Now is time to focus on schools, Bush aide says; education adviser returns to Dallas to address chamber

Tuesday, August 28, 2001
Page 20A

Now is time to focus on schools, Bush aide says
Education adviser returns to Dallas to address chamber

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

The education choices being made today will someday be considered as historic as one settler’s decision to build a home on the east bank of the Trinity River, according to the Dallas attorney who has President Bush’s ear.

“This is a John Neely Bryan moment,” said Sandy Kress, the former Dallas school board president who is Mr. Bush’s senior education adviser. “We’re going to be judged years from now on how our schools prepared our children for the future. Previous generations built tall buildings or an airport. We have to make children our buildings of the future.”

Mr. Kress was in town Monday to speak at a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce. He split his time between pitches for the education bill the administration is attempting to move through Congress and a call for continued education reform in Texas.

“Texas can be, with five more years of concentrated work, the first state in the country to have a K-12 system worthy of its children,” he said. “It would be easy to stop now, but we have to keep it going.”

He said the federal education bill would provide greater flexibility for local school districts while increasing accountability. Mr. Bush’s bill includes a public school choice provision allowing parents whose students attend schools considered poor to send them elsewhere.

“These reforms are radical,” he said. “We will finally be able to have reform and have people be accountable for whether it works or not.”

Despite his partisan background – he was once chairman of the Dallas County Democratic Party – he has had a relationship with the Republican Mr. Bush for almost a decade. He recounted a day nine years ago when he asked Mr. Bush for his support in what was shaping up to be a risky re-election bid for the DISD board.

“After he thought about it, he said he’d send out a letter for me,” he said. “In large part because of that, I ended up with no opposition, raised lots of money and won.”

Mr. Kress also had lavish praise for Dallas Superintendent Mike Moses, who he said “is a real leader, which means this is a unique opportunity for the Dallas schools.” Business leaders should back Dr. Moses and get personally involved in the schools by mentoring at-risk children, he said.

Rain falls here, there, but not everywhere

Monday, August 27, 2001
Page 14A

Rain falls here, there, but not everywhere

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

If, as Linus used to say on the funny pages, the rain falls on the just and the unjust, their numbers are pretty unevenly sprinkled across the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

While welcome rains came to North Texas on Sunday, they picked their spots, giving some blocks a pleasant dousing and leaving others stone dry.

“It’s pretty much splattered randomly around,” said Steve McCauley, a meteorologist for WFAA-TV (Channel 8).

The rain came courtesy of the remains of a cool front that slid into the region Sunday. Fort Worth got more precipitation than Dallas, but areas farther north, in Collin and Grayson counties, had occasional thunder and lightning thrown in as well, along with isolated pea-sized hail. Small-scale storms were expected to last through Tuesday in parts of the region, although nothing too severe.

“It’s nothing really nasty, just some people getting some beneficial rain,” said Chad Pettera, a forecaster with WeatherData, Inc., a private forecasting agency in Wichita, Kan.

As of 6:30 p.m., only a trace of rain had fallen at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, but two to three inches had been reported in the Sherman area.

“It almost seems abnormal to see rain after you’ve been blistering for a long time,” said Bill Thornhill, a park ranger at Eisenhower State Park in Denison, where it was raining lightly late Sunday afternoon. “As parched as the plants and grass are, it’s nice to see.

“It’s going to take more than this to change the lake levels, but we’ll take what we can get,” he said.

The rain cooled temperatures about 10 degrees Sunday afternoon. Sunday’s high was 88.

If your area didn’t get rain, just wait. While areas north of Dallas-Fort Worth got most of the attention Sunday, places south of Interstate 20 are more likely to get wet Monday, Mr. McCauley said.

Precipitation could remain in the area through Tuesday, but after that forecasters predict that the region will stay dry until at least Friday.

School tax cap cuts deep; Services suffer as districts approach state’s maximum rate

Sunday, August 26, 2001
Page 1A

School tax cap cuts deep
Services suffer as districts approach state’s maximum rate

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Mary Urquhart walked into Richardson schools’ planetarium as a fourth-grader whose learning disability made simple math maddening. She walked out with a plan for life.

