By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
By and large, Hispanic leaders don't deny these hard realities. They admit much work needs to be done to uplift a largely poor community where advancement often takes a backseat to the more pressing matter of eking out a living. "They're really just focused on surviving," says DISD board member Kathleen Leos of Dallas' growing Latino immigrant communities.
Still, Hispanic leaders and activists see a clear culprit for lagging social progress: not-so-great schools and a system they believe cuts them a smaller and unequal share of resources. Latino officials cite significantly lower per-student funding for neighborhood schools more likely to serve Hispanics than court-ordered magnet schools and learning centers with mostly black and white enrollments. For example, North Dallas High receives about $3,393 per student (other high schools get even less), while the Health Professions magnet gets $9,571.
Schools are also blamed for failing to teach Spanish-speaking children adequate English in the lower grades--a failure that eventually prompts many frustrated children to vanish by the ninth grade. "The court order is based on 10 percent Hispanics," says Adelfa Callejo, a prominent Hispanic attorney and activist, who notes the district is now 55 percent Hispanic (blacks make up 36 percent, whites 8 percent). "We're still getting 10 percent," she says wryly.
She and other leaders are getting impatient. "The economic pie must be shared, or the pie must get bigger," says Leonard Chidas, education chairman for the North Texas League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a Hispanic advocacy group. Yet such sentiments are muted in a district that critics say still revolves around a black-white axis. "That's our problem," says Temo Munoz, co-chairman of DISD's Hispanic advisory committee. "We don't make noise. But after a while it comes to the point we have to act."
Most urban high school campuses in Dallas bear no resemblance to the hard-bitten realm depicted in Hollywood movies such as Dangerous Minds or 187. At Oak Cliff's Sunset High School, a graceful old red brick building, the hallways radiated calm even if classes were crowded with anywhere from 25 to 30 students--not surprising in a school built for 1,100 with a current enrollment of 1,700. School pride at Sunset, which is 92 percent Hispanic, is apparent. In a glass cabinet near the building's front door are prized trophies for baseball, cheerleading and theater.
In one computer lab, students worked diligently on the Internet, comparing prices of automobiles and rent for a mock budgeting lesson. In other classes, students drafted house blueprints, worked on algebra equations or studied the causes of World War I. Nevertheless, little signs of urban pathology crept in. In a morning speech class, one male student used note cards to orate on the virtues of gun ownership "to protect myself and my belongings," admitting he himself owned a handgun. A knowledgeable speech in favor of recycling followed his disturbing presentation.
Principal Daniel Menchaca shakes his head upon hearing about the pro-gun speech. He says he's chased most overt gang activity out of his school, channeling his students' energies into a criminal justice program for students interested in law enforcement, business internships and other programs. Still, those little signs remain; they reflect the reality of his students' lives.
Formerly principal of DISD's Business and Management magnet school at Townview, Menchaca has become a strong advocate for neighborhood schools and a critic of the better-funded magnets. Sitting in his office after lunch, he wears a red button-down shirt that reads, "Open Your Heart to Sunset," a gift from a mentoring program's sponsors. Menchaca made waves after showing his staff state statistics that suggest his school is getting a raw deal: $3,900 per-student spending at Sunset compared to about $5,000 districtwide. (Numbers generated by Superintendent Moses' staff actually put Sunset's per-student funding lower, at $3,265.) That's a difference of $1.9 million for Sunset, he says, and "It's not right."
To be sure, Sunset has lots of company in the low-funding category, and it's not just Hispanic-majority schools. According to local figures, at least a dozen high schools, including Adamson, Molina, Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson and Hillcrest, all receive $3,500 or less per student. Others eke out slightly more. Meanwhile, the Multiple Careers Magnet Center and Townview's Talented and Gifted School respectively collect $7,069 and $8,652 per student.
Menchaca chafes at such figures. As a former magnet principal, he recalls little privation. "Man, we had computers coming out the ear," he says. But at Sunset, "we have to struggle to get every little thing we've got." Menchaca imagines spending an extra $1.9 million on calculators, computers, books and art supplies but admits Sunset's struggles go beyond meager funding. He recites a litany of problems: dropouts, poor turnout for PTA meetings and poor reading skills among kids whose parents don't read to them or keep books in the house.
Parental participation even lags in sports, Menchaca laments. Few parents attended a recent baseball playoff game in Mesquite. The school also suffers because of a lack of Latino teachers. Dropouts rob the Hispanic community of an educated class, he says, but so do higher salaries in businesses hungry for bilingual salespeople. "You can find a good teacher of any color," says Menchaca, a Mexican-American who grew up in the steel town of Gary, Indiana, moving to Dallas after teaching in South Texas. "But these kids need role models. They need to see someone who looks like them."