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Little Schools That Could

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The Dallas public schools dilemma would be easy to solve if all we ever looked at was the headquarters building. Call in an air strike, stop and pick up some salsa and a few brewskis, go home and watch the football game. So what's the hold-up?

The problem is that the district, according to some mysterious logic, continues to contain these startling, marvelous, wonderful public school campuses--learning environments you literally could not buy your kid's way into with any amount of private-school tuition.

See what I mean? That totally messes up the air-strike solution.

Hey, listen: How many private schools can you tell me about in Dallas--for any amount of tuition--where your kid is going to start piano in the first grade and cello in the fourth grade, get art instruction and singing in every grade, get the very best reading diagnosis and instruction the educational universe knows how to provide (to say nothing of any other special help he may need), where he can be done with pre-Algebra by the end of sixth grade, and have a shot at being on track for Algebra II and advanced placement higher math (with geometry already under his belt) when he hits high school as a freshman?

All this, by the way, is in a physically spotless setting, with great big old-fashioned auditoriums, gymnasiums, art studios, well-stocked libraries, band rooms, and so on.

There's just too much value there. It's why none of the questions about DISD have simple declarative answers.

Admittedly, the schools I visited last week are not normal grade schools: They are the so-called "learning centers," ordered by U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders in the mid-1980s as part of the desegregation suit. The special programs at the learning centers (band, orchestra, art, etc.), as well as smaller class sizes, make them more expensive to operate than regular elementary schools. The average extra cost per year per student in the learning centers varies from $2,500 to $8,000 more than the district average of $4,500 in elementary schools, according to Shirley Ison-Newsome, superintendent of Area 2. The range of costs depends on the size of each school: Smaller schools cost more per pupil. The learning centers range from 250 students to more than 700--about the same range as regular elementary schools.

There are 14 elementaries and two middle schools that are court-designated learning centers. Any child who lives in the vicinity gets enrolled. There is no skimming or culling in the deal. The learning centers are basically walk-in neighborhood schools.

Since the learning centers began to open, they have been laboratories in which DISD has tried to learn how to educate poor inner-city kids. That was the initial challenge from the court: If you pull the black and Hispanic kids back off the bus and bring them home from the white schools, can you teach them in their own neighborhoods to be as smart as or smarter than the middle-class white kids?

For 15 years, the learning centers lagged behind the rest of the district on test scores. But in the last few years, that corner has been turned. The kids at some of the learning centers are beginning to test substantially above the district averages. At J.J. Rhoads in South Dallas near Fair Park, for example, the percentage of third-graders able to pass the TAAS test has climbed from the low 50s four years ago to the low 90s--five points above the statewide average and nearly 20 points above the district average. Passing math scores have climbed from the high 40s to the high 80s. These numbers are beginning to be reflected in the other learning centers as well.

At several of the learning centers, test scores are beginning to exceed both districtwide and statewide averages. In 1998-'99, J.J. Rhoads became the first learning center to be designated a "recognized" school by the Texas Education Agency--an official rank indicating that the school's pupils have scored substantially above statewide averages. Last year, two more learning centers, Chappie James and J.W. Ray, joined the list of recognized schools in Dallas.

Michael Palmer, principal of Rhoads for the past two years, gives most of the credit to his faculty. He says he has good teachers who don't quit. "The only teacher vacancies that occur are because of husbands getting jobs somewhere else, things like that."

All of Palmer's K-3 teachers have put themselves through the voluntary training for the Dallas Reading Plan, a special program designed by Dr. Robert Cooter to bring the very latest wisdom on reading into the classroom. Like all of the principals with whom I spoke, Palmer had high praise for the Dallas Reading Plan.

As for discipline, these schools have it together. All last week, I never saw one kid being hauled by two teachers, one on each armpit, toe-dragging down the hall doubletime to the principal's office, which rules out a certain amount of my own elementary school experience.

