Split Decision

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

"The court is left with the distinct impression that the primary objective of fairly educating students was lost," the judge wrote. "And substituted in its place was an effort to prevent white flight from Preston Hollow."

In June 2005, Parker met with the school's PTA parents to talk to them about their upcoming kindergarten class. According to the testimony of teacher Sally Walsh, Parker told the parents that "the neighborhood children" would be placed in the same general education class. Some of the parents remember this as well. Nearly all of the neighborhood children that Parker was talking about were Anglo.

That year, of the 46 children enrolled in kindergarten at Preston Hollow, only 10 were white. All of them were in the same general education class, where they made up the majority. Parker kept her promise. But by keeping the neighborhood kids together in one room, Preston Hollow wound up having too many ESL classes for all the other kids. Assigning students to ESL classes can be somewhat makeshift, but there is supposed to be some sort of process. When parents enroll their child, they indicate what language is spoken at home. If it's something other than English, the children take a standardized language exam called the Woodcock-Muñoz test. How children perform on that test largely determines if they fall under a formal category awkwardly titled "Limited English Proficient," or LEP. LEP kids, as they're often called, are placed in ESL or bilingual classes, while non-LEP kids are ready to learn in general education classes with their English-speaking peers.

The PTA brochure featured mainly Anglo children.
The PTA brochure featured mainly Anglo children.
Preston Hollow's Bike to School Day
Preston Hollow's Bike to School Day

There can be sound academic reasons to place a kid who speaks English well in an ESL class, particularly if their parents feel that they can use the extra drilling on their language skills. But by and large, most ESL classes are for kids who have trouble with English. That wasn't the case at Preston Hollow. In fact, the district's own expert, Dr. Gilda Alvarez-Evans, said that throughout the elementary school—and not just in kindergarten—there were simply too many ESL classes, and she could find no explanation for that.

Last year at Preston Hollow, only five or six kindergarten children fell into the LEP category. But the school had two ESL classes, spreading those LEP kids into both. Preston Hollow could have easily created one ESL class for the six LEP students, filling up the remaining spots with borderline students, and had two general education classes for everyone else.

But if the school had done that, the neighborhood kids would have been split between two general education classes. Those children then wouldn't have been the majority in either classroom. But by keeping the neighborhood kids together in the same class, the school wound up having an unnecessary ESL class. As a result, Preston Hollow had as many as 26 kids who could have been in the same general education class as the neighborhood children. Ana Gonzalez's daughter was one of them.

If you only heard her speak English, you might mistake Ana Gonzalez for a tentative, soft-spoken woman not likely to stick up for herself. It is only when she talks in her native Spanish that you see a glimpse of the woman who helped upend a school. In Spanish, she speaks rapidly and forcefully; her sense of indignation seeps out without ever clouding her story.

When Gonzalez enrolled her daughter in kindergarten at Preston Hollow, she filled out a language survey. Asked what language her daughter speaks the best, Gonzalez put Spanish first and English second. That meant her daughter had to take the Woodcock-Muñoz language test. The girl scored a five, the highest possible score. She also tested as gifted and talented, but Gonzalez's daughter was placed in an ESL class with no Anglo students.

Almost immediately, the girl started to feel as though she were somehow different from the Anglo children.

"My daughter started saying, 'My hair is ugly.' She started saying, 'Mom, I want to have blond hair.' I told her all hair colors are pretty," Gonzalez says.

After a few months, Gonzalez became concerned about her daughter's progress. Within a year, she would score lower on a standardized test than she did prior to enrolling at Preston Hollow. In January 2006, Gonzalez and others had a meeting with Principal Parker along with officials from the district. The purpose was to find out how the school was placing its students.

"We had lots and lots of questions," she says. "Why, in my daughter's class, were there so many kids who weren't LEP? What was happening?"

But everybody was ducking the questions.

Finally, Gonzalez asked Parker directly why her daughter was placed in an ESL class. The mother would testify that the principal gave a rather unimpressive answer: "The children were assigned to [ESL] classes according to their origin and what country they came from." That's not exactly how the system is supposed to work.

Parker would deny to the court she ever gave that explanation, but another parent at the meeting, Lucresia Santamaria, corroborated Gonzalez's account.

Not long after the meeting with Parker, Santamaria and Gonzalez decided to contact the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). Within weeks, they would file a lawsuit against the school, the district and Parker.

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