The Truth About Townview (Part I)
It was a cold, bleak 7:45 in the morning--the second Monday in January, the first day of school after the winter break--and Townview Center, the most expensive, most eagerly awaited school ever built in Dallas, was being picketed for allegedly grave racial injustices being perpetrated inside.
Newspaper, TV, and radio reporters clamored to get close to Price, who had been protesting at the school since mid-December, crashing into a war between parents and administrators over Townview's Talented and Gifted Magnet. What were the commissioner's concerns today? What did the school district have to do to make things right? What was his message to the people of Dallas?
As usual, it wasn't easy on the ears.
Price was upset, he said, because Townview's executive principal, Dr. Ora Lee Watson, had just become a casualty of the TAG war. She had been removed from her position at the school and replaced by her boss, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Leon Hayes--a racially inferior human being, in Price's opinion.
"She was replaced by a Negro, and there is a difference," Price explained to the rapt reporters. "We're dealing with an Oreo, and that's Leon Hayes. You can't pee in our face and tell us it's raining."
As the reporters pressed in closer--filming Price, recording Price, jotting down his every word--2,173 school children streamed by the media circus on their way to school. The vast majority of the kids were more interested in getting out of the cold than listening to Price's complaints.
Price, of course, had plenty. Everything about TAG seemed to touch a racial nerve with him: its "insubordinate" Anglo principal, its activist Anglo parents, its staunch Anglo and Hispanic support on the Dallas school board.
TAG parents had long been upset, complaining to anyone who would listen that the move to Townview in the fall of 1995 had severely watered down the academically rigorous program their kids had previously enjoyed on the Pinkston High School campus. For months the issue had festered.
Now a majority of the school board wanted the problem fixed. But Price was there to see that it didn't happen. TAG, he declared, was an elitist program that catered to arrogant Anglo kids who wanted special privileges and a disproportionate amount of district resources to isolate themselves academically and socially from the overwhelmingly black and Hispanic student body at Townview.
Standing inside Townview that January morning--two months after the issue had flared up in the press, a month before it would throw the Dallas school district into a full-fledged crisis--it was hard to reconcile Price's claims outside the building with what was going on here, far away from the TV cameras.
Three floors above the street fray, where no one could hear the screams of "No Justice! No Peace!" 32 high-school juniors--14 whites, 11 blacks, four Hispanics, and three Asians--were gathering for a TAG geography class. No racist Anglo cabal here. No special privileges. In fact, the class was so overcrowded that kids were perched on the edges of desks and sprawled out on the floor.
Within minutes, the students were instructed to break up into small groups to work on an ambitious independent-study project. I watched them pair up randomly, with no apparent regard for race or ethnic origin--a feat, I couldn't help thinking, that their elders on the school board had never been able to accomplish. Then I watched--stunned, given the impressions of TAG that the daily media had left in me--as a teen-age white boy affectionately placed his arm around a black boy, who promptly put his head on the shoulder of a white girl standing next to him.
"It's like an orgy with the junior class," a student later told me, when I asked if this was typical behavior. "We're all really close."
"Pardon me for sounding ill-informed," I told the kid, "but considering what's going on in here, why is John Wiley Price out there picketing you?"
"I don't know," the lad shrugged, "but it's not about us."
Those waging war on TAG have cast their efforts as a battle against nothing short of "institutional racism"--a not-so-distant cousin of the overt segregation that characterized public schools in Dallas just 35 years ago.
Protesters have vilified former TAG principal Susan Feibelman--an "insubordinate, white, Jewish" woman--for supposedly refusing to take orders from a black woman, former Townview principal Watson.
They've vilified TAG parents as selfish, white, middle-class opportunists trying to rob impoverished black kids of a decent education.
They've complained of a "Jewish conspiracy" between Feibelman and the "white, Jewish" school-board president, Sandy Kress.
Finally, they've held TAG up as just another outrageous example of how the Anglo-Hispanic majority on the school board--the notorious "slam-dunk gang"--systematically excludes the three black board members, keeping them from playing their rightful role of overseeing the system's $1.4 billion annual budget, 150,000 kids, and 16,000 employees.
But none of that is the real story of Townview.
The Observer has spent two months investigating Dallas' hottest racial issue from the inside out: interviewing school-board members, administrators, principals, teachers, students, parents, academics, and community leaders about the crisis; spending time inside the school; and examining thousands of pages of DISD documents.
