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Attack of the suits

Ron Steinhart of the Dallas Citizens Council will have to swallow his pride and sit down with people like John Wiley Price if he wants to have any credibility on school issues.
Alyssa Banta

This is so painful. Have you ever had this condition where your knee really badly wants to jerk, but it can't quite make it? I may have to go see a doctor.

Last week when the chairman of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce and the chairman of the Dallas Citizens Council called a joint news conference to express their impatience with the behavior of the Dallas school board, I assumed my own reaction, like the reaction of my ilk, would be a really big knee-jerk: It's a bunch of rich white suits downtown trying to take over the school district.

But then I sat up at night, sleepless, trying to figure out why the rich white suits would want to take over the Dallas school district. If you're rich and powerful, why would you take sword in hand and swing out onto a sinking, burning, bankrupt pirate ship?

What's the scam?

Seriously: If at this point anyone at all expresses an interest in the ongoing welfare of the Dallas school system--even if it's a bunch of rich white suits downtown--why would we question them? I can just as easily see the rest of us jumping into the lifeboats and telling them, "Gentlemen, it's all yours!

"And don't try to follow us!"

Here's another issue. The chairman of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce is not a rich white suit. He's a rich black suit. And before you tell me that doesn't really change anything, I have to tell you I spent a chunk of the day with him recently, and I think it does.

Albert Black grew up in the Frazier Courts public housing project on Hatcher Street in southeast Dallas, midway between Scyene Road and Military Parkway, right up against the floodplain of White Rock Creek where it flows down to the Trinity River. On our way to lunch, he detoured and took me to the unit at Frazier Courts where he lived as a boy. He parked and said he wanted to show me something.

"You're going to think I'm really nuts," he said. "I'm so corny."

I had to sort of trot a little to keep up. Black, 41, who played college football, is big and moves fast. He showed me how, in addition to the city's street address on the front of the unit, there was a separate Frazier Courts address at the back door--an odd little reminder of the separate social reality of public housing and how it becomes a world unto itself. He also showed me the unit about 30 yards away where his wife grew up.

After lunch, we did another detour, and he showed me the huge, beautiful home he and his wife have built in Kessler Park in Oak Cliff. The house is tasteful and understated, but you get the point: As founder and chief executive officer of his own very successful warehousing and service company, Black has made some major money in his life.

He wanted me to see something in particular, though. Just outside the back door of his mansion, engraved in stone, is the old back-door address from Frazier Courts.

Say what you will. His own kids are in a private school, which may or may not hinder his credibility. But don't tell me this is the traditional downtown power-guy you pictured 40 years ago sitting around over highballs on the top floor of some tower downtown trying to decide whether they had paid Oswald too much. He has to be different, not because of race but because of life experience.

And, OK, race. Albert Black's race, along with his life and the personal success he and his wife have achieved, obligates him to know the one thing that is crucially important to everything that happens or doesn't happen from here on out at DISD: The poorest kids in the projects can learn and achieve and excel just as well as the richest kids in Highland Park.

He agreed with me on that over lunch.

"Sure," he said. "That's right. I'm the proof."

But it's not an obvious point. If anything, basic faith in the promise and intelligence of all children--or the lack of that faith--is the fault line that runs beneath all our educational earthquakes.

The Dallas school system does a terrible job of teaching children to read, as the Dallas Observer has reported consistently over the last two years ("Some fly, some die," September 10, 1998; "Why Johnny's in the dumpster," February 17). In the last three years, authoritative national research has shown conclusively that there are major things wrong with the culture of professional education in this country. For years, white people and black people in education have been going around quoting and probably misquoting education guru James Coleman to argue that the most important element in a child's ability to learn is family.

 

In the mouths of some white educators, the family mantra becomes a doctrine of racial destiny, and in the mouths of black educators it can become an excuse: "Don't look at us. These kids come from bad families. Nobody can teach them."

Arm-in-arm with the belief that family is everything has been the education establishment's fervent belief in the religion of "Whole Language," by which you put kids in a so-called "text-rich" environment (leather-bound volumes in built-in bookcases), don't drill them on phonics, and then wait for reading skills to enter their heads by osmosis. Taken together, the doctrine of family destiny and the whole language approach are a lock-cinch guarantee that most poor kids will not learn to read by the end of the third grade and will drop out after the ninth grade.

Three years ago in a huge study based on a review of all of the available data, the National Research Council, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, said three things: 1) Reading is everything. If you can't read fluently by the end of the third grade, you're probably toast. 2) Reading is a code, not a culture. It's squiggles on a page that stand for stuff. 3) There are different ways to teach the code. You can prepare a baby for "phonemic awareness" (squiggles stand for stuff) by bouncing him on your knee and reading him Mother Goose from a leather-bound edition in a Laura Ashley-designed nursery while listening to chamber music. Or if that doesn't happen, you can sit him down later at a desk in kindergarten and drill his ears off on phonics.

Both work. Both kids get to the same place. Both read. That's what counts.

What this study and others have shown to be truly important is the teacher. Bad teachers do permanent damage. A shockingly high percentage of teachers in urban school districts, maybe as many as one in five, teach young children almost nothing, probably because the teachers have not been trained themselves to teach reading.

But it can be done. And in so-called anomalous elementary schools around the country (poor schools, high test scores), poor kids, including some from really bad families, have been taught to read better than rich kids from good families.

Houston's doing it. We're not.

You have to believe in this stuff. I have to believe that Albert Black does believe in it. So that makes him a major change from the old model of suits downtown.

In addition, Black told me over lunch that in the months ahead, several major business leaders will announce that they are going to run for the school board. I called Ron Steinhart, chairman of the Citizens Council, and asked him what he thought about that.

Steinhart was quick to say, "We're not going to run a slate." But he did say, "We've all got to get more involved, and I hope that will include civic leaders, business people, and other kinds of people who may be willing to run."

If you have been around Dallas long enough, then you realize that having these guys come out of the smoke-filled rooms downtown and actually run for office themselves--show up for the debates, walk the neighborhoods, take the guff--would be a sea-change. They have never been willing in the past to step out from behind the curtain of old-style Southern puppet-master politics.

None of this is easy, and everybody is at risk. The white guys downtown worry a lot about their dignity and about having people call them racists or picket in front of their businesses. Someone like Albert Black has even more at risk, it seems to me, because the racial atmosphere in Dallas is still one in which people will call him an Uncle Tom or a scam artist for being rich and successful. All that stuff really hurts.

I hope those guys understand how much hurt they can hand out, too, just by doing things without thinking. The Citizens Council types, for example, have never sat down and talked out the school issues with Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who is the senior elected representative of the African-American community in Dallas.

The irony is that Price is a natural ally. The school district is being sued right now for test data that will show where all of the really bad teachers are. The Texas attorney general has joined the suit against DISD. The city's business leadership has been afraid of this issue because of a general fear, probably wrong, that most of the bad teachers will be black and that the issue will turn racial. Price continues to say that, even if the bad teachers are all black, he wants to know where they are, and he is willing to let the chips fall where they may.

 

He told me this week he would talk to the Citizens Council and the Chamber guys but doubts they will ever call. "I wouldn't close the door," he said. "But they won't call."

The problem with failing to make this kind of call is that it evokes all of the old politics in which white people downtown thought they had the right to choose which black or Hispanic person they would deal with. It shows disrespect to the community.

But that's all history and who-shot-John and how we got here in the first place. What if things are about to change?

What if--strictly doing "what if" here--what if this thing with the suits is a genuine show of commitment to the schools? Even if we don't like them, do we shout them down and say nobody should give a damn? Or do we roll up our sleeves and go out there to the political picnics and try to beat them at rail-splitting, Abe Lincoln-style?

My knee has settled into a mild tremor. Maybe I can get some sleep now.


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