Under the microscope

It’s a school that hasn’t received a technological upgrade since the first man walked on the moon. Its science labs are dilapidated, 1960s relics with obsolete microscopes, crusty beakers and rusted Bunsen burners.

The roof has been leaking for years, despite bond money approved in 1992 to repair it. In December 1996, this money finally was sprung loose – four years after its approval.

It’s a school with a math program that doesn’t compute. Last year, 58.5 percent of the school’s sophomores failed the state’s minimum math standards test. This year, the school didn’t have enough math teachers for regular classes during its first semester, much less enough teachers for a desperately needed intensive math tutoring effort.

It’s a school with an overwhelming number of impoverished students, and most of their parents simply aren’t involved. And when it’s time for these students to plan their future, who can they turn to? Three overworked counselors, who are each responsible for mapping the fate of approximately 500 students, making it the high school with the worst counselor-to-student ratio in the city.

Is this a school in a third-world country? Is it in an urban jungle where people don’t care about education?

No, it’s Woodrow Wilson High School, on the edge of affluent Lakewood. It’s one of our neighborhood high schools.

In the midst of all this, Principal Eduardo Torres and his faculty have been working, literally, day and night to keep Woodrow from another strike – being rated a low-performing school a third year in a row.

Against the Odds

To avoid a third consecutive low-performance rating from the Texas Education Agency, Woodrow needs to accomplish a seemingly simple task: Only 35 percent of each racial group comprising Woodrow’s student population (which is 67 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black, 19 percent white and 2 percent other races) must pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills exam.

But during practice tests administered last fall leading up to the Feb. 25-27 TAAS test, not enough students reached that minimum goal.

And the TAAS exam is only an indicator of Woodrow’s troubles.

In addition to insufficient financial resources and students coming from other Dallas public schools who perform significantly below their grade level, Woodrow must deal with negative perceptions about Dallas public schools held by plenty of neighborhood residents.

So what’s going on here? How did history-making Woodrow, the alma mater of many Dallas leaders, find itself in such dire straits?

“When you have a district as big as this, some schools fall through the cracks,” says Roxan Staff, who was elected to the Dallas school board in May and whose sophomore daughter attends Woodrow.

“I think a lot more attention could have been given to Woodrow over the last 10 to 12 years.”

“I’m not going to blame anybody, because right now, I don’t know who to blame.”

This isn’t, however, a story about blame. Instead, it’s a story about a band of dedicated parents, students and faculty members who aren’t giving up – and who deserve a lot more help from the school district that taxes us.

Tackling the TAAS

Woodrow began this school year two math teachers short of what it needed, Torres says, despite the fact that math failure landed the school on the state’s low-performing list at the end of last school year.

Last school year, only 24 percent of Woodrow’s black sophomores passed the math section of the TAAS. (Sophomore scores are used to evaluate schools.)

For a school to be rated acceptable by the state, 30 percent of each racial group was required to pass in 1996. That standard rises 5 percent this year, and it will continue to rise in future years, Staff says.

Only 32 percent of Woodrow’s Hispanic sophomores passed the math portion of the TAAS test last year, a figure that would be low-performing by the new standard.

Meanwhile, 88 percent of white sophomores passed the math test, a success rate better than the district’s overall high school TAAS average. But most Woodrow students – 81 percent – aren’t white.

To make up for the math teacher shortage, Torres and his assistant principals each took the unusual step of teaching a math class during the first semester this year.

Torres, other faculty members and volunteers also have been staying on campus after-hours and Saturdays creating flash cards and tutoring students for the TAAS in Woodrow’s computer lab.

But for tutoring to work, students have to show up. About 90 percent of those who need to don’t, Torres says, explaining that some students work after school because their families need the money to survive. He also says some parents don’t seem to become involved in their children’s education until they’ve failed the TAAS test.

So Woodrow’s faculty, in an attempt to be both educator and parental substitute, has resorted to an incentive program that essentially bribes students to pass the test: Any student who passes all three sections of the TAAS exam – math, reading and writing – will be taken on a field trip to Six Flags Over Texas amusement park. Parents and teachers have donated about $6,000 to make the trip possible, Torres says.

To address parent involvement, Woodrow hired two “visiting teachers” to knock on doors throughout the community and explain to parents what is happening at the school, Torres says.

Funding for these “visiting teachers” comes from a federal grant given to schools at which 60 percent or more of the student population lives at or below the poverty level.

“I’m desperate at this point,” Torres says. “We’ve already focused on the school. Now we’re focusing on the students.

“The third component is my parents. The parents need to understand that they’re part of this. They need to encourage their children to come to school and get tutored.”

Funding the Future

Science teacher Tanya Tovar, who joined Woodrow this year, is just one member of the faculty who has taken to heart Torres’ challenge: Find innovative ways to offer a top-notch education with very limited resources.

When she walked in, Tovar discovered that not much had been done to improve the school’s science labs since Woodstock.

The 1992 bond package included funding for seven new science labs. Five existing labs were to be renovated, and two labs located in portable buildings were to be brought into the main building, Torres says.

Since 1992, the state-of-the-art Townview education center for high school magnet programs was constructed with bond money, and eight other neighborhood schools have been built from the ground-up with bond money.

Four years after bond funding approval, however, Woodrow is just now receiving only a portion of the science funding it was promised.

What took so long?

“Woodrow has had a history of always being left to the last,” Torres says. “I don’t know if it’s because of alphabetical order. We’ll take our turn like everybody else, but it must be done fairly.”

While the school waits for that day, Tovar has turned to our community.

