New Year’s planners want Dallas to party like it’s 2000

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 29A

Note to North Texans: You don’t need a nice, round number like 2000 to have an excuse to party on New Year’s Eve.

While 2001 might not have the same “wow” factor as last year’s Y2K Night, organizers of Sunday night’s downtown bash hope they can turn a one-year splash into an annual tradition.

“Other cities have enjoyed this sort of celebration for a long time, but for whatever reason, we haven’t established anything like this in Dallas,” said Brandt Wood, the executive producer of Dallas 2001.

“We’re hoping that this can be the start of a long tradition.”

Last year, Dallas entered 2000 with a big party downtown, centered on the relighting of Pegasus, the red neon horse atop the Magnolia Hotel that had not glowed since 1997. About 45,000 people attended last year, and organizers are hoping for a similar turnout Sunday.

But, Mr. Wood acknowledged, it’s a challenge to get people as excited about ringing in 2001 as they were about 2000.

“Last year, with all the Y2K hype and the millennium, we could just ride the marketing wave,” said Mr. Wood, who is also president and co-owner of Entertainment Collaborative, the private company that is putting on the show.

“This year, we really have to create the campaign to get people excited.”

There’s one other major difference. Unlike at last year’s event, which was free for all but the few who wanted access to a VIP tent, entrance to Dallas 2001 will require a $5 ticket (on sale through Ticketmaster, and Sunday at the party). Ticket holders will be eligible for discounts and deals over the weekend at several downtown and Deep Ellum restaurants and businesses.

Mr. Wood said the admission fee was necessary. Dallas 2001 will cost more than $1 million to put on, and, “You can’t finance an event like this every year on sponsors alone,” he said.

He refused to say how many tickets had been sold.

The party, which starts at 6 p.m., will take place between Ervay, Commerce, Elm and Lamar streets. Main Street will be turned into a pedestrian walkway until the party shuts down at 1 a.m.

In an attempt to appeal broadly to North Texans, Dallas 2001 will feature musical styles ranging from neo-traditionalist country (Eleven Hundred Springs) to Latin pop (Marlissa Vela), from cutting-edge polka (Brave Combo) to boy-band pop (Sons of Harmony).

Bluesman Lucky Peterson will get the prized slot just before and after midnight, but at the moment itself, local guitarist Lance Lopez will take the stage for a Jimi Hendrix-inspired rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” backed by fireworks – moved from last year’s location for better visibility – and a light show.

Mr. Wood said he was surprised by the number of families who attended last year. As a result, he said, Sunday night would feature more fun for children, including a repeat performance by children’s singer Eddie Coker.

If ticket sales are strong enough, some of the proceeds will benefit Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, he said.

Dallas 2001 isn’t the area’s only major event planned for the moment the calendar turns – in Fort Worth, brave souls will start the year with a five-mile run – but anyone out that night will likely have to deal with frigid weather.

Forecasters predict temperatures below freezing when the fireworks go off Sunday night. That’s colder than many Texans have historically been willing to stand at an outdoor event.

“In places like New York City or Boston, these events are so ingrained in the fabric of life that people regularly brave zero-degree temperatures,” Mr. Wood said.

But will it fly deep in the Sun Belt?

“We just hope people dress warm,” he said.

Trade secrets: College teaches ins and outs of international business

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 28A

The next time you chow down on Tahitian breadfruit or enjoy a glass of Tibetan yak butter tea, think about the people who helped bring it to your table – the business people who managed to wade through the thicket of international tariffs and troubles to deliver it to North Texas.

It’s not an easy job, and Richland College is busy training some of the men and women who do it.

“We help people get the skills and information they need to be successful,” program coordinator Pat Joiner said.

Richland’s International Business and Trade program, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year, doesn’t take the more academic approach some business schools do.

Instead, it focuses on preparing students for the nitty-gritty, day-to-day work of importing and exporting. State officials have used the Richland program as a model for similar programs across the state, Ms. Joiner said.

“It’s applied, as opposed to theoretical,” she said. “Getting goods into the United States, getting goods out of the United States.”

The Dallas-Fort Worth area is home to more than 1,500 international companies, and 85 percent of jobs in Texas are related to international trade, Ms. Joiner said.

Lowered trade barriers worldwide could boost those numbers, and as international trade’s share of the North Texas economy grows, the people who do the trading will need to learn the nuances of shipping, customs, insurance and other regulatory matters. Programs such as Richland’s are among the few opportunities to learn the ropes.

“There’s hardly any way to acquire that knowledge other than systematically covering it in a class,” Ms. Joiner said.

Students have several tracks from which to choose, from a quick certificate program that can be completed in less than a year to an associate’s degree program. Most classes are conducted in the evening and cost $84. For those seeking a quick introduction to issues of international trade, weekend “fast track” classes are available.

