By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
That brochure wound up being perhaps the most controversial tract in the literary history of the PTA. It came up repeatedly during a federal trial and has since been dissected in the Morning News and on local blogs. At the time it was released, teachers complained that it didn't reflect the demographics of the school. The judge agreed. The brochure also drew the ire of the school's black assistant principal, McElroy, who sent his boss Parker an e-mail.
"It has come to my attention that my children were possibly used as 'tokens' for the photo shoot for the...brochure," he wrote.
Even after the controversy the material stirred, Anglo PTA parents don't have any regrets.
"It was our intention to have more neighborhood kids in the brochure," says Joe Bittner, who since the trial has emerged as the school's and the PTA's top defender. "That's marketing. People want to see people they're comfortable with."
Skip Hollandsworth, a writer for Texas Monthly and a Preston Hollow parent, says that Meg Bittner's e-mail and the subsequent brochure may seem politically incorrect, but it was intended to make a statement to the school's wealthier neighbors.
"To me, the ad said, 'get over this idea that your child is too good for us'—that you have to pay $15,000 to $20,000 a year for a private elementary school. We've got a great school right here, with teachers and academic programs just as good as yours. And yes, my fellow neighbors, there are white kids there—our kids. They're right there in the middle of those sea of brown and black faces, and we're damn proud of them."
As for Meg Bittner herself, she declined to comment on her e-mail and the brochure because of ongoing litigation in the case. The tall, blond Bittner has come to encapsulate the image of the school's Anglo-dominated PTA, but she's not that easy to pigeonhole. Just look at an e-mail she wrote to fellow PTA parents in October 2005 urging them to help welcome a new group to their organization: The Hispanic Advisory Parents Committee.
"We sit in PTA meetings and lament on how to embrace the Hispanic culture in our school. We finally have an opportunity. They have so much to offer. Please, dig deep and find a way you can get this off the ground."
Many of the PTA parents, meanwhile, avidly support their now former principal. They reject the belief that they ever pressured her to keep their children together or that she would listen to such a request. Mainly though, they remain indignant at the public slights to her reputation.
"I hope people remember that this woman has spent most of her career at public schools with lower-income minority kids. She's devoted her life to improving their education," Hollandsworth says. "The idea that she would jeopardize her career by putting white kids together just because white parents asked her is crazy."
But at the trial, the plaintiffs put forth evidence that Parker did just that. Before the 2005-2006 school year, a sixth-grade teacher submitted classroom assignments to Parker in which the teacher divided the Anglo children evenly among three classes, but Parker changed it and put all the Anglo students in the same class.
Just as the kindergarten, Preston Hollow's sixth grade seemed to have too many ESL classes for the number of students whose English was limited. In fact, in one of those ESL classes, only two out of 22 kids fell into the category of limited English proficiency.
Teachers at Preston Hollow say that all types of children can benefit from an ESL class, not just those who are learning English. These classes, which are typically taught in English, employ more visual strategies and that can benefit native speakers too. Other experts inside and outside the district agree with that, saying that including different types of students in the same class—even an ESL class—can benefit everyone. Interestingly, the sixth-grade teacher at Preston Hollow originally assigned four Anglo students to a pair of ESL classes.
But Parker changed that placement, keeping all the white students in the same classroom. In any case, if ESL is for all children, why at Preston Hollow did Anglo students almost always end up in general education classes? And those who didn't, one source says, typically came from outside the immediate neighborhood. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of the school's black students wound up in ESL classes.
Some parents speculate that black students were placed in ESL classes as a way to remedy their poor reading scores. But while some schools may occasionally use ESL for that purpose, in Texas, those classes are intended primarily for kids who live in Spanish-speaking households. English-speaking kids who struggle with reading won't usually have their needs met by ESL classes.