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

A few weeks later at Skyline Library, a group of about 10 ACORN members debate the issue. "I think we should go after Daniels," Johnny Rodriguez says after John Reese asks the group to decide a course of action.

Reese suggests a districtwide campaign built around reachable goals, such as textbooks for every child and fewer portable classrooms, while Carrizales says he thinks focusing on an individual is misguided because DISD officials can easily fire someone and stop there. "The classes will still be crowded, and there are still going to be cockroaches," he says.

But the community members present insist fresh blood is needed. A picket at the school is initially planned, but a face-to-face meeting with area superintendent Larry Smith is decided on. It took place last Wednesday, when the community trekked to Smith's office in East Dallas to demand Daniels' termination.

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.


Even though the conflagration at Silberstein seemed to come from nowhere, it wasn't an isolated event. It began as a brush fire at Urban Park Elementary, where activists organized by ACORN loudly demanded that DISD repair the school. What has come out of the Urban Park uprising is seen as a small sign of hope about the possible future of Silberstein Elementary.

On a recent Saturday, Johnny Rodriguez introduced me to Jose Tellez, principal of Urban Park Elementary, who was helping prepare for the school's Cinco de Mayo celebration that day. Finishing the first year of a three-year contract at a mostly Hispanic school charting reading and math gains, he's a rare DISD official willing to talk to the press.

In February, ACORN members in Pleasant Grove organized to demand improvements at his school, one of DISD's oldest. Broken playground equipment and old fencing were dangers to children, they complained, while spray-painted portables, broken windows, and other eyesores were regular occurrences committed by neighborhood thugs.

A call to the media was placed. KXAS-TV (Channel 5) did a story, and it wasn't long before Superintendent Bill Rojas arrived to meet with community members and hear their concerns. Soon, a convoy of DISD maintenance trucks converged on the school, which got new fences, concrete, playground equipment, and air-conditioning equipment. Reese estimates the repairs cost at least $70,000.

Indeed, the differences between the recent fortunes of Urban Park and Silberstein are stark: While Fred Daniels threw ACORN off campus and soon fell into a pit of scorn, Tellez embraced the group. (Then again, he speaks fluent Spanish and is the grandson of Mexican immigrants.) "They want the same things we do," he says. "They're the community. The schools belong to them."

Truthfully, although ACORN's efforts at Urban Park were helpful, they amount to a mere drop in the bucket. A victim of DISD's facilities crunch, Urban Park counts 29 portables in back of its main building. Tellez says the school, built for 450 students, holds about 980. To handle the squeeze, lunch starts at 10:30 so all the kids can be moved through the cafeteria--not uncommon in DISD elementary schools.

Still, there's peace at Urban Park. But with an eye on Silberstein, many DISD watchers worry that race relations in the district are deteriorating as Hispanic leaders aware of growing Latino muscle increasingly voice the sentiment that DISD focuses on African-American children at the expense of Hispanic kids. "They [the black community] know they have not done right by us," says Adelfa Callejo, an attorney and prominent Latino activist in Dallas. "I think they feel very threatened."

She complains of a disproportionately small number of jobs in the school system for Hispanics--Latinos account for only about 12 percent of DISD's teachers and 18 percent of administrators--and insistence by black leaders to keep a 30-year-old federal desegregation decree on DISD in place. "The desegregation lawsuit is very detrimental to the Hispanic population" because it redistributes resources, she says. "How are you going to integrate 9 percent whites? It's over."

Black leaders strongly dispute the idea that the court order helps blacks at others' expense and say Callejo should also focus on white staff if she wants to draw comparisons. "She's missing the point," says trustee Hollis Brashear. "The point of the entire [desegregation] decree is equity regardless of race." And it's still needed to ensure fairness in teacher hiring and other matters, he says, since "the only justice African-Americans have gotten in education is through the federal courts."

Some Hispanic leaders are unsympathetic, he says pointedly, "because they have not been through the struggle."

Not all Latino leaders in Dallas see African-Americans as a rival, although most agree Hispanics are severely underrepresented on DISD employment rolls. LULAC's Alfred Carrizales says Latinos should resist divide-and-conquer politics. Rather, he says, a fractured Hispanic leadership should emulate black counterparts by organizing and demanding power.

"It's the same old, same old. Throw rocks at the blacks, and everything's hunky-dory," he says. "We should applaud the African-American community for the gains they have made."

Previously, school watchers say, race-based advisory panels established in 1996 helped abate such tensions, quash rumors, and craft policy. But last fall, superintendent Rojas suspended the panels after members criticized him. Carrizales, chairman of the Latino Advisory Committee, was asked to resign after he spoke out against Rojas' "paranoia" philosophy of management.

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