The international focus of the program has attracted a diverse student body.

“The majority of our students were born in a foreign country,” Ms. Joiner said.

Students from East Asia, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union make up large parts of the student population.

Foreign business people also have been attracted to the program.

“We have a group of about 20 Chinese businessmen coming in the spring to take English-as-a-second-language courses along with a curriculum in business,” she said.

Starting in the spring 2002 semester, the college will expand its offerings to include programs in global e-commerce and international market research.

District blames clerk error for discipline undercount; Lancaster officials say they’ll correct problem

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 31A

The Lancaster school district underreported the number of students it disciplined last year to the Texas Education Agency because of clerical errors, Superintendent Billy Ward said Tuesday.

“We certainly were not trying to hide anything or misrepresent anything,” he said. “We will fix the problem.”

The discrepancy was discovered when officials from the TEA were investigating complaints of racial bias in the district’s handling of disciplinary problems, Dr. Ward said.

In September, two students came to school with shotguns in their vehicles and were suspended for five days. Some community members and a district trustee said that because the students are white and one is the son of a school board member, the suspensions were shorter than they should have been.

The TEA investigation concluded that district policies were not followed in determining the length of the student suspensions, though it did not find evidence of racial discrimination. The Lancaster board is appealing the findings.

Dr. Ward said expulsions came up during the review.

TEA officials “asked me how many students we had expelled, and they said we had reported a different number,” Dr. Ward said.

School districts are required to report any student suspension or expulsion to the TEA. Agency records indicated that fewer than five students were reported suspended or expelled by the district in the 1999-2000 school year. The district reported 21 for the 1998-99 school year.

Dr. Ward said the number for last year should have been about 30.

“We had a new attendance clerk who was miscoding expelled students” when they were reported to the TEA, he said, making it appear the students had been sent to a district alternative center.

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said the district will soon receive a letter outlining the agency’s concerns about the reporting of disciplinary problems.

“We need to be able to trust the accuracy of that data,” she said.

Survey finds D-FW among more-educated metro areas; Though some groups lag, local rates outpace U.S. average

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 25A

Dallas-Fort Worth residents are more likely than most across the country to hold a college degree, according to a new Census Bureau study that found Americans more educated than ever.

The study released Tuesday, an annual report on education attainment in the United States, also found the area among the nation’s leaders in the percentage of blacks with a high school diploma or its equivalent. Nationally and locally, Hispanics lagged; only 54 percent of adults in the area have at least a high school education, the bureau said.

The Census Bureau results were gathered in a national survey of about 50,000 households conducted each March.

This year’s study found about 30.7 percent of area residents have a bachelor’s degree or better, compared with 25.6 percent nationwide.

About 84 percent of American adults age 25 or older had at least a high school diploma. The Dallas-Fort Worth area had 85.6 percent – seventh-best among the nation’s 15 largest metropolitan areas.

Only 57 percent of Hispanics nationwide have a high school diploma, and barely 10 percent have a bachelor’s degree or better.

“It’s a national disgrace,” said Adelfa Callejo, a Dallas attorney and longtime community activist. “Too many children drop out of school because they don’t have role models to show them how important an education is.”

Among cities in the nation’s southern half, only Atlanta fared better than Dallas in high school completion, finishing second with 89 percent. Houston finished 14th at 79.1 percent.

Five of the 15 largest metro areas – San Francisco, Washington, Boston, New York and Atlanta – had a higher percentage of college graduates than Dallas-Fort Worth.

Breaking the numbers down to small subgroups in the population shows mixed results. Blacks scored well: 89.5 percent had a high school education, first among the 15 metropolitan areas.

The metro area also finished fourth among non-Hispanic whites, 91.9 percent of whom had completed high school.

But census officials and statisticians cautioned that, just like presidential polls, the survey results are imperfect and should be taken with a grain of salt, particularly when dealing with racial subgroups within the metro area.

Steve Murdock, director of the Texas State Data Center at Texas A&M University, said only about 140 metro-area blacks were interviewed in the March 2000 survey. Because of the small sample, that part of the survey has an error margin of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

Lowering Dallas’ percentage by 4.1 points would drop it all the way from first to fifth place among metro areas.

“When you get down to that small a sample, the data are being stretched beyond their usefulness,” Dr. Murdock said.

Businesses looking to locate a business in a major city often use such reports to see how educated a potential workforce would be.

If a city gains more skilled jobs requiring advanced education, people who move to the city to take those jobs can boost the education level of the entire area.

“I think when you look at those top cities in the report, you see places with strong university systems and strong job markets,” said Patti Clapp, vice president for education, leadership and workforce development at the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce. “The economic base that’s being built in Dallas is helping to assure us that we are moving toward having more people with degrees and more high-tech and highly skilled jobs.”

