A Miracle Waiting to Happen

With a little luck and a wise school superintendent, Dallas could do what Houston did

Before writing this column, I threw salt over my shoulder. I knocked on wood. If I knew an incantation to ward off the evil eye, I would have used it, but they didn't teach us that in Episcopal Sunday school (a serious deficit in that religion). So anyway, here it is:

The Dallas public school system actually could be in for a stretch of good luck.

After what Dallas has been through with its last two district superintendents, it does seem like very bad luck even to mention the possibility that the new one, Dr. Mike Moses, who takes over January 1, possibly could end our flamboyant losing streak. My personal theory on why the school board hired his predecessor, Waldemar Rojas, is that, right after the one before Rojas got sent to the pokey, some reckless person must have said out loud, "Well, at least it can't get any worse than this." Talk about asking for it.

The TEA’s Carol Francois will join Dr. Mike Moses as one of his top deputies. That’s good news: She’s a school-funding guru.
The TEA’s Carol Francois will join Dr. Mike Moses as one of his top deputies. That’s good news: She’s a school-funding guru.

But look: A variety of people who know Moses and who know public schools virtually all agree that, with his arrival, the pieces will be in place for a change in the city's fortunes. He will come to work the first day focused on low-performing schools--our most crying need. He will bring people with him from his tenure as head of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) who have helped engineer turnarounds in other school districts.

The main name that's out so far is Carol Francois, who will be coming in either as his top deputy or as one of a small team at the top. Francois is at TEA now, where she is the guru for all of the federal and state funding programs that districts can tap into for so-called "special populations"--economically deprived kids, special education, handicapped, "Title I," and so on. Like Moses, she's a public education insider who knows where all the strings and buttons are. The fact that she is one of the first names to surface in his regime is a good indication that Moses must be thinking not just about what he wants to do but about how he's going to pay for it.

There are other good signs. Moses hasn't even started his job here yet, and he has already met twice with the district's beleaguered school principals, who are always the key ingredient, good, bad, or ugly. That's one more meeting than his predecessor, Waldemar Rojas, ever gave the principals in his entire tenure, and the one time Rojas did talk to them was to beat them up and threaten them with their jobs.

None of this makes Moses a total, lock-cinch shoo-in for success. He's not perfect. For example, he's white. There are still lots of people in the district, both parents and professionals, who believe in their hearts that an African-American or Hispanic leader would do a better job of inspiring the troops and the students who most need inspiration here.

He also has a certain reputation for holding his finger in the wind politically. When he was at TEA, some top staff members complained that Moses came to meetings with a stack of 3-by-5 cards on which he had recorded inquiries from legislators and other clout-wielders, and that his only agenda was answering those questions.

But, hey: We just suffered through the tenure of a superintendent who behaved as if he had picked up most of his political and social savvy selling pirated videocassettes in Bosnia. Is anybody in Dallas really going to complain a whole lot if Moses spends some time learning the political niceties? Dallas could probably use more people in leadership roles who know how to work a room anyway.

In the meantime, we Dallasites tend to get so serious and dour about these things, for understandable reasons, that we may even give short shrift to the role of blind luck in making things come out right. At the moment, for example, there is a lot of media focus on Houston, where the public school system has enjoyed a heralded rebirth in the last five years and where the superintendent, Rod Paige, is being touted as a possible education secretary in the Bush White House.

On the one hand, Paige and the Houston school system have worked hard and have done great things, and they deserve every single ray of limelight beamed their way for the renaissance they have achieved, especially in early reading and math instruction. One thing Dallas should keep in mind is that Houston, in the mid-1990s, was almost as beleaguered as we are now: horrible test scores, racial animosity, a totally alienated business community.

Paige was appointed superintendent in 1994. That's not that long ago. I have chores around my house that I have been meaning to do since 1994. Now you've got teams of scholars trekking down to Houston from all over the country talking about the "Houston Miracle." So how did that happen? What was the big strategy?

I used to work for the Houston Chronicle. I called down there last week to check my memory of how the Houston school board found Rod Paige and put him in place. I talked to a former colleague, Melanie Markley, who has covered the school board in Houston for the Chronicle throughout Paige's tenure. She confirmed my memory of how it happened.

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