By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Paloma Saucedo, a 19-year-old senior at North Dallas, has a different tale of dropping out. She says she didn't plan to leave school three years ago; it just happened. As an eighth-grader, she missed several school days while attending a far-flung family event. That led to a semester of absenteeism, and the more classes she missed the harder it was to return. With her family's knowledge, she began waiting tables at an aunt's restaurant, raking in good tip money. Later, Paloma returned to school but flunked out because of her absences.
Now back in school, Rudy and Paloma are catching up in their studies. Both are enrolled at North Dallas High's Reconnection Center, one of 17 new facilities set up this year by Dallas school administrators to help potential dropouts and prodigal students earn their diplomas in a relaxed environment. Large classes are eschewed for independent work at computer stations, where students polish off semester-long classes in as little as a few weeks.
Rudy, who says he left because of frustration over packed, impersonal classes of as many as 30 students, admits skipping school became even more tedious. He enjoys the center's flexible schedule, which allows him to attend school and work a part-time job for academic credit. After Paloma returned to North Dallas High, located just north of downtown, some officials advised she leave and instead work on a GED at night. But Paloma stuck with it. She plans to graduate this summer.
Rudy's and Paloma's stories buck the trend in a district where dropouts are especially acute among the system's swelling Hispanic majority. It's an enormous waste of human potential in a district that, for a variety of reasons, seems especially efficient at spitting out Hispanic students. Any discussion of that trend inevitably leads to a locus of conflict: the 30-year-old federal court decree that was entered to desegregate a school system once rigidly separated into black and white.
Essentially, the court order sends extra funds to some low-income elementary schools (called "learning centers") located mostly in black neighborhoods and several magnet schools with specialty curricula that have persistently lagged in attracting Latino students. Because of this, many Latino activists say yesterday's remedy for discrimination has become today's source of inequality, starving Hispanic schoolchildren of the best possible education while others benefit.
African-American officials deny that the court supervision initiated to help black students harms others. But the Dallas Observer found that:
··· Magnet schools overseen by the court rake in up to $9,500 in funding per student, but most nonmagnet high schools, which are more likely to serve Hispanics, receive $4,000 or less per student;
··· Court-authorized learning centers reap as much as $7,700 per student, while some overcrowded, predominantly Latino elementary schools receive as little as $2,657 per student; and
··· Despite such inequities, the school board sees little need to make significant changes.
New Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Mike Moses admits he is concerned about unequal funding, but he's loath to address Hispanics as a group for fear of arousing charges of favoritism. While pledging to comply with the desegregation court order until he can forge consensus for change, he acknowledges it contributes to wide variances in funding among schools. "I think it may be something that needs to be looked at districtwide for African-American, Hispanic and Anglo children," he said in an interview last week with the Observer.
Reliable figures are hard to come by, but it's estimated that anywhere from about one-quarter to one-half of the DISD student population doesn't make it to graduation, a rate that is almost certainly higher for Hispanics. In Dallas County, the Intercultural Development Research Association, a San Antonio educational research group, pegs the Hispanic dropout rate at 63 percent, compared to a still shocking 46 percent for all students in DISD (although many adults eventually complete GEDs).
At predominantly Hispanic North Dallas High, retention figures are extremely poor. State figures show that during the 1999 school year, 882 ninth-graders enrolled at the 1,874-strong school, yet only 199 students graduated. New Principal Lynn DeHart, credited with driving gangs out and bringing computer labs in, says things are gradually improving. At least 130 of this year's graduating seniors are going to college, he says, while 400 seniors are expected to enroll next year. (North Dallas' official dropout rate for the 1998-'99 school year was a paltry 1.6 percent, which represents 46 students. It's common knowledge that the district's official dropout rates are virtually meaningless.)
One reason for the appallingly low retention of Hispanics is the students themselves. Parents report that teens intercept calls from truancy officers. Others fault parents for not attaching sufficient value to learning or being too quick to disrupt it by moving for a month's free rent, taking children on long-distance trips to attend family gatherings or pressuring children to leave school and help put bread on the table. For girls in a traditional culture, such pressures are particularly intense.