Bugging out: Exterminator faces 1,000 roaches for ‘Ripley’s’ stunt job

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 41A

The worst part was when the roaches got into his pants.

“No mas! No mas!” yelled Plano exterminator Michael Bohdan, dancing an impromptu jig as a few of the little buggers scampered below his belt. “They squeeze in anywhere they can!”

Mr. Bohdan wasn’t complaining about a job site gone wrong. A few minutes earlier, he had spent about five minutes in a Plexiglas “coffin” with about 1,000 cockroaches. He had not lost a bet or been convicted of a crime. He did this of his own free will.

The stunt was videotaped at the West End MarketPlace for a future episode of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!

“I don’t know why I agreed to this,” he admitted. “That was the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had.”

Mr. Bohdan, 53, is already North Texas’ reigning cockroach king, having achieved no small degree of fame through talk show appearances and his pest-control book, What’s Buggin’ You? When Ripley’s representatives contacted him several months ago about doing something for their TV show, they quickly settled on the coffin idea as sufficiently freaky.

Shortly after noon Friday, a crowd gathered at the West End. Mr. Bohdan reclined in the coffin, with its sides coated with Vaseline to discourage any roaches from escaping. Then, one by one, four containers of American roaches (Periplaneta americana) were emptied onto his stomach to a chorus of disgusted noises from the audience.

The bugs crept all over his body, occasionally becoming airborne, but they seemed to focus their 6,000 legs most intently on his face. “They were getting to my nose, my eyes – it wasn’t great,” he said.

By the time he crawled out of the coffin – coated in enough roach detritus to discourage anyone from shaking his hand – a relieved Mr. Bohdan was questioning his decision to perform the stunt.

“I don’t think I’ll ever do this again,” he said. “This was the first and last time.” The “musty, rotten smell” of the roaches had been more overpowering than he had expected.

But he said he had accomplished his twin goals: teaching people that insects aren’t really all that scary and allowing people to escape life’s stresses, if only for a few minutes.

“Nobody out there was thinking about the election mess in Florida or anything else,” he said. “They were just watching me and the roaches.”

Reaction from the crowd of about 250 people was swift and unanimous: Mr. Bohdan is crazy.

“That’s pretty gross, man,” said Mike Song, 21, who had been planning to grab lunch at a West End restaurant. After seeing the roachfest, “I’m not all that hungry anymore. I’ve got to work this out of my system before I eat again.”

“That man’s absolutely crazy,” said Daniel Runser, a 23-year-old Swiss tourist making his first visit to Dallas. Did witnessing the roach burial affect his opinion of Americans?

“No, I knew already that there are a lot of crazy people here.”

Take out your Bibles: Teacher keeps Constitution in mind in lectures to public school students

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 37A

DUNCANVILLE — At first glance, it looks like any current events class, from wall maps of the world’s hot spots to the newspaper the teacher is reading out loud. Today’s topic: the latest clash in the Middle East, the battle between Israelis and Palestinians over control of the Gaza Strip.

But when teacher Wendell McHargue asks students to open their textbook – “OK, everybody open up your Bibles” – it becomes clear something here is different.

Mr. McHargue, a retired pastor and former Bible college professor, teaches Bible studies at Duncanville High School. Although the Texas Education Agency doesn’t keep track, one expert estimates as many as 200 Texas schools offer such a class.

At a time when the nexus of religion and public education is contested ground, the classes are at the center of a growing debate.

Experts say Bible classes, allowed under constitutional guidelines set out by the Supreme Court, are becoming increasingly common. But their detractors – and even some supporters – worry that not all instructors are as good as Mr. McHargue at avoiding illegal territory.

“Unfortunately, many school districts jump into this without proper preparation,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar for religious freedom at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., who estimates that a majority of such classes nationwide do not pass constitutional muster. “It’s a growing point of tension, unfortunately.”

Predictable lines

On the extremes, predictable lines have been drawn: religious stalwarts who want the Bible taught as literal religious doctrine opposite those who think that any mention of religion breaches the separation of church and state. Stuck in the middle are people like Mr. McHargue, who strive for a way to provide students a valuable educational element while walking the line required by the U.S. Constitution.

“The major goal is giving the children the knowledge,” he said. “Theological perspectives belong in the seminary.”

Courts have held repeatedly that the First Amendment limits a school’s ability to offer religious instruction. But under current court doctrine, Bible study classes are permitted if they treat the Bible as a historical or literary document and don’t examine it from the perspective of a single religion.

In Duncanville, Mr. McHargue said he was surprised at the lack of Bible knowledge among some students.

“There are a number of children who are not knowledgeable about the Bible at all,” he said. “We may take it for granted that they know who Job is, or they know who Elijah is. But a lot of them don’t.”

