Bring It On

Hey, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, that's quite a spokesman you got there.

Celso Martinez works as the spokesperson for DISD, where his job is to explain to the public how the school district goes about educating its students. Lately, my job has been to write about DISD, particularly how it goes about -- wait for it -- educating its students. Martinez and I are not on the same page.

Since I have been writing about DISD, Martinez hasn't exactly been a beacon of clarity and openness. In fact, unless I press him, he rarely returns phone calls or e-mails, and I can't ever remember a time when he's answered any of my more substantive questions. He doesn't seem to know what's going on at the district he's supposed to represent. Most of them time, he simply has me file a public information request even on the simplest inquiries into the district's policies. Sometimes I think that if I asked him what color is the sky in his world, he'd have me ask him in writing.

Earlier this month, I wrote a story explaining how a federal judge came to the conclusion that Preston Hollow Elementary School was using ESL classes to segregate its students. I asked Martinez if he could put me in touch with an administrator who can explain how the district assigns students to ESL classes. Instead, he had a colleague fax me a few pages of the district's policies, which explained exactly nothing, particularly how exactly African-American students at Preston Hollow ended up in ESL classes. (To this day, I still don't know the district's official stance on that.) I asked Martinez if he could put me in touch with an actual person who can at least talk in general terms about student placement and bilingual education. He came up with no one.

Although Martinez failed to provide the district's side of the story, I found it out for myself, conducting off and on-the-record interviews with teachers, parents, attorneys, etc. But I still needed to know more. The judge ruled that Preston Hollow was hopelessly segregated at all levels, even socially, with kids of different races unlikely to talk with each other, much less become friends. Well, without going into the exact details, I arranged to have a tour of the school. I didn't sneak in nor did I misrepresent myself while I was there. I didn't disrupt any classes or take any names. Anyhow, during this brief tour I wound up seeing white, Hispanic and black kids talking, playing and getting into trouble together. I witnessed a cute Hispanic girl who said she learned how to speak English at Preston Hollow. She was a science fair winner last year. All of this information I included in my story, which resulted in a more balanced and more positive portrayal of Preston Hollow than the one given in the federal judge's ruling.

Martinez did not arrange this tour. As it turns out, even though my supervised visit of Preston Hollow was ultimately a good thing for the district's image, portraying the school as something other than a relic of 1950s Little Rock, Martinez is furious. Here's an excerpt of an e-mail he sent me in response to a set of questions I have for a new story, with my comments in italics:

"We have eyewitnesses that place you inside Preston Hollow without permission from the school's administration. (You also had me writing about my visit to the school in a cover story for our paper.) That is an unacceptable breach of security. When you were challenged, you and your companion stated that you did not need permission to be on campus. (We were not challenged since a number of people were aware of my visit and we never made that claim to begin with) I don't know where you got the idea that you could enter the premises without authorization, but that is clearly grounds for action. (In the words of our president and former Preston Hollow parent, George W. Bush, "Bring it on")

I would discourage you, in the strongest terms, to refrain from entering Preston Hollow or any other campus, without first checking in with the front office and obtaining proper permission, including an escort. Speaking to students without the permission of their parent or guardian is also a serious violation, and we are prepared to pursue this as a violation of student privacy. There will be very serious consequences, should this behavior continue."

So there you have Celso's view of his job: scolding those who do his work for him. --Matt Pulle

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Patrick Williams is editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Patrick Williams