She’s collecting Minyard’s grocery receipts to buy microscopes and other essential science equipment through the grocery store’s “Computer for Kids and More” program.

By collecting $48,500 in Minyard’s receipts, the school can earn one new microscope. It’s a start, of course, but to offer high school-quality instruction for a student population that reached 1,500 this year, Woodrow needs 40 new microscopes, Tovar says.

Tovar acknowledges that this is a snail-paced way to revamp Woodrow’s science program, but it’s better than doing nothing, she says.

Ironically, school district officials recently visited Woodrow to assess the school’s needs for a new bond package the district is considering bringing before voters next year.

Torres says he told them: “You’re going to have a hard time selling this to the community.”

Strapped for Resources

The bond package has become a joke among Woodrow staff members, who temper their frustration by chuckling when bond funding is mentioned.

At monthly meetings of Woodrow’s School Centered Education council, faculty members and parents tell attending district administrators over and over again that they believe Woodrow has been neglected by a district administration that offers rolls and rolls of red tape and serves up plenty of seemingly empty promises.

District administrators say the entire Dallas school system is strapped for resources. They say it’s not fair to rob from one school to benefit another.

So the district’s solution is to put Woodrow on a “restructuring” program, making it the first and only high school so designated. But according to district staff, “restructuring” doesn’t mean more money or additional teachers.

Instead, it’s a long-term process that offers more intangible benefits. “Restructuring” means changing attitudes, changing teaching styles and holding elementary schools more accountable for students’ progress long before they enter Woodrow, Ruben Olivarez says.

Olivarez, formerly employed by the TEA, is the new assistant superintendent for Cluster Two, which includes Woodrow and the schools that feed into it.

He inherited supervision of Woodrow’s problems this summer when he was hired by the school district.

“We have severe shortages throughout the district, especially in highly specialized fields like mathematics, science and bilingual education,” Olivarez says.

“I’m not trying to defend the efficiency or lack of efficiency of the school district, but you have to look at the overall picture.”

Schools must learn to do more with what they have, Olivarez says.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Olivarez says. “There are many schools across the state that don’t have the resources, but that are getting the results.”

Woodrow’s Turn

Paul Dalton, a Woodrow parent and graduate who serves as president of Woodrow’s School Centered Education council, believes Woodrow already is doing everything it can with its available resources.

He also believes our community won’t support another bond package to fund district-wide school improvements – even though district voters have never rejected a school bond package – unless Woodrow is placed at the top of the list this time.

Dalton recognizes the district has problems across the board, but he says if Woodrow truly is going to be a “restructured” school, it’s going to take more than good intentions.

As part of the restructuring project, the district gave Torres the unprecedented authority this year to transfer any teacher he wished to another school, Olivarez says. The intent is to give Torres a team dedicated to a common goal: improving academics at Woodrow.

Of Woodrow’s 88 teaching positions, about 15 were affected. An additional eight teaching positions changed hands due to retirement or other moves, Torres says, which means 25 percent of Woodrow’s teachers this year are new.

Olivarez also points out that although Woodrow has been rated low-performing by the state two consecutive years, the ratings have been for different problems.

At the end of the 1994-95 school year, Woodrow received a low-performance rating for excessive drop-out rates. Through an intensive effort, Woodrow reduced dropouts from 11 percent to 2 percent, according to district statistics.

The result of this success: Woodrow suddenly enrolled even more students who weren’t academically prepared. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that the following year, TAAS scores dipped.

Roxan Staff says she doesn’t believe Woodrow is alone among low-achieving high schools district-wide, even if it is the only Dallas school rated low performing in both 1995 and 1996.

“We’re here (on the low-performing list) because Dr. Torres is honest,” Staff says. “There is no monkey business about test scores.”

“Those who do the right thing take the full brunt of evaluation. But in the end, it will pay off.”

Drained by Magnets?

In an effort to compete with suburban and private schools that attract many top students, urban schools have established “magnet” programs as a haven for particularly talented students, says SMU professor and neighborhood resident Glenn Linden, a scholar on the Dallas school district’s desegregation efforts.

Unfortunately, Linden says, these schools have a tendency to siphon off resources from neighborhood public schools.

That appears true in Dallas, where in December, a district-wide teacher vacancy report showed between six and 13 teaching vacancies in five of the districts six school clusters. (Each cluster includes a handful of high schools, their middle schools and elementaries.) The one exception was the cluster of magnet schools, which reported only one vacancy.

And while the five other clusters received between $3,300 and $4,100 per pupil this fall, the magnet school cluster was allocated $6,281 per pupil.

Staff says the school board will be looking more closely at allocation discrepancies for the next budget year.

“When we do the budget this August, there is going to be some equity around the table,” Staff says. “I’ve walked into several of our magnets and special high schools, and there is some inequity there. That needs to be worked out.”

The Power of Money

Obviously, money doesn’t solve every problem. SMU’s Linden, whose son graduated from Woodrow in 1983, says three components are necessary to build a strong urban school.

You need a strong leader, Linden says. By all accounts, even the district’s, Woodrow has one in Torres.

You need enough teachers, Linden says, and these teachers need to believe they can actually make a difference. By giving Torres the ability to hand-pick his team, the district has come through for Woodrow in terms of motivation. But the school needs even more teachers, Torres says.

And finally, Linden says, you need money and supplies.

“The core is the teachers, and they need enough resources – enough money and enough materials,” Linden says.

“The problem is how to get the attention to get the resources.”


WANT MORE?
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.

About the Author: