By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
In any case, David Hinojosa, the attorney for the plaintiffs, points out that when the teachers themselves were deposed, they couldn't explain why so many black and Latino kids wound up in ESL classes, even though they qualified for general education classes.
"One of the teachers we deposed ended up crying in her deposition," Hinojosa says. "We showed her one of the exhibits and asked her where these numbers came from, and she ended up broke down."
As the judge would say, far too many black and Hispanic kids were assigned to ESL classes "without regard to their language abilities." One of those was Santamaria's son, who in the judge's ruling is referred to as Doe No. 1. During the trial, DISD conceded that Doe No. 1's language skills could have placed him in a general education class but say that he wasn't harmed in an ESL setting.
Santamaria knows better. She says that her son was bored in his ESL class and complained that he was learning the same things over and over. Soon he lost interest in school. Sometimes, he refused to go, and now he's fallen behind other kids his age.
"It's taken a lot of work to try and get him caught up," Santamaria says in Spanish. "We got a tutor for him. But he says, 'For what? What's it going to do now?'"
Staff writer Megan Feldman contributed to this story.