By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Wow. I always thought Dwaine Caraway was a pretty good-looking guy, but there must be something nasty and scary about him. He sure put the fear of God in the school district last week.
After Caraway and a bunch of pissed-off parents jaw-boned the city's public school system for two weeks, the school district finally backed off a plan to tear apart its elite "magnet school" program at Skyline High School.
Why would a school system screw up its own elite program? Yup, that's the question.
But first let me tell you how Caraway got their attention. He threatened them in that part of their pants where they carry their money. Caraway said if they didn't back off, he might consider campaigning against the multibillion-dollar bond campaign the schools are going to hit us with next May.
"If this is the way we're going to do business and we're just going to play push and shove," he told me in his City Hall office last week, "then it's time for me to back up and move a little more cautiously, move a little more slowly as we approach upcoming elections."
That's politician talk for: I'm comin' after you, folks, and we're not going to be talking philosophy.
Money. That's what they care about. When Caraway started talking about their money, all of a sudden they all sat up straight with little pointy ears and eyes like saucers.
Magnet schools were a product of desegregation in the early 1970s. The plan—naïve, we now know—was to create hyper-enriched programs that would act as magnets to keep white people from ditching out of the system. As it turned out, the vast majority of the white people were only interested in race, not education. They split.
The magnet programs have survived anyway and continue to serve a diverse community of motivated students in programs that range from hyper-academic to neo-vocational. Some of these programs aren't just good. They're excellent at a nationally competitive level.
Last November U.S. News & World Report ranked the Dallas Independent School District's School for the Talented and Gifted as the 14th best high school in the United States and listed the School of Science and Engineering as 18th best. As a reference point, I point out that Highland Park (Texas) High School was number 33 on the same list.
And yet right after that list came out, DISD decided the moment had come to start screwing with the magnet system. The district thought it would be a good idea to demote all the magnet principals, pay them less and lower the entrance requirements for students.
Sure. Good thinking. Sincere question: Are you guys at school district headquarters supposed to be taking some regular medication, and did you maybe let your prescriptions run out?
Luckily some very effective lobbying by parents, community supporters and corporate protectors persuaded the district to back off Townview. But this happens on a cyclical basis. I have followed it for years and have never gotten any closer to a theory of why.
A dozen years ago the district tried to hack apart the Talented and Gifted High School, saying it wanted to "mainstream" TAG students into the general population at Skyline, then a new facility.
Back then someone got the board to understand that for kids this smart, "mainstream" means Cistercian. If you want to keep them in the district, you need not only to refrain from maiming or otherwise harming their magnet program but maybe even blow them a little kiss once in a blue moon.
Then we had the go-round last December about demoting the principals. Now in recent weeks, parents and teachers have been in an uproar over another plan—announced to them a few weeks ago as a fait accompli—to take a fourth of the magnet programs out of Skyline High School in Southeast Dallas and move them eight miles across town to Emmett J. Conrad High School, a "low-performing" new school that's half empty.
Ola Allen, president of the Skyline PTA, told me parents were maybe even more furious about the way they had been given the news than about the changes themselves.
"Why were parents not informed?" she asked. "Now that we have given you the go-ahead to oversee our child's education, it doesn't mean that you eliminate the parents. Let us know as parents what's going on. Let us know."
Caraway attended the meeting where Skyline parents were informed of the planned changes, and he was appalled to see the message delivered by staffers below the level of superintendent.
"If we're going to disrupt things, somebody from up on high needs to come in and deliver the blow and reason with them about why there is a need and then compromise from that point, instead of just saying, 'Bam!' and you hit 'em.
"Somebody needs to take the heat, deal with it. The people felt disrespected."
Luann Jones, whose son is a sophomore at Skyline, told me: "When they had that meeting, it was the coldest, crassest meeting. Mr. Caraway was there. He heard it.