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.
"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.