What emerges is the startling truth about Townview: that a handful of noisy, press-hungry black officials--acting under a phony banner of fighting racism--brought school-board business to a halt and the hierarchy of the Dallas school system to its knees; that their true motivation had less to do with combating injustice than aiding personal allies, gaining power, and advancing ideological agendas; and that both the protesters and the school system's leaders have made students and educators pawns in a destructive game of racial politics.
The tale of Townview is a story with no heroes and a tragedy with culprits of various stripe.
They include the rabble-rousers, such as Price, Aaron Michaels and his New Black Panthers, NAACP President Lee Alcorn, and South Dallas activist Thomas Muhammad.
They include the meddlers--such as school trustee Yvonne Ewell--who involve themselves far too intimately in the district's day-to-day affairs.
And they include the weak--particularly school Superintendent Chad Woolery, whose craven willingness to play politics with school personnel created, then enlarged, the TAG crisis.
Sadly, this is a story about a frightened city, a town whose leaders--business people, elected officials, media executives, and clergymen--are cowering before a handful of people who would terrorize them.
For the past three months, Dallas has watched, paralyzed, as Price and Alcorn and the Panthers shut down the school board, maligned well-meaning people, and wrestled elected officials to the negotiating table with a list of outlandish demands--all in the name of school children on whose backs they freely trample.
Dallas has never seen anything quite like Townview. It's been ugly and scary and outrageous. And it's not over.
Last month, the dethroned Ora Lee Watson dispatched flowery letters of thanks and encouragement--on district letterhead, no less--to a handful of 17-year-olds who have been agitating at Townview for, among other things, her immediate return.
Last month, Woolery placed an Anglo Townview principal on a 21-day paid suspension for doing nothing more than placing his hand on the shoulder of a black student who was refusing to follow the school's security policies. The student, one of the lead agitators at the school, had insisted that the principal had physically abused her.
Last month, Susan Feibelman, a 17-year DISD employee, sickened and disheartened at the events of the past six months, quietly tendered her resignation. "Surely I can find another job somewhere," she says with enormous sadness. "Even if it means selling makeup at Neiman Marcus."
I'll never forget sitting there at the board table the first time I heard that the TAG problem was racism," says Kathleen Leos, who had been on the DISD board half a year when the controversy erupted. "I almost did a double take. I said, 'What are you talking about? This is about education. It's about kids and parents who are worried about an outstanding program.'
"In truth, TAG was nothing more than a launching point to this whole other performance," Leos continues. "It was like sitting back and watching a show that had nothing to do with the education of kids."
The racism argument seems implausible to anyone who has bothered to look at the enrollment of TAG: 40 percent Anglo, 34 percent black, 19 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian. TAG--the supposed bastion of Anglo elitism--is mostly minority kids.
In past years, TAG attracted attention for the quality of its education. As the only DISD high school rated exemplary by the Texas Education Agency, it was the district's crown jewel, turning out the best and brightest kids since its creation in 1982.
Selected on the basis of standardized-test scores, grades, teacher recommendations, and work portfolios, TAG students were part of a rarefied teaching environment--an intimate, self-contained setting of 150 students taking accelerated coursework taught by specially trained teachers versed in nontraditional learning techniques such as group projects and independent study.
For years located in modest quarters in a wing of West Dallas' deteriorating Pinkston High School, those involved with TAG were nonetheless always wary about moving into Townview--the new home for TAG and five other high schools. TAG was the most academically driven school in the building; the others offered career programs in subjects such as health and law enforcement, but the cooperative setting dictated that the magnets all share a large pool of teachers in a centrally located academic center.
All the TAG group's fears were quickly realized. The school went from 13 specially trained teachers to four. TAG instruction for each child was cut from seven classes per day to three. The lunch period, an important part of the TAG academic day, with poetry readings and brown-bag luncheons, was chopped up into pieces, no longer a community event. Townview, on day one, had gutted its strongest academic program.
That is not the only irony about Townview: This enormously expensive symbol of the fight to end decades of segregation and racial inequality was actually conceived as a way to save money.
