. (No one knows who sprayed the graffiti, and the parents deny responsibility.)

Veronica Mugartegui is still incensed that her 10-year-old daughter, MariaCruz Mugartegui, broke both her arms after the swing set she was playing on collapsed--especially since Silberstein school officials had been warned about the problem.
Veronica Mugartegui is still incensed that her 10-year-old daughter, MariaCruz Mugartegui, broke both her arms after the swing set she was playing on collapsed--especially since Silberstein school officials had been warned about the problem.
Maria Castro, left, is a parent of two children at the school and a former teacher's aide who says she's had run-ins with the Silberstein principal. Anita Contrares, center, whose son, Angel, has cerebral palsy, is upset that some areas of the school lack ramps.
Maria Castro, left, is a parent of two children at the school and a former teacher's aide who says she's had run-ins with the Silberstein principal. Anita Contrares, center, whose son, Angel, has cerebral palsy, is upset that some areas of the school lack ramps.

Yet it's not just a few parents who have criticized operations at Silberstein. The wild card in the affair is a mostly black community action group in Dallas that in February succeeded in recruiting Pleasant Grove residents to its cause and prodding DISD administrators to renovate parts of nearby Urban Park Elementary. Later that month, it sought to organize parents at Silberstein around the same time the Mugartegui accident occurred. The activity emboldened school critics to band together and increase their fire.

While wary of charges of bigotry being flung, the Dallas chapter of the national group ACORN (Associations of Communities Organized for Reform Now) has yet to focus on specific plans for change at Silberstein because the locals are set on toppling Daniels above all else. "As far as the people in this area go, they all want him gone," says John Reese, a full-time ACORN organizer assigned to Pleasant Grove. In parents' eyes, Reese says, "other issues can't be addressed until something is done about Daniels."


At Skyline Library, a small but well-stocked branch library a few blocks from Urban Park Elementary, local activists often meet to discuss their concerns and plot strategy in a public meeting room they rent for $5 an hour. In mid-April, Ford brought three Silberstein parents and Johnny Rodriguez, a grandparent who led the effort to fix Urban Park Elementary, to discuss their problems at Silberstein.

Ford complains of a shortage of teacher's aides, despite parents eager to take several apparently open positions at the school, as well as a lack of playground supervision. Maria Castro, a parent of two children at the school and a former teacher's aide assigned to assist a child with cerebral palsy there, says she's also had run-ins with the principal. "He's told me he doesn't want me in the building," she says. "I say, 'I'm sorry, but I'm a parent.'"

Anita Contrares, mother of Angel, the boy with cerebral palsy, arrives. Castro was injured while lifting Angel into his wheelchair a few months earlier and hasn't worked since then. Contrares is upset that some areas of the school lack ramps. The school, she claims, also balks at taking Angel on field trips because they must use an additional bus to do so. Contrares reiterates that communications within the school are slipshod. "There's no one there to inform the non-English-speaking Hispanic parents."

The parents' complaints seem innumerable; many are heartbreaking, albeit wholly unproven. They complain about teachers and substitutes who thunder at kids to shut up; teachers in portable classrooms who let the kids out on the playground during class time; sixth-graders who can't read or write; "talented and gifted" classes that lack rigor; and low TAAS scores that are getting lower.

Test scores back their claims. Along with 17 other Dallas schools, Silberstein this year lost its "acceptable" rating and was classified as "low-performing," according to preliminary data from the Texas Education Agency. Lower rankings are complicated, however, by new state rules requiring scores of previously exempted children in bilingual and ESL classes at Silberstein to take the exams, a mandate blamed for lowering scores.

The group moves to benches in front of the library and continues venting. Johnny Rodriguez, who owns his own remodeling business, complains that charges of racism against Hispanic parents are unjust. "He hasn't done anything," he says angrily of principal Daniels. "We don't care if he's Hispanic, Anglo, or black." Eventually, the conversation moves from grievances against Daniels to a more abstract plane. "We are being put down," says Nicholasa Chavez, whose daughter is a fourth-grader at Silberstein. Speaking for Hispanics in general, she says, "We feel like we are second-class citizens."


The obvious question: Is principal Daniels being treated unfairly, a victim of a small cabal of overwrought parents? A month after declaring to the PTA that "this is not a race issue," PTA president Dionne Rodriguez admits she's had second thoughts about the crusade against the long-serving principal, even though she is still quite critical of him. Some statements about Daniels in Taylor Ford's fliers were just plain "mean," she admits, even though she helped distribute them. "I think he cares about the children," Rodriguez says. "He gives my son a piece of candy every day."

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