By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
At George Washington Carver in West Dallas, where almost all of the 360 students come from the sprawling public housing complexes, the children in the hallways and classrooms were alive with the perfect mixture of enthusiasm and self-control, just like kids I have seen in the halls at good private schools such as St. Mark's and White Rock Montessori.
Principal Myrtle Dixon told me that she relies on a blend of high expectations and real consequences to keep her students focused. "I look at these children as if I am the governess of a royal house, and all of these children are princes and princesses whom I am training to go out into the world as ambassadors."
She opened a classroom door, beckoned with a finger, and said to the teacher, "May I borrow Joy for a minute?"
Joy is a beautiful 12-year-old who came into the hall, stood next to her principal, and looked me in the eye.
"Joy," Dixon said, "have you always been a good student?"
"What do I do when you misbehave?"
"Sometimes you call our parents and send us to the office for a minute to calm down," Joy said in a quiet, confident voice. "Sometimes you send us to the counselor to write a letter saying we are sorry."
"Joy," she said, "you are a young lady now." Turning to me with her arm around the child, Dixon said, "I took Joy to the opening of the symphony last Friday. It was her first symphony."
Joy smiled radiantly. Remember: These are kids who have been doing band and orchestra, piano and violin, singing and music theory since first grade. Many of them are taking advanced math, and all of the older ones are being taught critical-thinking skills. And they don't go to the symphony cold. They know before they go who is the conductor and who is the concert master. At the first note, it all snaps together, and it all means something.
When Joy returned to her desk and the door was closed, Dixon told me how Joy had come to her from the projects as a loud, wild, untrained kid. "Did you see how softly she spoke?"
Dixon said she knows the kids leave the school every day and return to a tough environment. She wants them to know there is another environment in this world, and she wants them to know how to act when they are in it.
None of these principals accepts any social excuses for anything. At Paul L. Dunbar on Metropolitan Avenue in South Dallas, principal Constance Whalon deals with rates of transience among students that far out-strip the district averages. But she says if her students must be kids who come and go often, then her school must know how to help that kind of kid.
"We meet that child at the point where he is," she said.
She means they literally meet the children at the door, get their records, determine what they need, devise a plan, and then they go out and try to convince the parents to stop moving around so much.
Dunbar was singled out by the district this year for a special "gold star" award based on improvements in its "school effectiveness" rating, a weighted formula that takes into account standardized test scores, attendance, and other factors.
The one factor these principals really won't take as an excuse for low performance is being in poor neighborhoods. At another gold-star school, Charles Rice on Pine Street in South Dallas, principal Patricia Weaver says her students benefit from a whole fabric of community involvement, from tutoring to financial aid, all from parents, churches, and businesses in one of the city's least affluent areas.
As superintendent of the sub-district where this turnaround at the learning centers has happened, Shirley Ison-Newsome says she hopes for much more than good test scores. She sees self-disciplined, well-taught kids coming along for whom poverty and a tough start can be a goad to excellence, not defeat.
"It's all about belief," she told me. "You have to have the belief in your heart that these kids can succeed and that they deserve the very best."
Here is the puzzle I cannot work: When you see places like these learning centers, places where people are doing real work and making great things happen, you can't help being struck by the contrast with school district headquarters, where the players and the slicks and the goofballs are always moseying around the hallways winking and slinking like it's permanent party time.
So if we get mad at the district and do something like bomb it or bust it up or bleed it with vouchers, who do we think we're going to hurt? Do we think the goofballs are going to give up any of their cash? They will take that money out of those kids' hides so fast it will make our heads spin.
But I was thinking: If we could just bomb the goofballs, wouldn't we save enough money to make every school a learning center?