Split Decision

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

The goal of public education is to have all different kinds of kids learn as much as possible in the same classroom, but it takes a smart, coordinated effort from teachers, parents, administrators and the district itself to make that happen. Most of all it takes common sense. Maybe someone at Preston Hollow should have realized that having a Bike to School Day is going to leave a lot of children on the inside, looking out.


DISD is perhaps the most obstinate and secretive public institution in the city, unwilling to answer the most basic questions about how it educates children. Barraged by a never-ending parade of exposés about its shoddy spending and hiring practices, the district has developed a bunker mentality in which it seems to view itself as immune to scrutiny. So when the district had to explain itself to a federal judge, it's hardly surprising that it did so halfheartedly.

With Preston Hollow and the district on trial and with the entire school system's reputation at stake, DISD chose a rather tepid, clumsy defense. Calling only a handful of witnesses, most of whom wound up inadvertently helping the plaintiffs' case, DISD argued from both sides of the fence: No, the school never wrongly placed minority children in ESL classes, but if it did, no harm was done. The judge rejected the first part of this defense by citing the district's own damning data, then castigated the second as the infamous separate-but-equal argument that was used to justify segregation before the Civil Rights Movement.

The court's ruling assigns blame for Preston Hollow to DISD administrators and PTA board members. Most of all, the judge directs his ire toward Parker, who last week was transferred to an administrative job. He ridiculed her testimony, accused her of a cover-up and criticized her for orchestrating the errant placement of minority students into ESL classes to keep the Anglo children together.

"Principal Parker's behavior over the years demonstrated a total lack of concern for the constitutional rights of Latino children to learn in integrated classrooms," he wrote. "When public officials break the law, they must be held accountable."

When the judge released his opinion about Preston Hollow, Anglo parents were stunned. This looked nothing like the school they knew and loved. They adored Parker, and their kids were always in classes with blacks and Hispanics. But on a Saturday morning in November, after Lindsay issued his opinion, the parents woke up to read the following on the front page of The Dallas Morning News: "For years, it was an open secret at North Dallas' Preston Hollow Elementary School: Even though the school was overwhelmingly Hispanic and black, white parents could get their children into all-white classes."

In fact, the News missed the finer point of the judge's ruling, which found the school to have purposefully placed white neighborhood children in the same mixed classes—keeping the white kids together even if it meant unfairly placing minorities in ESL classes. But there were no all-white classes at Preston Hollow. It was never that egregious.

Still, the daily's mistake only galvanized the Anglo parents who felt like everyone from the media to their own school district was against them. In the judge's opinion, they came off as stodgy and domineering, so much so that they chose to showcase Anglo kids in a brochure for the school at the expense of the other children. Despite drawing the ire of the court and even after taking a battering in the press, the parents defend their efforts to market the school to their neighbors.

"We're the minority in this school," says Joe Bittner, whose wife, Meg, is the president of the Preston Hollow PTA. "We're trying to attract more minorities. Why is it OK for UT to want more black students, but it's not OK for us to want more white students?"

The Anglo parents, along with many teachers at Preston Hollow, have taken the judge's portrayal of their school personally. Together, they offer a volume of elaborate theories to explain why he threw the book at their school. They say that the teachers who testified against the principal were merely disgruntled and that the parents who filed the suit had ulterior motives. They speculate that the district's legal strategy was to sacrifice the principal to save itself from the court's wrath. Most of all, they say the judge simply doesn't understand bilingual education, in which decisions that may seem prejudiced actually serve the best interests of the child.

Of those explanations, only the last one has a ring of truth. There are Hispanic children who may test out of ESL but still learn more in that setting. Teachers, administrators and even parents have the discretion to make that call. Bilingual education at DISD follows a fluid, haphazard process. For whatever reason, DISD has no clear policy on how it fills up its ESL classes, and not only does each school have a different understanding of how to place children, different teachers at the same school don't always agree how that should work.

Still, the vagaries of ESL classes at DISD don't begin to explain what happened at Preston Hollow. Too many Latino kids with good language scores wound up in an ESL class. That's what DISD's own witness said. And why exactly were the black kids there with them? Maybe the judge did oversimplify what has been happening at Preston Hollow, but he recounted enough incriminating data and testimony that shows that the school had a problem, from the principal to the district and everyone in between.

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