In 1978, Linus Wright, who had just joined DISD as superintendent, developed the idea. Says Wright: "When I looked at all the magnet schools, and the cost of operating them, and the problem of providing them each challenging academic courses to complement their career courses, we just weren't able to provide the quality that was needed. So I proposed to the staff at that time that we look at building a large school to combine all the magnets, but the staff didn't like the idea too well."
Longtime DISD employee Larry Ascough, now executive director for magnet-school communications, was one of those who didn't like it.
"I told him I didn't think that we should build it," Ascough says. "My concern was what it would do to the uniqueness of the magnets. Magnet schools are supposed to be unique and unusual."
Wright proposed the idea publicly nonetheless. U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders, who had inherited the district's desegregation case, embraced the plan as a way to build a first-class, high-tech inner-city school to attract smart, highly motivated students of all races and creeds.
"The district wanted to be taken off the hook with busing," says Ed Cloutman, the plaintiffs' lawyer who has been on the case since it was filed 25 years ago. "With busing, the complaint was you're taking kids too far away, too far from their neighborhoods. A new, centrally located supermagnet was an attractive alternative to that."
Linus Wright put two of his administrators in charge of planning the new project.
One was Yvonne Ewell, a longtime DISD employee whom Wright had just demoted from an associate superintendent's post. This was the last position Ewell held at the district before her retirement in 1984.
Ewell had helped DISD obtain 26 acres for the school in East Oak Cliff from longtime black homeowners, many of them elderly and poor. The sense of personal sacrifice that permeated the issue at the time, combined with the incredible buildup the school was given as the ultimate solution to segregation, made Townview no ordinary public project.
Plans for a summer 1987 opening were scrapped when the real-estate bust cratered a scheme to finance Townview largely with proceeds from the sale of the district's oldest school site, Crozier Tech High School.
By 1991, many DISD schools were overcrowded and run down, especially in the Hispanic neighborhoods of Oak Cliff. Cloutman turned to Sanders to try to force Townview's construction--and won.
Says Cloutman: "We all got a little tired of waiting on this school so we filed a motion to compel the construction of Townview. [Sanders] basically entered an order saying, 'You will do it--and as part of the next bond issue.'"
The order came in November 1991. A bond issue including Townview was scheduled for December 1992, but the cost of the project was trimmed from $45 million to $29.9 million, much to the African-American community's chagrin. Sanders then ordered DISD to have Townview ready to be moved into by fall 1995.
Because the blueprints were 8 years old, the budget had been slashed, and a branch of government was responsible for getting it built, meeting the deadline presented a challenge. As a result, more time was spent on mortar and furniture issues during those three years than on what the kids would be studying--or who would be making the day-to-day decisions regarding their education.
All of this laid the groundwork for the TAG blowup.
"There were problems from the beginning because we had to fast-track the project in order to meet the court's requirements," says Feibelman, who was named TAG principal in 1992. "The attention and energy was placed on the physical plant to the detriment of looking at what sort of programming would go on inside the building."
And this was no ordinary building. Six completely independent high schools with 175 teachers and 2,200 students were moving in under one roof, filling 225,875 square feet.
The closest anybody came to plotting a way for these schools to peacefully coexist was a 50-page 1993 paper entitled "Townview Center Educational Specifications," which described the district's vision for the school.
According to that paper, Townview would have only one principal in the entire school--and six deans or assistant principals, one for each magnet, reporting to that executive principal. The magnets would no longer be completely isolated from each other, as they had been in the past.
Students would still take specialty classes in their own magnet schools, which would be located in different wings of the cavernous building, with each wing painted a different color. All students would take basic core classes--English, history, science--together with other magnet students in the academic center, a separate school within the school headed by another dean.
The six people most curious about that setup, of course, were the six magnet principals already in place; all clearly understood that dean positions meant demotions.
Ruth Woodward, principal of the Education and Social Services Magnet, says the magnet administrators met with Assistant Superintendent Hayes in early 1994 and advised him: "You either need to move us out of our schools now--and let someone new come in and move the schools into Townview--or you need to say, 'These people are principals, and they're going to take these schools to Townview.'"
In the end, the principals kept their rank--but with no clear understanding of their relationship to the new executive principal overseeing Townview. The only hint about the intended hierarchy came shortly before the move, when the principal of the Science and Engineering Magnet was reassigned and his replacement, one of his teachers, was given the title of dean.
