A Miracle Waiting to Happen

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

Blind luck! More than that: weird blind luck.

Paige was a Houston school board member in 1994. A native of Mississippi, former head football coach at Texas Southern, slow-spoken, a black political maverick with strong Republican ties and weak ties to the Houston black establishment, he was exactly nobody's idea of what the Houston school district needed in a new superintendent. For one thing, a school board obviously isn't supposed to hire one of its own members to be superintendent and then agree to pay him what was then one of the highest superintendent salaries in the country.

That's crooked, isn't it? Well, if it's not crooked, it's crazy, right? And the way they did 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.

"The board went into a closed session," Markley told me, "in which they were supposed to be discussing how to do the search for a new superintendent. They came out of the same meeting and said they had decided to hire Rod Paige. Everyone was very taken aback."

Markley said the business community in Houston was especially turned off at first. They believed they had already suffered through a string of close-but-no-cigar performances by former school superintendents, and the sudden decision to flip the job to Paige just looked like more weirdness.

And think about it from our point of view in Dallas. We've seen some strange-o-rama business in our time, but I don't think we've ever seen anything that odd. Try to imagine the board coming out of a secret meeting and announcing that they have given up on figuring out how to do a search and have decided just to make Jose Plata the new superintendent instead. (Excuse me for a second while I throw some more salt over my shoulder.)

A citizens group sued the Houston school district, arguing that the deal to hire Paige was illegal, but the suit was tossed out of court.

Markley said Paige immediately began building bridges to the business community. "His predecessors just hadn't understood why that was important or what role the business community could play," she said. "But Paige went to them and invited them into the school system. He asked for their advice on how to improve the system, and then he actually took their advice."

One benchmark of his success so far in Houston is that Paige has cut the district's administrative costs by 50 percent. But while he was cutting costs downtown, Paige also was pouring resources into a massive re-training program for elementary teachers. Phyllis Hunter, who was Paige's reading czar for several years, certainly will show up in Washington under George W. Bush and will be a seminal figure in the rebuilding of reading instruction in America. One of the key planks of the Bush campaign platform--that reading is the new American civil right--came straight out of the work that Paige and Hunter did in Houston.

I'm not saying Houston didn't work for its success. But the process got started because Houston got lucky.

"It just happened," Markley said. "The right combination of people came together at the right time. They were all disgusted with the previous era."

If there is a window of opportunity here, it's not only about Moses. There are things going on already within the district that offer golden seeds of hope. Dr. Jay Cummings, a specialist in the area of "effective schools" at the University of North Texas, points out that J.J. Rhoads, a South Dallas elementary school, was one of two schools in the nation selected this year for a special award from the National Alliance of Black School Educators, based on the dramatic progress that students at Rhoads have made in test scores.

Cummings says the success at Rhoads and at other schools sprinkled around some of Dallas' poorest neighborhoods carries a strong message for the rest of the Dallas school system:

"Don't tell us children who live in poor inner-city neighborhoods can't be successful in school," he says, "because here is a school where they are."

Board President Roxan Staff told me last week that Moses is already out looking for these pockets of success within the district and "has asked us to give him time to do that."

Let me ask you something: Have you noticed the television ads that some of the suburbs are running for their school systems? We all know exactly what that's about, right? The not-so-subliminal message is, "Don't move your business or family to Dallas, where they have a messed-up school system. Come out here, where the schools are good."

And that's perfectly fair, especially where it's true. It also will spell the death of the city if nothing can be done to turn it around. Nothing fails like failure.

But the lesson of Houston is right in front of us. We seem to have some luck coming. A window is opening. A big city that marshals its resources and stiffens its resolve can battle its way out of the woods in a pretty short time. What if, five years from now, we were the big national model?

Salt, shoulder, salt, shoulder, salt, shoulder...

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