Eighteen-year-old Falonda LaCaze is a success story.

She graduated from high school in May with a “B” grade point average. After six attempts, she finally passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test, which is intended to measure basic skills learned in school.

She was rejected from the college she really wanted to attend – Texas Woman’s University – but this month, she will start at Eastfield Community College.

Despite applying, she didn’t receive a college scholarship, so she will work to fund her education at Foot Locker in Town East Mall, where she held a part-time job throughout high school while managing to study and play sports.

Yes, Falonda is a success story. For a minority student at Woodrow Wilson High School – especially a black student – she has exceeded expectations.

Down to the Basics

Woodrow is hailed by neighborhood public school supporters as a seemingly rare commodity in Dallas: a multicultural environment that works.

The school is praised as a place where students of different races not only cooperate, but actually like each other.

The school enjoys a level of community support virtually unparalleled among Dallas public schools. Many parents and local business people volunteer time and resources to Woodrow programs, such as the athletic teams, the annual musical and the renowned show choir Variations.

But somewhere along the line, someone seems to have forgotten about academics – especially when it comes to minority students. At least, that’s the way it looks if you consider the numbers.

Too Many Blacks, Hispanics Are Failing

Last school year, 76 percent of Woodrow’s black sophomores and 68 percent of the Hispanic sophomores failed the math portion of the TAAS. If you don’t pass the TAAS, you don’t receive a high school diploma. By way of comparison, only 12 percent of white sophomores failed math.

Because of poor black performance in math, Woodrow will be one of two Dallas area public high schools (the other is in Seagoville) on the Texas Education Agency’s low-performing list this year, says neighborhood resident Shirley Ison-Newsome, the school district’s chief of staff.

Any school that doesn’t pass at least 30 percent of its students of a particular race in a particular TAAS subject is rated low-performing by the state. Woodrow barely passed enough Hispanic students in math to meet state requirements.

On the reading portion of the TAAS, 59 percent of Woodrow’s black sophomores and 57 percent of Hispanic sophomores failed last school year. Only eight percent of white students failed reading.

Students can take the TAAS twice a year until graduation, and many at Woodrow eventually do pass.

But students and teachers end up focusing a lot of time and attention on an exam that tests minimal ability.

“I think students ought to be able to demonstrate that they can perform at a certain level before graduating from high school, but what we’re testing is minimum achievement. We end up teaching to a minimum standard,” says teacher Robert Irby, the chair of Woodrow’s math department.

“The basic stuff should have been taught earlier on. They don’t come to us prepared, and we drop the ball.”

As the school district steps up efforts to teach TAAS skills in younger grades, Woodrow should see improvements in its scores as students move through the system, Irby says. Statistics indicate improvements are occurring across the district in elementary and middle school.

But these efforts do little good for students enrolled at Woodrow now or who will enroll in the near future. There should be no “throw-away kids,” Ison-Newsome says.

Woodrow’s motto is – ‘Woodrow: Enough Said’ – but more needs to be said,” Ison-Newsome says. “There is some work that needs to be done in addressing the needs of all its student populations.

“The climate at Woodrow is good. When you walk into the school, it feels good. That’s important. What we have to do is get very serious about academics.

“Tradition is very important, but there needs to be an understanding that new traditions need to develop.”

The Achievement Gap

Although Woodrow is 82 percent minority, few of these students ever take an honors or advanced placement course, and most don’t pursue higher education if they do graduate. Passing or failing the TAAS is often the measure of their success.

Conquering the TAAS is the high school achievement of which Falonda says she is most proud.

Falonda took the TAAS twice as a sophomore, twice as a junior and twice as a senior. She passed just in time to graduate.

She went to Saturday tutoring sessions, utilizing a Woodrow computer lab that helps students with the TAAS. She even took a class at Woodrow that does nothing more than prepare students for the TAAS. Students are automatically placed in this class if they haven’t passed the TAAS by their senior year, Falonda says.

In an effort to get off the state’s low-performing list, this year every Woodrow teacher will spend the first 15 minutes of class reviewing basic skills on the TAAS, Irby says, from adding fractions to subject-verb agreement in sentences.

To explain the poor Hispanic performance, teachers and administrators cite language barriers – many of Woodrow’s Hispanic students speak limited or no English. Poor performance by blacks, however, is more difficult to explain.

Irby says economics and family situations may have more to do with achievement gaps than race. White students who succeed at Woodrow are more likely to come from middle- to upper-class neighborhoods than minority students are, and they are more likely to grow up in neighborhoods where parents have attended college and peers are college-oriented.

Falonda tends to agree.

“I think it goes back to what environment a kid lives in,” Falonda says. “Some of the minority kids see that their parents didn’t go past high school, so they don’t think they need to.”

Falonda’s mother, Louella, didn’t attend college. But Louella says she always pushes Falonda to accomplish more than she did.

“I think you should always do more than your parents,” Louella says. “I think they all (students of all races) can achieve the same thing. It all depends on determination.”

The Source of Motivation

Who’s responsible when a student doesn’t learn?

Should the source of motivation be the parent, the teacher or the student?

“Kids need to show dedication and responsibility, but adults need to motivate kids,” Ison-Newsome says.

“Kids, more than anybody, have an internal detection system that tells them if somebody has their best interests at heart or is just going through the motions.”

For Ison-Newsome, the answer to Woodrow’s achievement gap problem is staff development.

“Because we’re paying the adults, we expect more from the adults,” she says.

