Split Decision

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

"My son says he wants to be like his father [an engineer]," says Santamaria, who has sent three children to Preston Hollow. "I realized they'll never get to go to college if they don't get out of these classes."

Today, classes at Preston Hollow are far more integrated. A recent tour of the school reveals a more harmonious place than anyone would have guessed. During the trial, people at the school testified that kids of different races rarely interacted with each other, and when they did, their encounters were fraught with tension.

But during one lunch period at least, black, Hispanic and Anglo children eat at the same table. They seem at ease with each other, talking, joking and even getting into trouble as a group. Their parents can learn a thing or two.

Sob story: Attorney David Hinojosa said that one Preston Hollow teacher started to cry when asked about student assignments.
Sob story: Attorney David Hinojosa said that one Preston Hollow teacher started to cry when asked about student assignments.

For a day at least, Preston Hollow looks like a model school. A tiny Hispanic girl in a green skirt hugs an Anglo parent. He asks her if she won the science fair last year. She flashes an adorable smile and says yes. Her parents came to Texas from Mexico and don't really speak English, but she talks without an accent. "Where then did you learn how to speak English?" she's asked.

"Preston Hollow," she says, beaming.

If only DISD had called her to the stand.

Located in the center of North Dallas, Preston Hollow Elementary is tucked in a tree-lined neighborhood that handily lives up to the stereotypes of that part of town. New money is on the move, and bad taste is on display. Sprawling McMansions are gobbling up older brick homes, creating an architectural mishmash of traditional styles and trendy designs. One new house looks like a castle and is built to the edge of the lot. It makes the nearby homes look like servant quarters.

Many of the wealthier families in Preston Hollow send their children to private schools, but there has been a long line of Anglo parents who have supported Preston Hollow Elementary School. George W. and Laura Bush lived in the neighborhood before he was elected governor in 1994, and both their daughters went to Preston Hollow. In fact, Laura Bush served on the school's PTA.

At the time the girls attended Preston Hollow, Anglo students made up nearly half the student body. Now it's closer to 18 percent. But what hasn't changed as much is the school's PTA. Today, Anglo parents dominate the organization. They coordinate nearly all the activities, make up most of the volunteers and fill the leadership positions. In fact, parents say they can't remember the last time a Hispanic parent served on the board.

Ana Gonzalez joined the PTA shortly after her daughter enrolled at the school in 2005. Because her English was only so-so, she couldn't understand some of the meetings, but she figured it would make sense to attend anyway. But Gonzalez says that although she tried to make an effort, the Anglo parents largely ignored her and other Hispanics.

"The white parents would only talk to us if they were asking for money for something," she says.

By the end of the fall, Gonzalez turned from a meek member of the PTA to its most strident critic. In November 2005, the president of the PTA, Meg Bittner, sent an e-mail to a Preston Hollow employee by the name of Graciela McKay about an upcoming photo shoot for the school's brochure. McKay, who is Hispanic, showed the e-mail to Gonzalez, who was shocked at what she read.

In her e-mail, Bittner wrote that the purpose of the brochure was to lure more neighborhood parents who live in "big, expensive houses" to reconsider their private school tuitions and send their kids to Preston Hollow. One way to do that, she implied, was to leave Latino kids out of the picture. Literally.

"While our demographics lean much more Hispanic, we try not to focus on that for this brochure. A big questions [sic] that neighborhood parents have is about the ethnic breakdowns of our school population. Our neighbor school, being mostly Hispanic, throws the neighborhood families off a bit."

Bittner explained why she wanted more of those families. "If I can get more neighborhood families, my PTA membership goes up, the fundraiser makes more and we have a good donor base for more of our projects."

In that same e-mail, Bittner wrote, "I just don't want any hurt feelings if we use one or two Hispanic kids in the shot."

When McKay showed Bittner's e-mail to Gonzalez, she was hurt and surprised. Even if she wasn't getting the warmest welcome at the PTA meetings, she didn't think they would do this to her.

"I had been a part of the PTA all year," she says. "How is it possible they wouldn't include the Latino kids?"

The next day Gonzalez showed up at the school to discover where the PTA was shooting its brochure. The principal told her she'd help but then left and never returned. Gonzalez later walked in on the session just as it was ending.

The photographer took a few shots of Latino children, but few of them found their faces in the PTA's advertisement. In fact, when it was finished, it included almost all Anglo children, including one where out of nine children pictured, six were white.

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