By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Like other educators in trying environments, Menchaca sees his work as a crusade. "I've got to teach these kids to believe in themselves," he says. Despite graduates with full scholarships to Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M and Stephen F. Austin State University, it's a crusade that often falls short. On paper, Sunset's dropout rate is an absurdly low 2 percent, a calculation determined by the ratio of dropouts to enrollment in a single school year expressed as a percentage. But Menchaca blames coding peculiarities--students who move out of the district or go to a dropout academy such as Dallas CAN! aren't counted as dropouts--for distorting the picture.
"We need to face facts," he says. "Our dropout rate is more like 70 percent." There are only 250 graduates this year, whereas there are 688 freshmen. At the same time, Menchaca says dropping out has always been a major problem at Sunset, even when it was a white working-class school. Only a few decades ago, he says, leaving school wasn't stigmatized, since unskilled labor with decent pay was plentiful. "There were never really any good old days," he says.
Menchaca is fond of James Rose, a Sunset computer skills and business teacher known for driving through Oak Cliff's neighborhoods and knocking on doors to bring would-be dropouts back to class. "He's one of the few teachers who does that," Menchaca says. "I'll chase them down," admits Rose, a businessman-turned-teacher. "It might be why my attendance is so good. It just shows that you care."
On a recent afternoon, about 10 students in Rose's class were busy "cloning" slightly outdated computers--putting contents of one machine's hard drive onto another. Rose says many students are sufficiently trained to complete "A+" certification, a computer troubleshooting credential many employers covet. On a high shelf are rows of trophies Rose's students earned at a mock sales competition in Wisconsin. In addition, many of Rose's students will volunteer this summer to help refurbish computers at other schools.
But why not attend a magnet school where the computers are newer and more powerful? "Because all our friends are here, and we live around here," a young man replies. "We're not ashamed of our school, our 'hood." His answer highlights a major problem facing DISD that increasingly feeds ethnic tensions: reluctance among Hispanics to enroll in better-funded magnet schools--and their bafflement at a district that won't consider changing its structure to suit their preference for neighborhood schools.
Federal supervision in Dallas stretches back to the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine upholding segregated schools. Yet for years, amid stubborn opposition from whites, Brown had little impact. The dike that for two decades halted most progress finally gave way to full-fledged integration in 1970. That year, a lawsuit filed by Sam Tasby, a black father upset that his daughter couldn't attend a nearby white school, resulted in broad judicial intervention in the Dallas schools.
The sweeping federal ruling covered everything from court-ordered magnets, gerrymandered attendance zones and busing. Seen three decades hence, that legal victory was bittersweet, resulting in a mixed bag of social change. Resistance to desegregation, especially busing of minority students into white neighborhoods, led to a gradual exodus of white families from city schools that suffered from their abandonment. Today, only 8 percent of the district is white, a reality that leads many critics--notably Hispanics--to ask what's left to desegregate since the Anglos have fled.
Since then, court supervision in many other cities and all other Texas cities has been lifted. Not so in Dallas, where the 30-year-old case lives on, although its most controversial component, busing, does not. Today, U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders, who inherited the case in 1981, oversees a gamut of programs ranging from gifted and talented education to magnet schools and learning centers. In 1994, he declared the district "unitary," meaning DISD had "eliminated the vestiges of prior discrimination to the extent practicable."
Sanders vowed three years of supervision to remedy "relatively few problems." He ordered DISD to maintain racial quotas at magnet schools (32 percent white, 32 percent black, 32 percent Hispanic, 4 percent "other") and better monitor minority participation in honors and gifted programs.
But three years has stretched into seven. Amid the turmoil caused by racial quarrels and short-lived superintendents, the end is nowhere in sight. While Hispanics complain, African-American officials fight the idea of lifting court strictures, citing a lack of parity with white kids in and out of Dallas. Meanwhile, DISD's small quotient of whites has become invested in magnet schools, many of which have earned coveted "exemplary" and "recognized" ratings from the state.
Citing "ongoing litigation," Sanders declined an interview request for this story. But district administrators must seek his approval for all major decisions. Indeed, Sanders frequently intervenes to direct district spending. He ordered the district to build the Townview "multimagnet" center and use $6.1 million in proceeds from the sale of the old Crozier Tech High School building to fund magnets. Many Hispanic leaders bemoan such tinkering. "That man won't let go," says Adelfa Callejo. "He loves being super-superintendent."
At a recent meeting of the Latino Advisory Committee, community advocates met with Gloria Gutierrez, the new director of the district's multilingual program. She's busy trying to straighten out a bilingual education and ESL system that widely differs in quality from school to school. But panel members also heaped scorn on Judge Sanders and the desegregation order. "Why are we still under the court order when we're the majority?" asked Geneva Ramirez, community liaison at W.T. White High School, who noted the end of court supervision in Boston and Atlanta.