Still, had the right person--someone capable of handling the politically sensitive nature of the situation--received the executive-principal's job, everyone might have found a way to make the structure work.
But that didn't happen.
Because Ora Lee Watson got the job instead.
A person could spend a lifetime collecting colorful anecdotes about Ora Lee Watson and the reputation she has managed to build for herself in the Dallas public-school system.
We'll let her sum it up herself.
"Everyone had the impression in this deal that I hated TAG, that I was tearing up the program, and that I was this bitch of a person who wouldn't talk to anyone," Watson says.
This is what just about everyone says.
A midlevel administrator: "There are different ways you motivate people to do what you want. One is to say, 'Let me find the things you're doing well and praise you for those' and say, 'This is really good, but can we move this other area along?' And the other is, 'How many times do I have to slap you around before you do what I want?' Well, that's Ora."
A school-board member: "Ask people what she's done successfully and they can't tell you. She's gotten in all kinds of fights everywhere she's gone. There was a time that I thought, 'Well, OK, but maybe she's moving schools forward.' Now I know she's just a tyrant."
A high-ranking veteran DISD employee: "When I heard she was going to Townview, I said, 'Oh, shit.' Human relations is not high on her list of skills--at least not the kind that bring people together."
Even her friends--and she has loyal ones--have to admit that this woman is all jackhammers and rock and roll.
"A lot of people don't like Ora and it's simply because she takes her job very seriously," says Betty Culbreath, director of the Dallas County Human Services Department, "and that means telling lazy-ass teachers to work."
On May 26, 1994--the day after Watson's Townview appointment was announced--all six magnet principals showed up en masse to see Chad Woolery. Townview was not going to work with Watson at the helm, they told him. Five of the six requested transfers to other schools.
Woolery refused their requests and kept Watson in the job.
The Dallas Morning News reported the meeting along with an accusation from an unnamed magnet principal that Watson's appointment was based not on merit, but on her political ties in the black community. There was no elaboration on the charge.
Part of the problem was that Watson insists Woolery gave her full authority to run the school--controlling everyone's budget, approving all personnel moves, and making sure the buses ran on time. The magnet principals, however, believed they would have complete autonomy over their specialty schools--budget and personnel included--while Watson would oversee the academic center, maintain the physical plant, and coordinate all-school activities like graduation and security.
The problems among the principals started the minute Townview opened its doors.
Two weeks into the school year, Watson wrote a scathing memo to her boss, Hayes, complaining that the magnet principals had been given too much control of the budget. Watson demanded that another $3.5 million of Townview's total $12-million budget be shifted from the magnet principals to her. "My input was ignored and subsequent changes were made without benefit of further review or recommendation by me or the persons with whom I worked," she bitterly complained.
Watson got her way on the budget. Money for supplies and teaching positions--almost half the entire staff--was transferred to Watson's control from the budgets of the individual magnets.
The experience only seemed to reinforce her determination to let everyone know who was in charge.
Watson refused to give the principals master keys to the building, a move that kept them from gaining access to anything but their individual clusters of classrooms. She also refused to give the principals the security code for the building's front door. This meant that if the building was locked, the principals had to call the head custodian to get inside on weekends.
"I didn't want people having access to my office," Watson explains.
After she discovered some graffiti in a boys' rest room during the first month of school, Watson ordered school security guards to confiscate the colored markers--pretty much anything with a felt tip--of every student in the building. Though she promised to return the markers, many kids never got them back.
Last September, Watson collected all the failure notices written on every student, throwing the magnet principals into a tizzy because DISD policy requires sending them. "During those first six weeks of the school year Ora decided that there were far too many failure notices scheduled to go out," says one of the magnet principals, "so she collected them and didn't have any of them sent."
Watson also instituted a schoolwide policy barring tardy students from going to class if they missed the first-period bell at 8:15 a.m.--no matter what the excuse. "On Wednesday, Sept. 20, my son David had an orthodontist appointment at 8 a.m. in Duncanville," an outraged TAG mom complained in a letter to Chad Woolery. "I called the attendance office at Townview to notify the school that he would be arriving late and would bring a note from the orthodontist. When he arrived at Townview at 9 a.m. he was not allowed to go to class."
Watson blamed the situation on a security guard's error, but principals say children who arrived late--whatever the excuse--were barred from entering the classroom until the second period began at 9:45 a.m.