“It was as if a whole universe opened up to me,” she said. “It was all so beautiful and so magical.” After getting a doctorate in astrophysics, Dr. Urquhart now researches Martian hydrothermal systems for NASA.

There will be no Mary Urquharts in Richardson this year.

As part of a districtwide cutback, Richardson ISD closed the planetarium this fall to save money. Officials cited a condition that is becoming more common across Dallas-Fort Worth: More than half the school districts in the area are at or approaching the state-mandated maximum tax rate of $1.50 per $100 of property
valuation for maintenance and operations.

Officials say the state is paying less of the education bill, and some districts are being prevented by law from making up the difference.

Last year, the rates in four districts – DeSoto, Burleson, Crowley and Wills Point – hit $1.50. Not all districts have set their tax rates for the fiscal year starting in September, but at least five more – Highland Park, Allen, Rockwall, Denton and Richardson – are expected to reach $1.50. Others, such as Irving at $1.495 and
Dallas at $1.478, are knocking at the door.

Perhaps most frustrating for districts that are up against the cap: Legislative changes that could help them are probably several years away.

“You have to make some hard choices,” said Daniel Allie, assistant superintendent for finance in Crowley ISD. “If your student population is stagnant and your tax base keeps going up, then you’re in a bind.”

Faced with the pinch, some district leaders say they have no option but to start cutting services. In Richardson, officials eliminated more than 125 jobs and moved some administrators back into the classroom. Then there was the planetarium.

“It’s so disappointing to see something that could influence so many children closed because of a money crunch,” Dr. Urquhart said. “It doesn’t make any sense at all.”

“I understand we need to be fiscally responsible, but this was a terrific learning tool,” said Jim McConnell, who ran the planetarium for years and is now an assistant principal at J.J. Pearce High School.

Painful cuts

Coppell schools, which have a $1.45 tax rate, have eliminated elementary school Spanish classes, asked some parents to pay for their children to ride district buses and cut the middle school orchestra program.

That last cut pained parent Lori Larson. When her family was picking a new school district to call home last year, string sections mattered almost as much as test scores. Her son, Drake, was heading into the sixth grade, and she wanted to encourage his budding viola and bass playing.

They chose Coppell because of its middle school orchestra program, and it was everything they’d hoped. Drake improved rapidly.

“Then it was all taken away,” Ms. Larson said. “He had a complete turnaround in that one year. We could see the development. If we were moving now instead of last year, we definitely wouldn’t be moving here.”

“You expect the best of the best because of the taxes you pay here,” said Coppell parent Cindy White, whose second-grader would be taking Spanish if not for the cuts. “We moved here because of the schools, and I’m sure they’ll still rate very highly, but the extras aren’t going to be there.”

Normally, when school districts need to raise money, they raise property taxes. Homeowners might not like the larger bill, but for schools, it’s one of the few alternatives they have to keep pace with the rising cost of educating children. When rates reach $1.50, however, the option disappears.

Versions of the tax cap date to the 1950s. Back then, reaching the limit must have seemed a distant problem.

“Even back in the early 1980s, when I first started looking at the data, very few districts were even above $1,” said Joe Wisnoski, the Texas Education Agency’s managing director for school finance and fiscal analysis. “Now, because of changes in the state’s economy and the school finance structure, there are very few districts below $1.”

Attempts to equalize

The cap in its current form dates to the 1993 creation of Texas’ current school-financing system, which attempts to equalize the amount of money available to wealthy and poor districts. In essence, the system guarantees that districts will receive a set amount of money for each penny of tax it imposes – whether its property values are high or low. One side effect of the method is that districts don’t benefit from increases in property value.

“The state has relied on increases in property values to equalize the system,” said Lynn Moak, an Austin-based school finance consultant and former deputy state education commissioner who has worked for nearly every district in the Dallas area. “If property values go up in a district, it doesn’t help that district. It just reduces the amount of money the state contributes.”

That, coupled with increasing costs, has resulted in the state paying a lesser share of education costs. In 1985, state revenues covered 52.2 percent of education costs in Texas. By 1999, that had dropped to 45.6 percent.

“The system does not keep up with inflationary pressures automatically,” Mr. Wisnoski said. “If they want to keep up with the increasing cost, districts have to increase their tax efforts.”

