Split Decision

A judge says Preston Hollow Elementary segregated white kids to please parents. The reality is deeper and maybe more troubling.

On a sunny September morning in 2005, Preston Hollow Elementary School hosted Bike to School Day. Dozens of grinning children with fair skin played and talked outside in the courtyard, relaxing happily after rides through their North Dallas neighborhood of garish mansions and stately brick homes. Parents shared tea and fruit, capturing the smiles of their kids with digital cameras. A police officer gave the group a friendly lecture on bicycle safety.

Inside the classrooms surrounding the courtyard, other children watched glumly. Many of them lived in the modest apartment complexes off Central Expressway, separated from their school by busy roads and shopping centers. Those kids, nearly all them Hispanic and black, took the bus to school.

As their classmates parked their bikes and snacked on fruit and juice, the other children waited in English as a second language (ESL) classes. A federal judge would later rule that many of them shouldn't have been there. Their language skills were good enough to be in the same classes as the kids who rode their bikes to Preston Hollow.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Separate but equal? A judge says that's the system Preston Hollow Elementary created to appease white parents.
Separate but equal? A judge says that's the system Preston Hollow Elementary created to appease white parents.

A parent volunteered to organize the morning activities, and the school's PTA posted pictures of the event on its Web site. The images show a crowd of cheerful kids who look like they came out of central casting for a 1950s musical. Nearly all of them are white. In a school where 66 percent of the children are Hispanic, a Latino kid can hardly be found in any of the photos. Parents with the PTA say they sent everyone notices in English and Spanish about Bike to School Day, but some parents didn't know about the event until days later.

Lucresia Santamaria, a mother of three children at Preston Hollow, asked her children about Bike to School Day. They told her Latino children weren't invited. Unlike many of the school's Hispanic mothers and fathers, Santamaria lives close to Preston Hollow in a cozy stone and brick house surrounded by newly constructed mansions. Her husband is an industrial engineer. But at Preston Hollow, Santamaria didn't fare any better than the Hispanic parents in the faraway apartment complexes. Her children were also confined to ESL and bilingual classes for no good reason.

Santamaria's children were not that upset that they were left out of the event. That's just how things were at Preston Hollow, they said.

"They'd heard in school that the white kids were the most intelligent. They already knew they were more advanced. They felt separate," she says. "So, to them, it was normal."

A few months after Bike to School Day, an exasperated Santamaria, along with another Preston Hollow mother, Ana Gonzalez, met with Principal Teresa Parker and members of the PTA. The two parents wanted to know why their children were in ESL and bilingual classes even though their language scores suggested they should be with the other children. But they didn't accomplish anything, and the parents left the school feeling that they had to at least consider legal action, or else nothing would change.

After the meeting, Donna Flores, who helped translate the meeting for the parents and whose children graduated from public schools in Dallas, had an impromptu conversation with an assistant principal. A few months later, Robert McElroy would tell a federal court that the principal unfairly placed minority children in ESL classes in order to keep the Anglo children together. Parker did that to placate the neighborhood parents, McElroy speculated, but up until that moment, he didn't stand up and take on Parker. Instead, he acted as if Preston Hollow operated in its own universe with its own rules.

"I turned around and asked him, 'Do you see anything wrong here?'" Flores recounts. "And he said, 'There are some things that are going on, but nobody can do anything about it.'"

Flores then asked McElroy to elaborate, but he spoke vaguely. Like Santamaria's children, he seemed resigned to how Preston Hollow worked. "This is how the school is run, and nobody is going to do anything about it," she says McElroy told her. "People try to do things, but nobody listens."

Last November, a federal judge both listened and acted, issuing a bluntly worded ruling that stigmatized Preston Hollow as a corrosive school that is purposefully and systematically segregated at all grade levels. U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay ruled that Parker was personally liable and ordered her to pay $20,000 to one of the two mothers who sued the school. His 106-page opinion, recounting volumes of classroom data and testimony from teachers, illustrated how the school marginalized dozens of Hispanic and black children, placing them in ESL classes for no sound academic reason. Instead, Lindsay opined, the principal isolated too many minority children in ESL classes so that the white children from the surrounding neighborhood could stay together, even if this created a school polarized along racial and ethnic lines. The judge has given Dallas Independent School District until mid-January to assign students into more racially mixed classes.

Like many schools in North Dallas, Preston Hollow draws from both affluent neighborhoods and low-income apartment buildings. As a result, the school struggles to serve two disparate constituencies. There are Hispanic children, who may grow up in households where English is never spoken, and far wealthier Anglo children who come to school with considerable advantages. Those kids have completely different needs.

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