Watson says her obsession is with excellence, not control. It's because her standards are so high in every area--dress, comportment, security of students, academics--that she has no hesitations about making her presence strongly felt everywhere in a school. This is especially true at Townview, she says, where, if she had stayed, she would have implemented her personal vision.
"Technology had a role, which would expand the students' learning into the state universities and the world," she says. "Kids could have a tremendous impact on the community. We could have them working over here on 10th Street to revitalize it. The banking kids [could] go to bank presidents to borrow money. Kids in law could write contracts. Health-care needs could be addressed by the health magnet. TAG kids could help as board members and network with the community. Science and engineering would draw the streets using our facilities--design buildings.
"This would be a living institute of learning that would also be doing very meaningful and relevant things that would not make reading and writing a separate part of everyday living and life."
It would have been enough, actually, if Watson had simply made reading and writing the goal. The reality was that 150 of her 1,100 upperclassmen could not pass the state's basic skills test of minimal competency.
Watson had a very mixed bag of students. For every kid who would grow up to be a lawyer, there were 100 others who would be lucky to be bailiffs or bank tellers or restaurant managers. She had many students who couldn't put simple sentences together--never mind draft a legal contract--but she did not seem to view that as a major concern.
One need only glance at her response to a letter she received last October from a high-school junior in the law magnet.
"Here at Townview we are offering a drill team and cheeleaders [sic]," the typed letter reads. "Well, I would like to propose an organization called 'Breakdown.' This organization is of a new dance squad for the males of Townview. This is an idea which has been greatly formulated and will bring a postive [sic] experience for any male who becomes part of it. I anticipate transforming all of my thoughts into actions. I expect this to be an organization simulary [sic] to a fraternity. I have enclosed my expection [sic] of 'Breakdown.' The only thing I am lacking is your signature of approval."
Instead of packing the young man off to a remedial writing class, Watson sent him this handwritten message: "I do believe this is an excellent idea. 'Carry on' my brother."
So much for excellence.
The inevitability of the move to Townview had concerned the parents of the 150 children in the TAG Magnet--and the reality of life in the new building upset them even more.
By the second week of school, parents were writing Feibelman to complain that their kids were not being challenged in the classes with kids from outside TAG.
"I'm so concerned!" wrote the parent of a ninth-grade girl whose geometry class was doing low-level algebra equations. "She said she could do each of them in about a second but the majority of the students remained confounded."
Feibelman immediately advised Watson of the problem.
"I have received multiple phone calls from the TAG Magnet parents since the opening of school regarding the failure of math teachers to differentiate instruction for students in Algebra IIPH and Geometry IPH," she wrote in an August 25 memo. "This is a pressing concern for all students who attend magnet schools at Townview Center, not just TAG Magnet students. Each student who enters a classroom enters with a different set of abilities. It is our responsibility as educators to identify their strengths and deficits and to plan our instruction accordingly."
The problem simmered, unresolved, until mid-September, when TAG frustrations boiled over. The issue: one of the treasured traditions at TAG, an annual schoolwide retreat called "TREK."
Designed to encourage bonding between TAG teachers and students at the beginning of the school year, TREK is a three-day overnight retreat held outdoors within driving distance of Dallas--this school year in Glen Rose. The outing, which involves a full load of academics during the day and social activities at night, requires 16 adults to accompany the 150 students. In the past TAG's 13 teachers had provided most of that complement.
At Townview Feibelman had only four full-time and four part-time teachers. Watson refused to excuse the TAG part-timers from their other Townview teaching commitments to participate in TREK. Feibelman offered to provide substitutes for those classes out of her own budget but Watson declined, instead telling Feibelman to take the substitutes on the trip. Feibelman's appeal to Watson's boss produced no help, forcing her to scramble to find enough chaperones.
The TREK conflict infuriated the TAG parents--mostly working, middle-class parents from south of the Trinity with a passion about their kids' educations. On September 18, more than 150 parents and students showed up at a meeting to air their concerns about what Townview was doing to TAG. They sent a joint letter of complaint to Watson the next day.
Feibelman, Watson, and Hayes met with several parents, but when nothing came of it, the TAG families began faxing and phoning Chad Woolery. The superintendent did not sit down with them until mid-October--the day after several TAG parents finally cornered two school-board members in the administration-building parking lot. By then, the frenzied parents were circulating petitions of complaint and position papers suggesting changes.