During one recent class, Mr. McHargue showed video from a recent trip he took to Israel. “I want you to see how quiet and tranquil things were in Jerusalem,” he said, contrasting the silence in the video with the images of rock-throwing on the front page of that day’s newspaper. Much of the day’s class focuses on the background that led to the current Palestinian conflict. But he also makes reference to the scriptural passages that both sides use to justify their causes.

Throughout the class, he is careful not to take a religious stance, referring to Bethlehem as “the alleged place of Christ’s birth” and bringing out a copy of the Koran to discuss Islam.

While he comes from a religious background – he was also a Baptist missionary pastor for a time – Mr. McHargue said it has not been difficult to tow the constitutional line.

“I made it clear at the start of class that this is not a theology class and that there were going to be no theological debates taking place, or even theological discussion,” he said.

His students seem to understand. “My teacher’s pretty good at not trying to impose any sort of religious thing on you,” said junior Michelle Provencher. “He just gives the facts.”

At least one other area district, Mesquite ISD, also offers a Bible studies class. The district allows local churches to offer their own Bible studies classes, taught on church grounds by church pastors using a church-generated curriculum. Students receive academic credit for taking the course.

This year, only one group, Life Community Church, is offering such a class. Youth Pastor Alan Baker runs the class of six students, all members of the church, who meet one night a week.

Mr. Baker said he started the class last year when a student needed one credit to graduate early. “It was nice to be able to help him out,” he said.

No complaints

Mr. Baker said he has not received any complaints about his for-credit religious class, adding, “I don’t know that many people know about it.”

He said he wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for Mesquite ISD to be offering academic credit for the class. “If they decided to end it, I would understand. I think they would have reasonable grounds. I have no expectations for the public schools to support Christianity whatsoever. But for now, it’s an opportunity I have to offer my kids.”

According to Glenda Heil, Mesquite ISD’s administrative officer for curriculum, the district provides relatively little oversight of the off-campus Bible classes. Pastors must submit an outline of what they plan to teach at the start of each semester to ensure it is not sectarian, and district officials must see the final exams after students take them. Otherwise, she said, pastors are essentially on their own.

If a non-Christian church applied to sponsor such a class, the district would evaluate it “on a case-by-case basis,” Ms. Heil said. She said current district rules might not allow such a class because instructors are required to cover the Old and New Testaments.

That distinction fires up groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. “That’s clearly unconstitutional,” said William Clark Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU. “All the case law says that no state agency can select one religion over another or seemingly endorse one religion over another. That’s a patent violation.”

Dr. Haynes has been speaking out about the importance of Bible education for more than a decade. “I think it’s hard to dispute that no other book has played a greater role in shaping our civilization than the Bible,” he said.

But Dr. Haynes is also very conscious of constitutional limits. He has spent years attempting to find a middle ground that religious groups and constitutional scholars could agree on.

Guide for schools

Last year, his group and the National Bible Association co-published a guide for schools that want to know how they can teach about religion. The guide advocates a neutral tone, respect for various Christian and non-Christian traditions, and allowing student religious expression.

An array of religious and nonreligious organizations endorsed the guide, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Congress, the Council on Islamic Education and the People for the American Way Foundation. A set of lesson plans deemed constitutionally appropriate is planned for a spring release, said Thomas May, president of the National Bible Association.

“Teachers don’t have a model for teaching about the Bible,” Dr. Haynes said. “They have a model for teaching the Bible. They try to be objective, but they haven’t been trained.” Outside a few seminars, opportunities for teacher training are rare.

Dr. Haynes said teachers often stray by presenting the Bible as literal history. In Mesquite, for example, Mr. Baker said his class recently learned about “world migration patterns” outlined in Genesis. He said students were taught that Europeans, Africans and Semitic peoples all descended from the three sons of Noah after the flood, and that each group had its own racial characteristics, such as philosophical thought for Europeans and skill at hunting and conquering for Africans.

Dr. Haynes said the Mesquite program wouldn’t pass muster. “That’s not a close call,” he said. “That violates all the principles.Even if the course were academically approved, the fact that it’s held in a church, outside the regular school program, it seems to me, would still make it unconstitutional.”

Mr. McHargue in Duncanville said he covered the same passage in Genesis in just a few minutes. “We simply made reference to it, and that was that – no discussion, no controversy. I didn’t think that was probably appropriate to get too far into.”

Some prominent religious leaders think Dr. Haynes is wasting his time, that any attempts to please the twin gods of the Constitution and religious groups are doomed to fail. “What we’re talking about is trying to teach the Bible merely as literature or merely as history,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “That’s not being neutral to people of faith.”

Despite such concerns, Dr. Haynes remains doggedly optimistic that a compromise is possible.

“I think we’ve crossed the biggest hurdle,” he said. “We can’t give up on a good education because it’s difficult and emotional. Would we say, ‘It’s hard to teach math, so let’s get rid of it?’ It’s just a matter of doing it right.”