During the last three years, the state’s average tax rate moved from $1.296 to $1.384. Over that same period, the number of Texas’ 1,000 districts hitting the $1.50 cap increased from 103 to 188. Last year, an additional 194 districts were at $1.45 or higher, and another 173 were at $1.40 or higher.

The result: Those districts feel squeezed, and they’re looking in different places for relief.

Highland Park is dipping into cash reserves, raising fees for playing sports and seeking money from private donations.

This month, Coppell voters approved a half-cent sales tax aimed at funneling money to local schools without it having to go through the state’s recapture mechanism. Richardson has changed some jobs previously financed by general revenue dollars to pay them through uncapped bond tax revenue. Several districts are pursuing grants and other income sources to support specific projects.

Catherine Clark, program director for research and policy at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas, said she expects districts will find even more creative methods, such as offering businesses tax abatements in exchange for direct payments to schools.

Wealthier districts, such as Richardson and Highland Park, blame the state’s financing system for their predicament. They are among about 100 land-rich districts in Texas that are required to distribute some of their property-tax revenue among poorer districts. In Highland Park, an extreme case, the district’s budget for 2001-02 is $37.1 million, but the district will send $52.5 million to the state.

Poor, moderate wealth

But most of the districts that are up against the $1.50 cap are not among the most property-wealthy. They’re poor or moderate-wealth districts that often have to raise taxes because their smaller tax base generates less revenue. DeSoto ISD, for example, has increased elementary class sizes and reduced teacher pay raises. A district official said the tax rate would need to be about $1.55 to provide the same level of service as two years ago.

“The problem is much closer to universal than just affecting the [property-rich] districts,” Mr. Moak said.

Leaders in Austin have said a newly appointed commission will consider ways to reform the school-finance system, but no change is expected until the 2003 Legislature. Even then, changes are far from certain.

Many of the possible solutions – most notably a state income tax – are sure to be unpopular politically.

Many districts still have one way to raise more money – reduce or eliminate the homestead exemptions they offer taxpayers. But such a move would be a hard sell.

“The law allows you to do it. We should be able to exercise it and shouldn’t be penalized for doing so,” Highland Park school board President Bob Dransfield said.

But in some ways, wealthier districts are in better shape than their poorer counterparts to navigate through the next few years.

“Districts in the metroplex can probably afford to bring in a good financial adviser to help them find a way to get more money,” Dr. Clark said. “But how do you get that good advice if you’re in Ozona, Texas? If your resources are that constrained, you could be in real trouble.”

Staff writers Lee Zethraus, Kristine Hughes, Leif Strickland, Katie Menzer and Michael Tate contributed to this report.

A-Rod can’t buy time at country club

Saturday, August 25, 2001
Page 35A

A-Rod can’t buy time at country club

It might be a common hangout for Dallas’ quarter-of-a-billionaires, but don’t expect to see Alex Rodriguez at the Dallas Country Club.

The Rangers shortstop with the $252 million contract said he inquired about joining the exclusive club because he lives nearby, but he changed his mind after finding out how difficult it is to get in.

“Right now, I’m not really interested in doing it,” he said Friday.

The New York Post’s Page Six gossip column reported Friday that Mr. Rodriguez had “struck out” in his attempt to gain membership. The tabloid quoted a club member who said the process could mean a two- or three-year delay, even for A-Rod.

In that case, says Mr. Rodriguez, he’ll take a pass.

— Joshua Benton and Gerry Fraley

Sparing the rod: A survey

Tuesday, August 21, 2001
Page 15A

Sparing the rod: A survey

Houston schools opened Monday with a new directive: no more paddling.

The school board voted to ban corporal punishment, and teachers are learning classroom management skills to discipline students and build, rather than tear down, self-esteem.

“I don’t like beating kids,” Superintendent Kaye Stripling said. “We are a sophisticated society that can learn ways to discipline children other than hitting them.”