Watson, with Feibelman's help, offered a compromise restructuring calling for more TAG-style classes, also open to qualified students from the other magnets. By then, the TAG parents were having none of it. What they'd had before worked--and they wanted it back. They also didn't trust Watson, who they knew had philosophical problems with the very idea of a separate school for so-called "gifted" kids.
Watson acknowledges she opposes the very notion of TAG.
"What I was fighting--what I was opposed to at Townview--was the segregation of activities in this building that said, 'Here are the talented and gifted students. Here are the students we will expect the most from. Here are the teachers we consider the best--and here are the five other magnets.' I think this whole strict, separate designation of somehow an intellectual elite is dangerous in the long run both to the students who are so designated and the larger group of students who may be equally gifted and talented who don't wear that designation."
The Dallas Morning News weighed in with an editorial blasting the district for dismantling the heralded TAG program, and on November 14 the parents descended on the school board.
Watson says she saw it all as more evidence of the stacked deck: TAG parents who "wouldn't listen"; the "insubordinate" Feibelman; and the daily newspaper "that had an agenda to destroy Townview."
"I never got to tell my side of the story," she says. "No one was listening to me."
Well, not exactly.
Watson, it would turn out, had powerful allies--such as school trustee Yvonne Ewell.
Ewell's ties to Watson ran deep. In fact, she had helped her win the Townview appointment in the first place.
Ewell met Watson in 1976, when Ewell was assistant superintendent of DISD's East Oak Cliff subdistrict, filled with low-performing, physically deteriorated, all-black schools. Though Ewell claims she dramatically improved the quality of education in those schools, Superintendent Linus Wright was forced to remove Ewell shortly after he was hired in 1978 because she was getting consistently low academic performance from her schools--despite spending 50 to 75 percent more money than was being spent on other schools in the district. Wright demoted Ewell twice before she finally took retirement.
Back then Watson served as Ewell's protg, the director of instruction on her staff, overseeing teaching, curriculum, and staff development for 29 schools in Ewell's district.
"She invited me to be a part of her staff," Watson recalls. "I learned a lot from her."
Almost two decades later, Ewell, now on the DISD board, wanted Watson to run Townview, Ewell's pet project back in East Oak Cliff.
"I said to Chad one day, 'I hope you will give her an equal chance,'" Ewell says. "I didn't do a lot of pressing."
When Superintendent Woolery, a 27-year veteran of DISD, tapped Watson for Townview in May 1994, he called her "an outstanding instructional leader and an experienced administrator in this district." He insisted to the Morning News that "not one person has spoken to me about what the principal should be. It was entirely my decision."
Some school trustees certainly were surprised. Sandy Kress, who had just replaced Rene Castilla as school-board president, recalls his astonishment at Woolery's choice of a woman with a reputation for insensitivity for the most sensitive principal's job in the entire district.
Says Kress: "Rene and I both, we were just startled--Ora Lee Watson?--and Chad just did it. He needed to be asked, 'Why Ora Lee Watson?' What success had she had to give you some idea she could run Townview? His answer to me was, 'She was the best person who applied.' Give me a break.
"Here's a person with no real record of success in principaling any school and a person known to be a tyrant. It just made no sense."
It is impossible to know the superintendent's attitude today--on this issue or any others surrounding Townview--because he is not talking at all. He did not return Observer phone calls and would not schedule an appointment. "What for?" he asked when confronted as he was walking out of a meeting. "Everything's already been said."
At one point Woolery agreed to talk, but only if the questions were submitted in advance. The questions were dutifully provided but Woolery welshed on the deal. Two days later, Woolery's spokesman faxed a seven-paragraph statement on Townview from the superintendent. It contained absolutely nothing to help explain his decisions.
"Has this process been easy?" Woolery pondered at one point in the statement. "No. Long-term, has it been helpful? By all means."
Ewell says she had no involvement in the district's handling of the TAG controversy.
"Because the school was close to me, and because I knew Ora Lee, I stayed clear of it," Ewell insists. "I never visited the school because I did not want to be a part of it. It's amazing how people think I was manipulating things."
DISD documents, however, tell a different story.
After the News' editorial blast, Woolery convened a meeting in his office to develop some additional action. In attendance: Assistant Superintendent Hayes, Townview Principal Watson--and DISD trustee Ewell, who had requested the meeting and designated the players.
