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.
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.
"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.
Still, he acknowledges that angry parents have a point: More bilingual teachers are needed, but today's colleges aren't graduating enough of them. "Every district in the Southwest is trying to find bilingual teachers," he says, "but we're all fighting for the same little group." Price sees an irony in the dilemma. "It sort of reminds you of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, when it was whites teaching," he says. "History is repeating itself."
The meeting finally gets under way about half an hour late. PTA President Dionne Rodriguez, promoted after Hoskins' impeachment, speaks first. She's incensed about a recent story on Fox 4 News (KDFW-TV) that reported on racist graffiti at the school. Parents disliked the report because it focused on racial tension and not on their beefs with Daniels or school conditions. "This is not a race issue," she declares. "It's about responsibility and accountability."
Rodriguez, who is Anglo but married to a Hispanic, accuses Daniels of running the school "under country-club reign." She claims that Hispanics were methodically denied voice on the PTA, although former president Hoskins claims she was never able to stir up interest among parents in the group.
Yet many of her complaints address indisputable problems at Silberstein, and for that matter, across the city. She decries sliding test scores and too many uncertified teachers at the school. She bitterly lambastes reporters for coming out to the Grove only to do a story on racial friction while ignoring small problems that make up a larger whole. "Where was the media," she asks, "when the blinking school-zone light was not working for a year and a half? Where was the media when our vacuum cleaners didn't work for months? Where was the media when we only had one bathroom for 920 students?"
After Rodriguez finishes her speech, parents begin voting on PTA officers for next year. Dora Cruz, a second-grade bilingual teacher, is elected president. Outside, a group of black teachers is talking with Ron Price. They express genuine hurt at the flare-up.
"It started out as an effort to improve the conditions at the school, but then it became a race issue," says one teacher (none of the teachers would give his or her name). "Up until February, we were treated like everybody else, but now we are invisible." The instructors blame moms and dads for sowing division. "The children were OK until parents got all of this started," another teacher says. "They publish negative comments knowing that they are negative."
Reached by phone a few weeks later, ex-PTA president Mary Hoskins, who attended Silberstein as a child, also perceives the chain of events in racial terms. "The reason I was impeached was because they don't want to see a black PTA president at the school," she says, blaming Ford and his fliers for her ouster. "They get the Hispanic parents all riled up by misleading them. It's a conspiracy against the school."
She expresses shock at the upsurge in PTA attendance. This year, she says, interest was so low in the PTA that there weren't enough people to hold an election--so she kept the post for a second year. Only meetings where students sang or danced lured parents to attend. Informal meetings of teachers and parents at the school where only Spanish was spoken bewildered her. "Could you all start talking some English, because I don't understand," she recalls telling one gathering.
Several teachers, however, say Hoskins has been less than agreeable after her impeachment. On February 27, five of them sent a letter to area superintendent Larry Smith alleging that on February 26, Hoskins was "stalking the halls and classrooms taking unauthorized photos and threatening many staff members...target[ing] Hispanic teachers, PTA members, and specific staff." Hoskins says she was at school taking pictures for the school yearbook. Teachers say the school doesn't have a yearbook and hasn't had one for years.
Post-accident furor among parents quickly swelled to encompass a host of other long-stewing grievances. Stepping in to organize the Hispanic parents was Ford, an eccentric entrepreneur well liked in the community who plies trades ranging from vintage motorcycle collector to author and New Age healer.
Ford--who is white; his wife is Hispanic--sought to marshal their discontent by handing out numerous fliers critical of Daniels, eventually demanding his ouster. "Throughout his seven years, he never has kept anybody who can speak Spanish," says Ford, who accuses Daniels of numerous managerial and even criminal misdeeds. "It's the wrong guy for the wrong place. There's no communication from the principal to 91 percent of the school." Ford also threatened to file complaints for federal investigations of the school for various alleged wrongdoings, including alleged "reverse discrimination" toward Hispanics.
Ex-PTA president Hoskins thinks Ford and other parents are getting off easily after taking such actions. "DISD is just sweeping things under the rug," she says. "You can't pass out literature on the property."
Fred Daniels strongly denies Ford's many charges and says he strives to make all parents feel welcome. "I've got an open-door policy," he told the Observer before declining further comment on the advice of DISD communications officials. "Many of the parents are not aware of what happened," he says, "and other parents are remaining positive."
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.)
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."
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.
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.
Nearly half a year later, Rojas hasn't named a successor to his post and has yet to agree on a protocol to bring the panels back into DISD's inner circle. "Before, we had channels for getting information back and forth," says Virgie Grant Brooks, head of the African-American Advisory Committee, which still meets regularly even though it doesn't actually advise anyone. "The perception is, we're going back to that old way."
In a written response to questions submitted by the Observer, DISD spokesman Tomas Roman said discussions were ongoing on how advisory panels could best function. He denied that panel members have been punished for speaking their mind (Rojas himself declined to comment on the matter). Asked whether lack of communication was adding to racial friction, Roman's reply was no. "Advisory panels and committees are functioning fine," he said.
Back at Skyline Library, Johnny Rodriguez, the Pleasant Grove grandparent, said he doesn't think everything is fine at DISD, but blames himself for not doing anything about it until now.
From here on, things won't ever be the same again at Silberstein and Urban Park elementaries, Rodriguez vows, speaking for their legions of newly energized parents. He offers a short warning to any administrator or teacher who doesn't care as much about Pleasant Grove children as their parents do: "We're going to watch this school."