Twenty-seven states forbid corporal punishment. Texas leaves the decision up to local districts. Here is a roundup of policies in school districts across the region, compiled by Dallas Morning News staff writers:

YES

Dallas: Corporal punishment is allowed in Dallas as long as it is “reasonable and moderate and may not be administered maliciously or for the purpose of revenge,” according to school board policy. “Everything really comes down to a decision of the principal and how they choose to discipline a student,” said spokeswoman Loretta Simon. — Joshua Benton in Dallas

Plano: District policy permits spanking by principals, assistant principals or teachers, but it is rarely used, said Carole Greisdorf, a special assistant to the superintendent. “Essentially, it’s a nonissue for us because we don’t do it, but the ability to do it is in our policy,” she said. The guidelines require administrators to inform parents of the punishment before it takes place. Parents can also submit written requests instructing the district not to use corporal punishment on their children. — Katie Menzer in Plano

East Texas: The Tyler Independent School District allows corporal punishment – and some parents even request it, said Gerald Barnes, an assistant superintendent. Parents are notified before a student is paddled, or parents can file requests with principals forbidding it for their children. But few parents have filed such written objections, he said. “Many times we’ve had people request corporal punishment, thinking they’d rather have that as an easy way out, a
quick way to accomplish the discipline method.” — Lee Hancock in Tyler

NO

Austin: Austin has not allowed corporal punishment for several years, said spokeswoman Nicole Wright. — Terrence Stutz in Austin

San Antonio: It bars any form of corporal punishment. “The district has long felt that physical punishment isn’t a beneficial way to deal with student disciplinary needs,” said Carmen Vasquez-Gonzalez, communications director. — David McLemore in San Antonio

Oklahoma City: The school district banned all paddling in 1989. “They just believe that corporal punishment is not an effective educational tool,” said spokesman Todd Stogner. — Arnold Hamilton in Oklahoma City

El Paso: El Paso schools outlawed it a decade ago, along with other forms of physical discipline, such as running laps, because of legal threats and a consensus that “corporal punishment has never improved behavior,” said spokesman Luis Villalobos. “There has to be more one-on-one communication between a school and parent whenever there is a behavior problem that could in the past be resolved with corporal punishment.” — Diane Jennings in Dallas

Richardson: The district banned corporal punishment in the mid-1980s because of the “belief that other disciplinary actions are more appropriate,” said spokeswoman Jeanne Guerra. She said student or parent conferences, or peer mediation, are encouraged instead. Some Richardson schools order detention or demerits for student rule-breakers. — Lesley Tellez in Richardson

Giving freshmen a peace of mind; N. Texas leads way in separate schools for crucial 9th-grade year

Sunday, August 19, 2001
Page 1A

Giving freshmen a peace of mind
N. Texas leads way in separate schools for crucial 9th-grade year

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

When they arrive for the first day of school, high school freshmen are worried about finding their lockers, navigating the cafeteria and not getting lost on the way to algebra.

They probably don’t realize that it may be the most important time of their academic lives.

Research has long shown that academic habits, good or bad, are forged in the first few weeks of ninth grade. Previously solid students can lose their way; weaker students can move from “at-risk” to “dropout” with alarming speed.

North Texas is at the forefront of a national trend school leaders think will make the transition to high school smoother: special schools for freshmen only.

Nearly one in five Texas freshmen has to repeat the year. That’s true in suburban districts, including Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Cedar Hill and Denton.

In districts such as Dallas, more than one in three flunk the freshman year, a scary ratio considering research that shows students who repeat a grade are much more likely than their peers to drop out.

Six Dallas-area districts have ninth-grade-only schools, and more are likely to appear in the coming years. Texas Construction magazine recently cited the freshman school trend as one of the biggest reasons the state’s builders are expected to keep busy during the next few years.

“Ninth-graders are starting to get all the serious questions, about what they want to be when they grow up, their college plans,” said C. Jay Hertzog, dean of education at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and a researcher of the high school transition. “And there are all kinds of hormonal changes going on. They need some sort of a security blanket to get through that.”

Students and educators say the freshman campus concept can give ninth-graders the attention they need to succeed.

“I think it’s really cool we don’t have to be around a bunch of younger kids,” said Josh Balthrop, who started ninth grade at DeSoto High School’s freshmen-only campus last week. “And we don’t have to be around a bunch of older kids who intimidate us. It’s just us.”

A recent study of the Philadelphia school system – which has a ninth-grade failure rate almost identical to Dallas’ – showed how quickly academic habits can drop at the start of freshman year. For example, the study found that 17 percent of ninth-graders missed at least 10 of the first 30 days of school, up from only 4.7 percent among eighth-graders.

