Segregation Forever

How Dallas got what it wanted

But the BCME idea could be tinkered with. It was only re-segregation if it was left in its raw form, as a policy allowing black kids to get off the bus and go back to their neighborhood schools just because they and their parents didn't like white people. With the very enthusiastic help of the school board's lawyers, the BCME refined the idea to include compensatory measures--special "learning centers" where the poorest black children, kids from the projects, would receive teaching and nurturing so enriched, so finely tuned to their particular needs, that it would eliminate the "learning gap" between white and nonwhite students.

Sanders signaled early on that he was now interested, and in 1981 he handed down his first desegregation order, based solidly on the BCME concept of a voluntary abandonment of busing by black families and the creation of special "learning centers" to remediate the educational effects of segregation on poor black children.

The learning center initiative struggled to find curricula that worked. In 1994, Sanders ruled that he was ready to release the district from the suit and call an end to the game, provided the district could show a pattern of three years' consistent measurable success in the educational remedies called for in his original order.

Superintendent Mike Moses says it's possible to change the culture of a school district in a couple of years, and he's done it.
Mark Graham
Superintendent Mike Moses says it's possible to change the culture of a school district in a couple of years, and he's done it.
School district lawyer Robert Thomas says Dallas schools are "integrated" even if they never were "desegregated."
Mark Graham
School district lawyer Robert Thomas says Dallas schools are "integrated" even if they never were "desegregated."

Then--in case you got hit in the head with a board and are having a memory lapse--the Dallas school system plunged into an incredible six-year episode of total political and administrative entropy--people in berets with shotguns at board meetings, one superintendent off to the pokey for pinching furniture, the next one off the deep end from day one (apparently wanted to swim with his friends).

We never got out of court. At the recent hearing, there was persuasive testimony to the effect that many in top echelons at school district headquarters during those years were not especially aware they were even in court. You can't get out if you don't know you're in.

But now we have enjoyed two and a half years of the tenure as superintendent of former Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses. At the recent hearing, the school district presented reams of test-score data to show a dramatic narrowing of the achievement gap under Moses, along with testimony of heavy-hitter outside experts praising the school system's achievements.

Robert L. Green, a nationally recognized expert on desegregation--professor of education at Michigan State, deseg consultant to districts and courts in Detroit, Norfolk, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Memphis and Prince George's County, Maryland--told the court: "Dallas has made tremendous strides in the last nine years in closing the achievement gap, especially in reading and math, the two building-block areas."

He said: "I could assert with some caution that the gap in reading and in math might be closed in a short time, in the next two or three years."

He's not talking about the few white kids left in the district vs. the black and Latino kids. He's talking about teaching minority kids up to or beyond the state and national achievement levels of white kids. It's huge news. If and when he's right, the Dallas school system is ready to play Carnegie Hall.

Dr. Herbert J. Walberg of Chicago, an educational psychologist, consultant to the governments of Israel, Japan, Sweden and the U.K., examined the Dallas schools to see what progress had been made in recent years: "I concluded in my report that Dallas was doing a really outstanding job...The conditions and programs and policies they have put in place make Dallas the most impressive large urban school district I've ever worked in."

Dr. George A. Gonzalez of McAllen, a bilingual expert who serves as a consultant to the governments of Mexico and Saudi Arabia, said: "I work with many districts throughout the state and the nation, and I have yet to find something this well done."

In an interview at school headquarters after the hearing, Moses described the district's recent successes with his own East Texas blend of salesmanship and self-deprecation. He talked about the fact that Dallas schools not only have climbed out of the cellar of urban education in Texas but have closed the gap with the other big Texas districts.

"We've had the largest two-year gains in reading and math of any of those other districts. We've had a 10-point gain in reading and a 14-point gain in math, and that has surpassed all of the other urban districts. So we have closed that gap between ourselves and our peer group. But I'm still certainly not satisfied that we've done all we could do. We've still got more work to do."

Moses said a major part of his challenge as the new boss was to simplify and streamline. "I think there just needed to be a clear direction. Big districts, big bureaucracies like this one, tend to make things so complex and complicated that nobody out in the field really knows, 'What is it we're supposed to be doing?'

"I said, 'reading and math, reading and math, reading and math'--the blocking and tackling of education. We've got to do more than that, but let's be really good at that."

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