By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"They did not ask our opinion. They told us what the proposal was, and that's what they were doing."
A longtime teacher at Skyline, who agreed to speak to me but asked not to be named for reasons any numbskull would understand, told me the headquarters people who came to the school to break the news were woefully unaware of the way magnet programs operate. She said they were unable to answer basic questions from the parents.
"I don't think they were familiar at all with the way the magnet programs actually work," the teacher said.
For all of that, I think you can see the logic, or illogic, if you look at this strictly from a bureaucrat's point of view. First of all, the district owns a brand-new, half-empty high school in the Vickery Meadows area near Greenville Avenue and Walnut Hill.
Why? Well, somehow in spite of a whole lot of political turmoil, news coverage and dust raised, DISD failed to notice that all of the aging, low-rent apartment buildings in that area were being relentlessly bulldozed over a period of 10 years.
You know, maybe you don't notice the bulldozers the first year. You're busy. Maybe you're still preoccupied the second year. At some point around Year Three of the Great Bulldozing of Vickery Place, I think you should have taken notice.
But no. Not even counting land costs, DISD went ahead and spent more than $40 million from the 2002 bond program to build a big new high school there, Conrad, which is now half empty.
Conrad is also "underperforming," an educationese term that includes many complex concepts and factors involving formulas I couldn't possibly convey to you, because I can't convey them to myself. But it means lousy.
Of Conrad's 670 students, only 32 percent were able to pass the state's 2007 TAKS tests, according to the most recent state report. Fifty-six percent of students passed the tests district-wide. Seventy percent of students in the state passed. Lousy.
According to Skyline lore, it is the oldest and biggest magnet school in the nation. Maybe the universe. I don't know if that's true, having visited only a limited portion of the universe myself. But I do know from covering decades of Dallas desegregation litigation that Dallas played a key role in developing the concept of magnets in the late 1960s.
Skyline opened its doors in 1970. It has always been a sort of hybrid—half-magnet, half-regular neighborhood school. Today about 2,500 students are scattered in two dozen magnet programs, and the same number are in the general neighborhood or "comprehensive" part of the school.
The standardized test scores of the two student groups at Skyline—magnet and comprehensive—are computed together for the school average, so it's a little difficult to say exactly how well the magnet kids do. Their scores are sufficiently high to pull the rest of the school's scores up to district-wide averages or better.
Here's a better index. Look to see where the best teachers are, and you've found the better school. Almost 28 percent of the teachers at Skyline have 20 years experience or more. At Conrad it's less than seven percent.
I was unable to reach school superintendent Michael Hinojosa to talk about any of this. Jon Dahlander, spokesman for the district, gave me a detailed and reasonable explanation of the district's position, which was all about relieving overcrowding at Skyline. I get all that.
But last week when Skyline parents and teachers came to the school board meeting to express their dismay, board president Jack Lowe got up, turned his back on them and walked out of the room. I was told later that Lowe had been sick. In any event, the parents took it as a slap.
Caraway did not walk away. He does know how to kick and where. In the money. At the end of last week, after Caraway appeared with a fractious contingent of Skyline parents at a meeting of the school board, the district announced it was backing down—somewhat—from its plan to split up Skyline.
District officials said they would conduct tours of Conrad for Skyline students, parents and faculty and then consult with them on the advisability of a move. That's way better than a gun to the head, get on the damn bus now!
Somebody at City Hall always talks big about doing something to improve the city's schools. Former mayor Laura Miller did it. The current mayor, Tom Leppert, does it. But nothing ever comes of what they say.
Maybe it takes somebody like Caraway who's a product of the schools and, by the way, a product of the city, to know how. He knows how to give them the look. They all know what it means. It's something they do teach at DISD.