In Texas, 18.8 percent of ninth-graders have to repeat the grade. In contrast, 2.3 percent of eighth-graders and 7.8 percent of 10th-graders repeat.

New dropout data reported last week by the Texas Education Agency found that 7,630 ninth-graders dropped out last year, by far the highest total for any grade. Second-highest was 12th grade, with 4,660 dropouts.

In response to the potential problems of ninth grade, some school districts have decided to isolate freshmen in their own school. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Allen, DeSoto, Duncanville, Lewisville, Richardson and Rockwall have ninth-grade-only campuses, and Waxahachie is adding one next year. Most have opened in the last few years.

In 1992, there were only 35 ninth-grade-only schools in the United States, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. By 1999, there were 74, with Texas having the most. The state says there were 16 such schools in Texas last year.

Part of the reason Dallas-area districts have been at the forefront of the trend is that ninth-grade campuses also help solve a common problem for suburban districts: crowding caused by rapid growth.

When a high school gets too big, districts have several options. All of them pose problems, from dividing neighborhoods to splitting up winning football programs. Ninth-grade centers can be a stopgap. Pulling freshmen into their own school and leaving the high school for the top three grades can relieve pressure and let districts put off tough choices.

“This is really a five- or 10-year solution,” said Candace Ahlfinger, spokeswoman for the Waxahachie schools. “There was a desire not to divide us into a two-high-school town. The town comes out for events at the high school, and it unites the community.”

She said that if growth continues, the district could expand the ninth-grade center to house sophomores. Aside from more practical concerns, proponents say a ninth-grade campus gives freshmen opportunities to be campus leaders and reduces the chance that they will feel lost in a large school.

“I’ve been in education for 30 years, mostly at four-year high schools,” said Jim Yakubovsky, principal of DeSoto High School’s freshman campus. “And you really notice how much a freshman matures from August to May, physically, emotionally, socially. Separating them out gives these kids a chance to mature.”

Jana Vick, a teacher at DeSoto’s ninth-grade campus, said she prefers separating freshmen. Her three children attended DeSoto High School, and one is still there.

“Dropping a freshman boy off at a school with all those seniors and juniors and sophomores can be a little uncomfortable,” she said. “It’s easy for your kid to get intimidated by the older kids.”

In DeSoto, as at some other schools, freshmen who don’t get enough credits to become sophomores go ahead to the 10th-to-12th-grade campus, where they take the freshman-level classes they need to advance. That keeps repeating freshmen from passing their poor academic habits on to the next class of ninth-graders.

Steve Payne, principal of the Lowery Freshman Center in Allen, said the school was created in response to concerns about a higher-than-desired failure rate in the ninth grade. “We thought that once kids get through freshman and sophomore year, they can get all the way through,” he said.

He said that, since the freshman center opened in 1999, ninth-grade scores on end-of-course exams have gone up substantially. Two-thirds of freshmen are involved in extracurricular activities.

“The kids really come together as a class when they’re here,” he said.

But not everyone is as enamored by the concept. Northwest ISD opened a ninth-grade campus that was attached to the high school in 1992. In 1999, the district moved freshmen back into the main high school.

“We found that when you have [grades] nine to 12 in one building, it lets your teachers better plan with each other and coordinate what students need to learn each year to advance to the next class,” said Donna Criswell, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction.

Officials also found that a large number of freshmen wanted to take classes that were offered only on the senior campus, forcing them to move between the two buildings during the day.

Northwest High School Principal Jim Chadwell said it was harder to create a unified sense of school spirit.

“With a quality nine-12 center, when students drive up to the building they feel like this is their place,” he said.

But he cautioned that without a special campus, it has become even more important to focus special attention on newcomers. He said the ninth-grade campus has been replaced with counseling and advising programs.

Rockwall officials also expect to eliminate their freshman center, opened in 1999, when the district opens its second high school in 2005.

While school leaders differ on how best to serve ninth-graders, there seems to be near unanimity that freshmen need attention and assistance to survive the high school transition.

“Some teachers think it’s babying to worry about the ninth-graders too much,” Dr. Hertzog said. “But they need to ask: Do you want these kids to graduate or not? If you don’t, keep doing things the way you’re doing them. If you do, you’ve got to make sure kids at this stage get all the help they need.”

