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.
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."
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.
Later at the meeting, Temo Munoz blasted the "32-32-32-4" magnet-school race quota. His fear: Since Hispanics are 55 percent of the school population, some Latinos are rejected to meet the 32 percent quota, while blacks and whites are more likely to gain a spot at a magnet. The previous month, panel members interrogated a magnet school official over the rejection of about a dozen Hispanic magnet applicants. After a second inspection of the applications, all but one was admitted.
In fact, Hispanics exceed the 32 percent quota in several magnets, but statistics bear out that Hispanics are underrepresented at the magnets overall. About 6 percent of DISD's black enrollment and 10 percent of DISD's white enrollment attend magnets, but the same is true for only 4 percent of Hispanics. "Some schools seem unable to attract students from the underrepresented ethnic group," wrote Sandra Malone, external schools auditor for the federal court. She urged the district to study whether reluctance, lack of knowledge or selection barriers caused persistently low Hispanic participation.
Despite DISD's large Hispanic enrollment (which has yet to catch up with voting strength), complaints about the desegregation decree fall on deaf ears among several trustees, who admit the topic rarely comes up. School board member Hollis Brashear says DISD isn't close to fulfilling the desegregation order because of long-standing achievement gaps between minority and nonminority, urban and suburban. "Anyone who says the vestiges of segregation don't exist in Dallas has their head in the sand," Brashear says.
Former trustee Kathlyn Gilliam, who served on the school board from 1974 to 1997, called criticism of the court order "idiotic, absurd and a non-issue." But black leaders such as her aren't the only ones defending the status quo. White trustees are in no hurry to do much either. "We're going after some other priorities first," such as teacher satisfaction, financial accountability and facilities needs, says board President Roxan Staff. "The board and superintendent have to be comfortable with those four areas before we ever went to the judge and asked him to release us from the court order."
At a recent board meeting, Superintendent Moses released a spreadsheet listing per-student spending in DISD's more than 180 schools. The differences in spending are stark. At the top of the list was per-student spending after administrative costs at an evening instruction program ($20,037) and a soon-to-be-disbanded special education facility ($13,632). At the bottom was Truett Elementary in Lake Highlands, which received only $2,657 per student. But comparisons among magnet schools and regular high schools, as well as elementary schools and the additionally funded learning centers, are most instructive when assessing where the money goes in DISD.
Learning centers, instituted in 1984 to make up for the de facto resegregation of students following the demise of busing, are required by the federal court to receive above-average funding. The extra money is used to lower class sizes, provide after-school tutoring and administer other programs intended to boost achievement. While the centers were set up for black children in Dallas' poorest neighborhoods, a handful of learning centers in mostly Hispanic neighborhoods were established in 1994, including East Dallas' Cesar Chavez Learning Center, to satisfy Latino demands.
The Latino population's continued growth citywide, however, means that many Hispanic children see no benefit from this cash infusion (although many black schools don't benefit either). Hence, dissatisfaction over inequitable funding. For example, Dade Learning Center in predominantly black Fair Park receives $7,473 per student; meanwhile, elementaries in Hispanic areas receive far less, such as Bethune Elementary in Oak Cliff, which collected only $2,660. Other elementaries scraping the bottom of the funding barrel include Cuellar, Knight, Hooe and Saldivar, all schools with sizable Hispanic populations.
Bigger budgets at learning centers are mostly used to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes--in many cases, by half compared to other schools. Ray Learning Center in the mostly black Roseland Homes area, which receives $7,129 per student, has a student-teacher ratio of 9.4. Across town, predominantly Hispanic Urban Park Elementary in Pleasant Grove, which received $2,725 per student, has a student-teacher ratio of 19.7. Despite extra funding, learning centers haven't enjoyed terrific success boosting the academic achievement of students compared to schools without additional cash flow.
In a conference room next to his office, Moses broaches the money subject by flatly stating he will not immediately demand an end to federal supervision of DISD. "I hope the day will come when we can approach the court and talk about our independence," he says. "But I'm not suggesting we're here today. If we can improve student achievement and improve the levels of performance of economically disadvantaged children and our minority children to comparable levels of our nonminority children, then I think we will probably have a basis someday to talk about independence."
But Moses agrees that gaping "variances" in funding among schools is troubling. He blames decades of incremental, disjointed steps by the district to comply with the court order, plus unfinished efforts at reform made by his many predecessors, that have left a fractured system of magnets, vanguards (elementary magnet schools), academies (middle-school magnets), Edison schools, year-round schools and learning centers. Not to mention, he adds, a confusing gamut of school shapes and sizes, such as schools that serve pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, while others serve pre-K through sixth grade and still more serve fourth through sixth grade.
"The configurations and organization of the district," he says, "as well as the utilization of resources make me really wonder about the coherent delivery of instruction across the district." He hopes to tackle the thorny issue of who gets what and how during discussions over next year's budget. "The board," he says, "is going to have to step back and consider: Is this in the interests of all children? Does this provide for equal education across the district and equal access across the district?"
At a Baptist church facility in East Dallas, Mexican and Central American immigrants gather in the evening for English lessons. Kathleen Leos, a DISD trustee, runs the Basic English program as a nonprofit program in several centers across the city. In an advanced class, one Salvadoran man expresses an intriguing conception of America during an exercise that asks students whether countries will run out of land for their people:
"Not here in the U.S.," he says, "because this is a very good country. They got plenty of land."
Many of the students in this non-DISD program are parents. During a break, some express anguish over their wayward offspring. "We all do our best...but we have a hard time," says Paulino Ortiz. "The kids don't want to go to school, and it's hard for the parents to get them to go because we have to work." Others blame lack of classroom discipline, the lure of gangs and minimum-wage jobs that make proper parenting difficult.
Spontaneously, an argument breaks out over the efficacy of bilingual education, the controversial practice of teaching core subjects in a native tongue while children are learning English. "Teachers who can't speak English, they are trying to keep them in bilingual education," a man says. "Who has more opportunity?" counters Rosa Garcia, a bilingual teacher assistant who says she has sent three children to college. "Someone who speaks only English or someone who speaks Spanish and English?"
Across town, Renato De Los Santos is attempting to look at the big picture. Director of LULAC's local educational service center, an Oak Cliff storefront that helps kids prepare college financial-aid applications and runs after-school programs, De Los Santos says he was shocked by the academic lethargy he encountered here when he moved from Corpus Christi to open the LULAC center two years ago.
He cites a study by San Antonio's Intercultural Development Research Association, a respected research group, that found a 63 percent Hispanic dropout rate in Dallas County during the 1999-2000 school year. According to the study, which compared 12th-grade enrollment to ninth-grade enrollment in Texas counties, blacks and whites also dropped out at alarming rates--51 and 29 percent, respectively, for a total dropout rate of 46 percent. "It's pretty damning," De Los Santos says.
A big part of the problem, he says, is low expectations from teachers. But he cites another that seems counter-intuitive: too much opportunity of the small-time sort. Kids in economically stagnant Corpus Christi realize that unemployment is their destiny unless they graduate from high school or college. But in Dallas, jobs are more available, if not particularly good ones. Dallas also counts fewer older Hispanic families with deep roots than in South Texas communities.
Still, De Los Santos says Hispanic families expect more from Dallas schools. Parents have complained to him about everything from "permanent" substitute teachers to overcrowded classes and anemic lessons that don't stress the contributions of Hispanics to American history. But he admits no uprising is on the horizon.
A reckoning for Dallas leaders will come in time, De Los Santos says. "They haven't yet had to deal with the full implications of demographic change," he says. "But believe me, they will."