Its history is as storied as that of any public school in the state – in the country, in fact. During its 82 years, Woodrow Wilson High School in East Dallas has produced Heisman Trophy winners and U.S. congressman, business tycoons and war heroes.
Woodrow’s list of graduates – from racing legend Carroll Shelby to Dallas mover and shaker Jack Evans is especially impressive, given that many of Dallas’ elite traditionally have educated their children in private schools.
Even today, when public education seems to conjure images of drug-pushing and gangs, Woodrow often is cited as the Dallas Independent School District’s star pupil: an example, the district says, of an integrated urban high school that works.
That’s one reason this summer’s Texas Education Association evaluation of Woodrow shocked neighborhood, school and district leaders.
Woodrow, the state agency said, does not work. Its students do not get a high-quality education. The “deficiencies” at Woodrow are of a “serious nature,” according to the report.
The school is “not meeting the academic needs of its students,” the accreditation report said, citing a variety of examples.
Among the biggest problems, according to the report, were Woodrow’s 17 percent dropout rate, and its 84.8 percent attendance rate. The attendance rate is three points lower than the district-wide average for grades 9-12; the dropout rate consistently lagged behind the district-wide high school average for the past several years before reaching the same level for 1989-90 (the last year for which figures are available).
It’s not hard to pinpoint the reasons for those numbers: Woodrow is among DISD’s most culturally diverse schools. (Eleven languages were spoken by its students in 1990-91).
Its Hispanic enrollment percentage is almost double the district average.
More than two-thirds of Woodrow’s ninth-graders are Hispanic, while 45 percent of the 12th graders are Hispanic.
The TEA report said the school does not do an effective job of keeping non-English speaking students in class – a problem compounded, school officials say, by the large number of first-generation Hispanic immigrants attending Woodrow.
“This is a school that has declined somewhat in dealing with its clientele,” says Glenn Linden, a former chairman of the education department at Southern Methodist University. Linden’s son was graduated from Woodrow in 1983.
“But then, it’s not any worse than any of the other schools in the district. It’s hard to isolate Woodrow from the others in the district.”
In fact, many school and district officials think the TEA report was unfair because it singled Woodrow out for problems that exist throughout the district. Many of the programs criticized by the agency – including the English for Speakers of Other Languages classes – share problems with other DISD schools.
Yet Woodrow has shown remarkable resiliency in the past, and other numbers – such as its six National Merit Semifinalists (the Academy Awards of high school education) in 1990 – indicate that success is being achieved.
Then there is principal Robert Giesler, who has vowed to expose the TEA report for the “shabby job” he says it is. Anyone who knows Giesler doesn’t doubt his intentions.
Here’s a look, as the new school year begins, at where Woodrow is headed, as seen from three perspectives: The Principal, The Student and The Teacher.
“Woodrow is almost an icon. It’s sacred to Old East Dallas. A lot of people are willing to hold onto that tradition,” Geisler says.
Concerning Woodrow’s noted cultural plurality (in 1990, students from 11 language groups were among its 1,300 students): “We have to learn how to listen to people of different cultures…This year, we are going to try and make the ninth-graders more comfortable. We’re going to try and become more culturally aware of the nuances.
“We have to overcome the need for the kids to quit school to help support their families…My goal is to give kids the type of education that will help them make choices with their lives.”
On the criticisms in the TEA report: “They did such a shabby job. Large school districts make a real good target…Two of their criticisms (the dropout and attendance rates) were fair. The rest weren’t.”
Concerning how he plans to address the criticisms in the TEA report: “We want to build a community experience. Now, there is a growing sense of community. We want to get the Hispanic leadership in East Dallas to join us.”
Dason Brown, 15, is an exception in the Dallas Independent School District – a white, middle-class student in a district where more than eight of 10 students are not white. Brown is a sophomore this year.
Concerning the perception that Woodrow is another example of how urban education has failed: “It’s all right. It’s not as bad as people say it is. There are some problems, like with gangs, but it’s an OK school.”
Concerning his first few days at Woodrow: “At first, it seemed like a tough school. After the first week, it turned out to be fair. They need to clean up the neighborhoods around the school. That brings in a lot of bad people.”
Concerning the quality of his education: “The teachers are concerned about the students. They treat everybody fairly, and they give everyone the time they need – not just the one percent who are the good persons. And they can be strict.”
Donna Baker has taught in the Dallas Independent School District for 24 years. Her first teaching job, from 1967-70, was at Woodrow Wilson; she returned four years ago after 17 years in other DISD schools.
Baker is vibrant and enthusiastic about the school and about teaching in general. She is married to a teacher; her husband is president of the Classroom Teachers of Dallas.
Baker teaches Latin and world history, and she is the student council sponsor.
Concerning the Texas Education Agency report that criticized Woodrow: “I think they were trying to find something wrong with the school. I think they had a hidden agenda. The report just totally blew my mind. It’s not a bad school at all. I have never understood some of their comments.”
Concerning Woodrow’s ability to educate students: “If you want to know the truth, Woodrow works. It may sound like I’m just saying that because I teach there, but it’s true. There are some problems, and I’ve told Mr. Giesler about them. But it’s a good school.”
Concerning how to make Woodrow a better school: “We’ve had to fight to get the district to let us do what we need to do. Woodrow has the potential to be one of the best schools in the whole country, if they’ll let us. We have some unique advantages in some ways, and they haven’t recognized that.”
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