"Discipline here is very minimal," Palmer said. "The kids know what I expect."

It was a theme echoed everywhere I went: At some schools there was some paddling going on; at others none; but at all of them there was a culture of high expectations, to which the kids seemed to respond with high performance and good manners.

At George Washington Carver in West Dallas, where almost all of the 360 students come from the sprawling public housing complexes, the children in the hallways and classrooms were alive with the perfect mixture of enthusiasm and self-control, just like kids I have seen in the halls at good private schools such as St. Mark's and White Rock Montessori.

Principal Myrtle Dixon told me that she relies on a blend of high expectations and real consequences to keep her students focused. "I look at these children as if I am the governess of a royal house, and all of these children are princes and princesses whom I am training to go out into the world as ambassadors."

She opened a classroom door, beckoned with a finger, and said to the teacher, "May I borrow Joy for a minute?"

Joy is a beautiful 12-year-old who came into the hall, stood next to her principal, and looked me in the eye.

"Joy," Dixon said, "have you always been a good student?"

"No, ma'am."

"What do I do when you misbehave?"

"Sometimes you call our parents and send us to the office for a minute to calm down," Joy said in a quiet, confident voice. "Sometimes you send us to the counselor to write a letter saying we are sorry."

"Joy," she said, "you are a young lady now." Turning to me with her arm around the child, Dixon said, "I took Joy to the opening of the symphony last Friday. It was her first symphony."

Joy smiled radiantly. Remember: These are kids who have been doing band and orchestra, piano and violin, singing and music theory since first grade. Many of them are taking advanced math, and all of the older ones are being taught critical-thinking skills. And they don't go to the symphony cold. They know before they go who is the conductor and who is the concert master. At the first note, it all snaps together, and it all means something.

When Joy returned to her desk and the door was closed, Dixon told me how Joy had come to her from the projects as a loud, wild, untrained kid. "Did you see how softly she spoke?"

Dixon said she knows the kids leave the school every day and return to a tough environment. She wants them to know there is another environment in this world, and she wants them to know how to act when they are in it.

None of these principals accepts any social excuses for anything. At Paul L. Dunbar on Metropolitan Avenue in South Dallas, principal Constance Whalon deals with rates of transience among students that far out-strip the district averages. But she says if her students must be kids who come and go often, then her school must know how to help that kind of kid.

"We meet that child at the point where he is," she said.

She means they literally meet the children at the door, get their records, determine what they need, devise a plan, and then they go out and try to convince the parents to stop moving around so much.

Dunbar was singled out by the district this year for a special "gold star" award based on improvements in its "school effectiveness" rating, a weighted formula that takes into account standardized test scores, attendance, and other factors.

The one factor these principals really won't take as an excuse for low performance is being in poor neighborhoods. At another gold-star school, Charles Rice on Pine Street in South Dallas, principal Patricia Weaver says her students benefit from a whole fabric of community involvement, from tutoring to financial aid, all from parents, churches, and businesses in one of the city's least affluent areas.

As superintendent of the sub-district where this turnaround at the learning centers has happened, Shirley Ison-Newsome says she hopes for much more than good test scores. She sees self-disciplined, well-taught kids coming along for whom poverty and a tough start can be a goad to excellence, not defeat.

"It's all about belief," she told me. "You have to have the belief in your heart that these kids can succeed and that they deserve the very best."

Here is the puzzle I cannot work: When you see places like these learning centers, places where people are doing real work and making great things happen, you can't help being struck by the contrast with school district headquarters, where the players and the slicks and the goofballs are always moseying around the hallways winking and slinking like it's permanent party time.

So if we get mad at the district and do something like bomb it or bust it up or bleed it with vouchers, who do we think we're going to hurt? Do we think the goofballs are going to give up any of their cash? They will take that money out of those kids' hides so fast it will make our heads spin.

But I was thinking: If we could just bomb the goofballs, wouldn't we save enough money to make every school a learning center?

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