Longform

School for Scandal

Page 4 of 10

But at Sunset, the faculty soon learned that, by their senior year, many students had already earned the required credits. Although the system allows them to graduate early, many chose to stay through their senior year out of sentiment: They wanted to graduate with their friends.

"It was tough to keep discipline over the ones who really didn't want to be there," Stiles says. "They registered for electives, but we were so crowded we didn't always have all the course offerings they wanted. And we didn't have the luxury of a study hall; there wasn't enough room. Study hall had been done away with a year earlier to make room for other classes."

So Stiles looked to the state-approved Peer Assistants Leadership course, in place at several DISD schools, to cope with the overload. Marquez, he says, approved the plan enthusiastically.

Stiles and Ortiz saw it as a godsend--a chance to keep seniors busy while giving them a chance to better their community. At least that was the idea. "Zulema [Ortiz] took on the goal of overseeing PAL," Stiles says. "The students were assigned to a teacher, who would give the grades and turn them in to Zulema."

The program was meant for juniors and seniors only. They were to receive only a single credit toward graduation. But it didn't work out that way.

It would later be discovered that some students earned credit for as many as four blocks of PAL. Evidence from DISD's investigation also showed that students seldom worked as tutors or mentors in the community; most worked as teachers' aides. Still others reported to no one, and simply left campus for the day. A number of sophomores were also enrolled in the program.

Though Stiles didn't know it, the state permits seniors who already have accumulated enough graduation credits to obtain a waiver to leave campus early each day--essentially what they were doing under the PAL program. Some 250 of the 400 PAL students at Sunset were seniors, and many had already met their graduation requirements. At Sunset, however, no one had obtained such waivers--and the waivers certainly wouldn't have allowed anyone to receive a perfect grade for leaving campus.

The mess can be partly attributed to some rather murky guidelines. The Texas Education Agency, for instance, says only juniors and seniors can take a PAL course. But the 1994-95 DISD General Information Bulletin describes PAL as open to grades 10 through 12.

More than a dozen teachers who testified at the PAL investigation made it clear they didn't really understand how PAL was meant to work. They thought it was indeed a teacher assistant program. "Ms. Ortiz gave this to us, something that talks about Peer Assistant protocol," biology teacher Donaldson said in her deposition. "...To us, 'peer assistant' simply meant teacher assistant..."

The PAL investigation shows Ortiz was overwhelmed with scheduling problems.
By June 1994, the two remaining counselors, bitter and overworked, had quit. "They'd had enough. They were reassigned in the district," says DISD's Robby Collins. "So Mike [Stiles] and Zulema [Ortiz] were hand-scheduling everyone until they could find replacements.

"When Zulema was picking the course code for PAL, the testimony shows she truly thought she was choosing a teacher assistant course. She picked the wrong course number and assigned it to those kids."

In her deposition, Ortiz admits frantically scheduling students into multiple PAL sections to place them somewhere--but planned to go back and fix the problem later. "Call it part ignorance, part just being overwhelmed with not enough support staff to rely on," she told Collins. "I felt, 'let's just get them in there and then let's correct--let's delete duplicate courses later.'"

DISD reassigned Ortiz this fall to a teaching post at Stonewall Jackson Elementary School in East Dallas.

Stiles finally did locate two counselors--just days before the 1994-95 year began. One came from Wilmer-Hutchins ISD and the other had retired 10 years earlier from Richardson ISD. Because neither knew much about DISD policy, Collins says, they were in no position to correct Ortiz's mistake.

Sunset's leaders were living a nightmare, born of their own sloppiness, a woefully crowded school, and political wrangling.

But it would not be left to Stiles to call his mistakes as he saw them--or to correct them. Rose Parker and her supporters would not allow him that luxury.

"Have you got about a week?" Rose Parker asks over the phone when I call her for an interview. "Because that's how long it will take to get a full understanding of what was going on at Sunset High School. I have a pile of documents a foot high to show how that school is denying students access to education."

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Holly Mullen