In a school as diverse as Woodrow, teachers need to learn about the cultural backgrounds of their students to teach them effectively, Ison-Newsome says.

“Good teachers always give relevant examples,” she says. “If you don’t know the culture of your children, you can’t give relevant examples.”

Ison-Newsome met this summer with Principal Eduardo Torres and department heads at Woodrow to develop new teaching techniques for reaching minority students.

When students can relate classroom lessons to life outside the classroom, they are more likely to retain information and be able to apply it when necessary, Irby says.

Application is where most students are tripped up on the TAAS, he says.

TAAS math problems, for example, are predominately word problems. Students may know how to multiply and divide when given a series of numbers, but have trouble figuring out which skill a word problem is asking them to use, Irby says.

“I don’t think we as educators are doing everything we can do to address the learning styles of the economically disadvantages,” Irby says.

“We tend to teach the way we were taught and say: ‘I learned this way. Why can’t you?”

“It may take a different approach.”

The Measure of Success

How you judge Woodrow depends on how you measure success, says neighborhood resident Ruth Pendergrass, a Woodrow English teacher who has graduated four children from the school.

A poor Hispanic student from Mexico who must learn English and who is the first in his family to graduate from high school can’t be compared with a middle-class white student aiming for Princeton who has been pushed toward Ivy League schools since birth, she says.

“It’s where you’re coming from, not where you’re going,” Pendergrass says. “You have to look at how far they’ve come from where they’ve started.”

The measure of Woodrow’s success is what kind of citizens it produces, she says. TAAS scores don’t tell the whole story, she says.

“I believe in the total person,” Pendergrass says. “I wouldn’t just want my kid to be a brain. Knowledge without helping your fellow man, knowledge without wisdom, is useless.”

Pendergrass says all four of her children, Kristy (Class of 1981), Clay (’89), Trey (’94) and Kara (’96) received a good education at Woodrow both in and out of the classroom.

Her children, who are white, learned to interact with people form a variety of backgrounds and were enriched by Woodrow’s extracurricular programs, especially music, theater and athletics, she says.

Her children were all “high achievers, but not valedictorians,” she says. Kristy attended Abliene Christian University. Trey attends the University of North Texas, and Kara will attend Texas A&M University this fall. Clay performs in a local band.

She says the Woodrow experience is what a student makes of it. Teachers are available after-hours for tutoring, and there are activities for everyone at the school to enjoy, she says.

“The kids have to take responsibility,” she says. “You can’t drill a hole and pour it in.”

But Pendergrass recognizes that some students have responsibilities outside school that may seem more pressing to them than homework, such as working to help feed their families or caring for younger siblings.

So what do we do with students who aren’t supported at home?

“The answer is adults spending time with kids, reading to them, talking to them, mentoring them,” Pendergrass says. “Somewhere down the track, you have to have someone, whether it is a parent, an older brother or sister; a church member, a neighbor. Someone has to push you.

“There has to be expectations from someone.”

Raising Expectations

Woodrow is finding ways to raise expectations.

A mentoring program has been developed in cooperation with the East Dallas YMCA and the Park Cities Rotary Club. Adult volunteers interact with students on a one-to-one basis, providing support and exposing students to career and college choices. Torres also is encouraging students to help each other, Pendergrass says, creating positive peer interaction that emphasizes studying.

But the feather in Woodrow’s cap is its new Success Center, formed by Torres two years ago. The purpose of the center is to motivate students to pursue higher education, says counselor Charmayne Rolla.

The center encourages students to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is needed for college admission, and arranges student tours of Texas colleges, Rolla says.

The tours expose students to university life who may not have considered applying to college and introduce these students to Woodrow graduates attending college, Rolla says.

The center houses an array of college catalogs, helps students find scholarships and provides a computer that students can use to write letters to college admission boards, Rolla says.

Woodrow’s efforts are paying off, Rolla and Pendergrass say.

More students are taking the SAT and thinking about college, they say. Still, only 45 percent of the Class of 1996 will enter college this fall, Rolla says. In comparison, Lake Highlands High School in the Richardson Independent School District is sending 85 percent of its Class of 1996 to college, says Lake Highlands Principal Ron Mathews.

But the Woodrow Class of 1996 was the largest class – 217 students – the school has graduated in more than 10 years, Rolla says.

Fewer students are dropping out, and more are passing the TAAS graduation, Rolla says. Overall drop-out rates are down from 11 percent in the 1992-93 school year to two percent in the 1994-95 school year, according to district statistics.

Torres, who came to Woodrow in August 1993, is credited by parents and faculty for slowly, but surely, turning Woodrow around.

“He has made a very good change,” Rolla says. “He is an advocate for the students – all students.”

Passing the Test

Woodrow’s future is bright, Ison-Newsome says.

Much work needs to be done, she says, but the school is improving.

TAAS scores will go up next year, she says. But the TAAS isn’t the only measure of a student, she says.

“You can’t measure vision on a TAAS test,” Ison-Newsome says. “You can’t measure compassion. You can’t measure integrity.

“Our best commercial is the students we produce. How do you change people’s perceptions? You change the product you produce.”

Falonda is an end product of Woodrow.

She’s a thoughtful, optimistic young woman with a passion for health and fitness and enough smiles to give away.

Her goal, she says, is to become a physical therapist so that she can dedicate her life to helping others overcome obstacles.

She says she always felt supported at Woodrow. Her teachers, athletic coaches and the principal encouraged her, she says. Without them, she says she might not have made it as far as she has.

Time will tell how far she and Woodrow are going.