The News Says Parents Are Giving Up on This Dallas School, But Parents Say Otherwise

A banner made this week in the wake of Sunday's Morning News article.
A banner made this week in the wake of Sunday's Morning News article.

Mr. Martinez knew it was coming, was bracing for it, was already crafting how he might respond in the office and the halls and the parking lot at morning drop-off. Still, when it hit on Sunday, it had to hurt.

Martinez -- first name Hector, not that it gets used much at school -- is the principal at Alex Sanger Elementary, a Dallas ISD campus tucked among the tony homes of Forest Hills in East Dallas. Like almost every other school in the city, Sanger is made up largely of working-class families, students who qualify for free lunch and don't speak English at home. Like every other school, its success depends in part on a small but dedicated group of parents with the time, energy and will to wade through the bureaucratic currents and help make the school a better place to learn.

There's one difference at Sanger, though, or at least there was until this year: A parent with a connection at The Dallas Morning News, the city's largest and loudest shaper of perceptions about the city's public schools.

The parent: Theresa O'Donnell, assistant city manager and one of the most powerful officials at Dallas City Hall. The connection: Rudy Bush, the News' lead reporter on the city hall beat.

Three years ago, when O'Donnell and her partner were mulling where to send their kids, they opted to brave their local school: Sanger. It was such a tough decision that O'Donnell wrote an op-ed about it for the News, extolling her Jeffersonian ideals and proudly proclaiming that she and her partner were not "private school people."

By all accounts they threw themselves into Sanger head-and-hands first, getting involved with the PTA, volunteering at the school and recruiting others to do the same. But after a principal change last fall, things apparently soured, and by this fall they'd had enough. They pulled their kids and began home-schooling them.

It's not an uncommon narrative of city life: Family tries neighborhood school, gets frustrated, leaves, either for a private school, the suburbs or, increasingly, a charter school. What's less common is having it splayed on the cover of the Sunday paper.

Bush wouldn't comment on the story, writing in an email that "the story should speak for itself." O'Donnell didn't return a phone call or email. But at some point O'Donnell told the story to Bush. He could have passed it to one of the paper's two education reporters, to capitalize on their expertise and to avoid complicating his relationship with a key figure on his beat. But he wrote it himself, and gave it the weight of an Important Trend Story:

DISD needs to attract middle-class families to succeed. What does it say about the system if two committed parents -- a top city of Dallas official and a university professor -- can't keep faith with their neighborhood school?

It's a faulty premise to begin with: Attracting middle class families won't fix what's ailing DISD, which is its inability to educate poor kids.

Imagine the district attracted every possible middle- and upper-class student who lives in the district but doesn't attend its schools, instead trekking north to ESD or Hockaday or enrolling in a charter school. How different would DISD look? A little whiter, a little more monied, slightly more palatable to real estate agents and their clients. But it would still be overwhelmingly poor, mostly black and brown and pretty much off limits for Ebby Halliday's house-hunting army. (It would fall to about 79 percent free-and-reduced-lunch eligible from the current 88 percent, depending on how you crunch these numbers.)

But it wasn't the wobbly logic that made Mr. Martinez's job tougher Monday morning. That's wonk stuff. It was the specifics that hurt, and that parents I spoke with feared would discourage other families from getting involved in a school they think is on the upswing. (Last year's STARR scores are a mixed bag, although third- and fourth-grade reading and math scores were all up from 2012.)

In the story, O'Donnell and other parents claimed that under Martinez, recess and sports and a field trip were all cut in favor of testing. But those stories were disputed by parents I spoke with, and one was even disavowed by Bush's own source. The parents also complained that the school's dual-language program was "getting short-shrift," but several parents told me it's become a model for other schools.

What was perhaps most frustrating, though, was the broad strokes painted by O'Donnell, her partner and the paper. Because while the story focused mostly on one family's experience, it raised (and then failed to answer) big questions about what it all means:

"The bureaucracy just beat us, and that's too bad, because what's going to happen next?" O'Donnell asks in the story, seeming to imply that more and more of those allegedly key middle-class families are going to follow hers out the door.

Which some have and more may. But most won't. I talked to five Sanger moms this week, and all of them sounded crushed by the article. They get frustrated themselves, and sometimes worry about the focus on testing. But that's a fact of public-school life, they said, and Sanger's teachers find ways to bring the lessons alive. (The PTA president at Kramer Elementary, a predominantly working-class school in North Dallas, and Stonewall Jackson, a more diverse school in East Dallas, seconded those sentiments in interviews this week.)

"I am not in agreement that the school is only teaching to the test," said Patty Bates Ballard, whose children attend the school and who has volunteered there herself. "There was a lot of what I considered to be engaging -- participation, singing, writing, videos. There was a lot of engaging learning going on."

Another parent added: "They do science experiments; they do gardening; they learn in ways that aren't just for the tests. I don't think it's shoved down their throat like that."

But it'd be easy for an East Dallas parent -- someone whose baby is zooming toward kindergarten, who's wondering what to make of this bumbling school district they're always reading about -- to walk away from that story thinking, no way my kid's going there. Then, magically, toward the end of the story, they're presented with a potential option, when Bush explains that O'Donnell and her partner are planning to open a charter school:

They dream of a school that will serve children from all backgrounds. It will offer services to families needing extra support, and it will provide the sort of education that their children weren't getting in DISD, they said.

"I'm not sure if the intent of the article was to promote their new school, but if it was it was a great business move," Martinez said this week, echoing the suspicion of some Sanger parents. "We're always worried about charter schools drawing our students. But charter schools have the same challenges we have."

As for Sanger, he said he tried to absorb the hit as well as he could and move on. "We know who we are," he said he told his staff this week. "We know how hard we're working."

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