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The Showdown at Dade

The Dallas ISD school board is supposed to meet soon to discuss an incident from a couple weeks back in which the superintendent ordered district police to forcibly evict a school board trustee from a middle school. I hope they also talk about the school.

At first blush, Dade Middle School, in South Dallas, looks like a failure of the reform movement championed by Superintendent Mike Miles. School trustee Bernadette Nutall, the vehement Miles critic removed from Dade by police, seems to have a point.

Dade is bad. It was deemed "academically acceptable" by the state from 2007 to 2011, but that rating went away when the state imposed a more carefully calibrated rating system two years ago. In spite of an infusion of cash and resources under Miles' "Imagine 2020" program for troubled schools, Dade now flunks most of the state's metrics, falling under the general rubric "Improvement Required."

Improvement Required is a euphemism. It means "sucks." And academic achievement is the least of it. District staffers who have spent time inside classrooms there, speaking anonymously for fear of getting canned, describe an atmosphere somewhere on a spectrum between very disorganized and Halloween house of horrors.

But even as a fright house, Dade still deserves context. Urban schools and urban school districts all over Texas took a beating on the new measurements imposed by the Texas Education Agency after new statewide tests were launched two years ago. Dallas ISD, measured against Houston, Austin and San Antonio, has taken a little bit more of a beating on some ratings and has done better on others. Dade falls within that same general range.

And the true picture may be even less horrific than the state's data suggests. Last June Eric Celeste, who covers education for D Magazine, dived into some intriguing research by education consultants who have developed a statistical measurement that lets them ask how the different districts would compare if all their kids were of the same socio-economic background.

Why? Because teaching affluent kids to read is easy, and teaching poor kids is hard. How do you know how much progress kids in a district make until you know their starting points? Even on that basis, the research showed the Dallas school system sucking wind before Miles showed up but making major strides after he instituted his reforms.

The whole of that research is not publicly accessible, but I've seen the indicators for Dade. Even these data, for all their relativizing ingenuity, make it look like Dade must have suffered some kind of massive Afghanistan-type drone strike in the 2011-2012 timeframe. The heart monitor for Dade just dives off a cliff in 2011, then achieves a teensy tiny comeback in 2013, barely enough to rate as a living pulse.

Dade did suffer a drone strike. Before Miles came to town, several under-used schools were closed in South Dallas, including elementary schools in the Dade feeder pattern. Then, in 2013, Dade reopened in a brand-new building serving an expanded attendance area.

In closing feeder schools and expanding Dade's home base, the district mixed rival gangs in Dade's student body — a chemistry anybody in that part of town would have seen coming and warned against. Some did but were not heard. The district also changed the ethnic mix, increasing Latino presence in what had always been a "black school."

Since those changes in the student body, and in spite of a lot of trying and an awful lot of principals, nobody has succeeded in getting Dade under control. People who have spent time at Dade tell me the climate changes by the hour, from fairly calm to Wild West. In some classrooms, I am told, teachers don't even try to teach. They cower, hoping not to get desks thrown at them.

Two weeks ago, a few hours after Miles had district police throw Nutall out of Dade, Nutall told me she was there because the school is truly in crisis, which she described entirely in terms of administration.

"We have been through four principals at Dade since 2012," she said. "We have a crisis there. In 2012 we had one principal. In 2013 we had another principal. In 2014 we had two principals in one year. So, four principals at one school since 2012.

"It's a crisis there. That is my position. I'm not the focal point. I'm not the story. I have been bombarded with calls and emails from parents and community members about what's going on at Dade."

It was a Monday, October 13. Miles had arrived at the school at 6:30 that morning to meet with an entire new leadership and teaching team he was installing to replace a team he had put in place only six weeks earlier. Things are so bad at Dade that several of the new team members he installed at Dade that day walked out the next day, one of them telling a news crew that discipline problems made it impossible for her to stay.

Bad. Very bad. So at the moment Miles showed up with his crisis team to take the place over, Nutall also showed up, uninvited. Also rushing to the school at that moment to join Nutall was Juanita Wallace, outgoing head of the local NAACP and a fierce Miles critic.

Miles told Nutall he was holding a staff meeting and that she was not welcome to take part. They argued about it for 20 minutes in a hallway.

Since the incident, Nutall has revised the reasons for her presence, now denying that she intended to crash the meeting, saying that she only intended to be present in the building to confer with faculty members who had asked her to show up. She says now that she was told she had to leave the building because she was trespassing. For a few days after the incident, there was a kind of general street wisdom going around to the effect that a trustee cannot be deemed to be a trespasser on school district property.

Whatever the street wisdom may have been, I think that's all non-operational now. I believe that school district lawyers have since advised the board that Miles was fully within his legal rights in telling Nutall she could not attend his meeting uninvited, and also was on solid ground legally in having her evicted from the building when she wouldn't allow him to proceed with his meeting.

But it's all in a different realm now anyway. Miles is being shouted down at board meetings by a claque of wailing mourners straight out of the funeral scene in Zorba the Greek. Editorialists are wincing elaborately at the 20-second video online of Nutall getting the bum's rush by three cops, with little reference to or questions asked about the 20-minute showdown that preceded the old heave-ho.

I wince too, a little. Nutall is a lady. Ladies aren't supposed to have hands put on them.

But look, merely putting Dade into some kind of statistical context doesn't come close to apprehending the intensity of the situation. To get close to that you have to take into account a much fuller flesh-and-blood context, the one the kids at Dade walk through every day of their lives.

Last week, one day near noon, school board president Miguel Solis drove me through the neighborhood around Paul L. Dunbar Learning Center, an elementary school in the Dade feeder pattern. He slowed his car and nodded toward a palsied nattering beggar, an old man in rags sitting on the curb in the middle of a block with his legs splayed on the street, jabbering happily to himself while he munched toothlessly but ravenously on what looked like a really good cheeseburger somebody had passed to him from a car window.

"See this guy right here on the left," Solis said. "He's there every day, except in the mornings when he's on the corner. The kids don't take the bus to get to Dunbar. They walk. And they walk by that every single day."

I looked. I thought about it. I thought about my own kid walking to elementary school, passing that dude every day and thinking, "This is one of the paths life offers me."

"I have been mentoring a kid who's at Dade now for about two years," Solis said. "He's a homeless kid in sixth grade. When I think about the future of the city, my city that I'm going to live in for many years, and I think about this kid and about that guy, I cannot fathom this kid becoming that guy.

"So my question is, we can keep doing the same things that we've been doing. We can keep involving ourselves in this political fight, or we can step up, put the politics aside and do what we need to do. So when are we going to do that? I want to do it now."

The school board is scheduled to meet soon for a full and public airing of the Nutall eviction and what it means about the role of trustees in the day-to-day operations of the district. But the whole incident is about so much more than that, for everybody involved. It's about the homeless sixth grader, the mumbling beggar in his path and what in the hell the adults in his world are going to do about it.

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