Little Schools That Could

Call off the air strike on DISD headquarters--there's some good stuff going on in the district

The Dallas public schools dilemma would be easy to solve if all we ever looked at was the headquarters building. Call in an air strike, stop and pick up some salsa and a few brewskis, go home and watch the football game. So what's the hold-up?

The problem is that the district, according to some mysterious logic, continues to contain these startling, marvelous, wonderful public school campuses--learning environments you literally could not buy your kid's way into with any amount of private-school tuition.

See what I mean? That totally messes up the air-strike solution.

Principal Myrtle Dixon believes the best way to keep kids in line is to expect the very best of them.
Mark Graham
Principal Myrtle Dixon believes the best way to keep kids in line is to expect the very best of them.

Hey, listen: How many private schools can you tell me about in Dallas--for any amount of tuition--where your kid is going to start piano in the first grade and cello in the fourth grade, get art instruction and singing in every grade, get the very best reading diagnosis and instruction the educational universe knows how to provide (to say nothing of any other special help he may need), where he can be done with pre-Algebra by the end of sixth grade, and have a shot at being on track for Algebra II and advanced placement higher math (with geometry already under his belt) when he hits high school as a freshman?

All this, by the way, is in a physically spotless setting, with great big old-fashioned auditoriums, gymnasiums, art studios, well-stocked libraries, band rooms, and so on.

There's just too much value there. It's why none of the questions about DISD have simple declarative answers.

Admittedly, the schools I visited last week are not normal grade schools: They are the so-called "learning centers," ordered by U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders in the mid-1980s as part of the desegregation suit. The special programs at the learning centers (band, orchestra, art, etc.), as well as smaller class sizes, make them more expensive to operate than regular elementary schools. The average extra cost per year per student in the learning centers varies from $2,500 to $8,000 more than the district average of $4,500 in elementary schools, according to Shirley Ison-Newsome, superintendent of Area 2. The range of costs depends on the size of each school: Smaller schools cost more per pupil. The learning centers range from 250 students to more than 700--about the same range as regular elementary schools.

There are 14 elementaries and two middle schools that are court-designated learning centers. Any child who lives in the vicinity gets enrolled. There is no skimming or culling in the deal. The learning centers are basically walk-in neighborhood schools.

Since the learning centers began to open, they have been laboratories in which DISD has tried to learn how to educate poor inner-city kids. That was the initial challenge from the court: If you pull the black and Hispanic kids back off the bus and bring them home from the white schools, can you teach them in their own neighborhoods to be as smart as or smarter than the middle-class white kids?

For 15 years, the learning centers lagged behind the rest of the district on test scores. But in the last few years, that corner has been turned. The kids at some of the learning centers are beginning to test substantially above the district averages. At J.J. Rhoads in South Dallas near Fair Park, for example, the percentage of third-graders able to pass the TAAS test has climbed from the low 50s four years ago to the low 90s--five points above the statewide average and nearly 20 points above the district average. Passing math scores have climbed from the high 40s to the high 80s. These numbers are beginning to be reflected in the other learning centers as well.

At several of the learning centers, test scores are beginning to exceed both districtwide and statewide averages. In 1998-'99, J.J. Rhoads became the first learning center to be designated a "recognized" school by the Texas Education Agency--an official rank indicating that the school's pupils have scored substantially above statewide averages. Last year, two more learning centers, Chappie James and J.W. Ray, joined the list of recognized schools in Dallas.

Michael Palmer, principal of Rhoads for the past two years, gives most of the credit to his faculty. He says he has good teachers who don't quit. "The only teacher vacancies that occur are because of husbands getting jobs somewhere else, things like that."

All of Palmer's K-3 teachers have put themselves through the voluntary training for the Dallas Reading Plan, a special program designed by Dr. Robert Cooter to bring the very latest wisdom on reading into the classroom. Like all of the principals with whom I spoke, Palmer had high praise for the Dallas Reading Plan.

As for discipline, these schools have it together. All last week, I never saw one kid being hauled by two teachers, one on each armpit, toe-dragging down the hall doubletime to the principal's office, which rules out a certain amount of my own elementary school experience.

"Discipline here is very minimal," Palmer said. "The kids know what I expect."

It was a theme echoed everywhere I went: At some schools there was some paddling going on; at others none; but at all of them there was a culture of high expectations, to which the kids seemed to respond with high performance and good manners.

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