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.

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.

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 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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