Like Watson, Ewell clearly views talented-and-gifted programs as exclusionary, catering to middle-class kids, mostly Anglos, who start off in life with unfair advantages that a school system needs to erase, not expand.
"If the parents can't read, how can they read to their children?" asks Ewell. "Not every person has that kind of environment. They don't turn the TV off; they can't. The kids are off running to the store and getting videotapes so the schools need to adapt that technology for these kids--to have pictures and videos in the classroom, not just the written word all the time."
Putting bright kids in separate classes is a mistake, she says. The goal should be to mix kids of all intellectual abilities in classes that are educationally superior, with some kids looking at picture books and some kids reading Kafka.
"You can teach a class on the Sahara Desert without reading about the Sahara Desert," she says. "You can have pictures and maps. Then they're all learning. Not, 'Did you read this book last night?' it's, 'What do you know about the Serengeti?'"
Despite a philosophy that runs counter to TAG, Ewell makes a point of formally declaring her support for it.
"Yvonne Ewell wants TAG," she says.
In conversation about Townview's TAG some strange beliefs emerge.
"There's all that stuff out there with the white children and the purple hair," she says distastefully, referring to TAG kids who have dyed their hair. "I don't think this is healthy behavior for white children. I think a lot of parents have pampered them. I hear there is some of this homosexual stuff going on."
"Is it only the white TAG students who are homosexuals?" I ask.
"I heard only about the whites," Ewell says.
The day after the meeting about TAG in Woolery's office, Assistant Superintendent Hayes composed a letter to Woolery summarizing the discussion. The superintendent subsequently forwarded the letter to all the board members with his own cover letter, assuring the trustees that the staff was moving quickly to solve the TAG problem.
Hayes' original letter to Woolery, a copy of which was found in Watson's files, began like this: "On November 2, 1995, after our meeting with Dr. Ora Watson and Dr. Yvonne A. Ewell, it was concluded that the Dallas Public Schools would proceed with plans to revise some components of the talented-and-gifted program at Townview Center."
Somewhere between Hayes' office and the board's mailboxes, that paragraph was changed.
Someone had apparently decided it wasn't a good idea to tell the board just who was doing all this behind-the-scenes work on TAG. So the draft was edited--twice. The first time, Watson and Ewell's names were scratched out with a black pen. The second time, the reference to the meeting was taken out completely--perhaps out of fear that some pesky board member would ask who attended.
Whoever deleted the two women's names also changed a key element in the implementation of the proposed plan.
Here's how Hayes' original draft read: "The plan will be reviewed in an open meeting of parents from the School for the Talented and Gifted to ensure that the majority of parent concerns will be addressed by the intended changes."
This is what it was changed to: "The plan will be reviewed in an open meeting of parents from the School for the Talented and Gifted to ensure that the majority of parents are familiar with the proposed restructure of the TAG Program at Townview."
What Woolery didn't tell the board was that the TAG parents had already rejected that plan a week before in a meeting with Watson.
During the next month the issue heated up dramatically in the press with no solution in sight. Finally, on December 1, Woolery summoned Feibelman, Hayes, and Watson to his office for another meeting.
As Woolery came out to greet his three employees for the session, Ewell and fellow trustee Hollis Brashear, on the way out of a different meeting, came upon the group, which caused Ewell to come unglued.
"You fix this problem!" she yelled at the four of them, standing in the superintendent's reception area, with secretaries and support-staff members sitting all around.
"Ewell was screaming at us," recalls Feibelman. "She was saying that we weren't going to have Townview ruined by a couple of hundred students."
Despite her behind-the-scenes involvement--and her insistence that she had chosen to bow out of the matter entirely--Ewell later complained bitterly in public that she had been cut out of the discussions involving Townview.
Why would Woolery help cloak her true role?
Woolery's refusal to discuss anything makes it impossible to know for sure, but it is a fact that Ewell, while a DISD administrator, played a role in Woolery's first principal appointment at Oliver Wendell Holmes Middle School in Oak Cliff.
When Marvin Edwards--the district's first African-American superintendent--was quietly pushed out of his job in 1993 by the board's Anglo and Hispanic majority, Ewell and two other black board members made the transition easy by giving Woolery their blessings.
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