Ratings improve for area schools; DISD reduces low performers; Highland Park, Carroll, Sunnyvale earn exemplary ratings

Friday, August 17, 2001
Page 1A

Ratings improve for area schools
DISD reduces low performers
Highland Park, Carroll, Sunnyvale earn exemplary ratings

By Terrence Stutz and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

Buoyed by higher test scores, Dallas-Fort Worth area schools climbed higher up the state’s accountability charts, according to the Texas Education Agency’s annual report card.

With improvements in urban schools and continuing solid performances in the suburbs, the number of low-performing campuses in 54 area districts dropped from 45 to 17. The number rated by the state as exemplary increased from 256 to 277.

The gains were similar to those across the state. Texas education chief Jim Nelson said Thursday that a record number of districts and campuses achieved one of the top two performance ratings this year, and only one district – Hearne in Central Texas – was found to be academically unacceptable.

There were disturbing trends in the state’s charter school program, however, as more than half of those campuses received poor ratings, largely because of low student test scores.

In the D-FW area, three districts – Carroll, Highland Park and Sunnyvale – were rated exemplary, down from five last year. An additional 29 were rated recognized. Twenty-two were rated acceptable, and none was labeled low-performing.

DISD had 11 low-performing schools, the most of any district in the state. But that total was still a sharp improvement from 28 schools last year.

Three of the five area districts rated exemplary last year – Coppell, Forney and Grapevine-Colleyville – lost the title and were dropped to recognized. Only Highland Park, which was dropped to recognized because of a data-entry error last year, made the reverse move and became exemplary.

Mr. Nelson said that for the first time this year, a majority of students – 54 percent – are enrolled in schools that received an exemplary or recognized rating. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, 45 percent of students are in highly rated districts.

“This is an outstanding performance for the state as a whole,” Mr. Nelson said. “Texas schools are making headway.

“But we can’t stop now. Schools must continue to improve performance levels in order to prepare students for the upcoming Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.” TAKS is the new state test that will be introduced in the 2002-03 school year, replacing TAAS.

The commissioner also said he has asked his staff to take a closer look at the large number of charter schools that have been hit with low performance ratings. Of 161 charter schools that were evaluated this year, 84 got low ratings.

The Fort Worth ISD had good news. Its number of exemplary schools increased from six to 10. And, for the first time, it had no low-performing schools.

Superintendent Thomas Tocco said district officials focused on improving reading and bilingual education.

“When I first started here, I was appalled that many of our students were not reading by grade three,” Dr. Tocco said. “Now we’re building a base for these children in elementary school that they should carry with them into the secondary grades. The bar continues to rise.”

Six other area districts – Arlington, Denton, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw, Grand Prairie, Hurst-Euless-Bedford and Wilmer-Hutchins – had one low-performing school each.

Among the highlights of this year’s school performance ratings:

*A total of 178 districts and 1,567 schools earned exemplary ratings.
*An additional 463 districts and 2,326 campuses received recognized ratings.
*Acceptable ratings went to 398 districts and 2,476 schools.
*Statewide, 106 campuses were rated low-performing, 40 fewer than a year ago.
*Eight schools were singled out for special recognition because they have earned exemplary ratings for nine straight years. Five of those are in the Dallas area, including the School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas, Mohawk Elementary School in Richardson and three elementary schools in Highland Park ISD – Armstrong, Hyer and University Park.

The dropout rate standard was tougher than last year, but the passing rate standard on the TAAS was the same.

Mr. Nelson said a decision was made not to increase the passing standard this year, unlike in previous years, because districts were subjected to other new criteria such as the lower acceptable dropout rate.

Next year, schools and districts will have to have a minimum passing rate of 55 percent on the TAAS and a dropout rate of 5 percent or less to get an acceptable rating.

When calculating its ratings, the Texas Education Agency requires districts to meet overall standards for its total student population and for four subgroups: whites, blacks, Hispanics and economically disadvantaged students. But until this year, most districts did not have a subgroup’s performance held against them if there were fewer than 200 students in the group.

This year, that ceiling was lowered to only 50 students, and several districts were measured by the performance of their subgroups for the first time.

Rockwall schools, which dropped from recognized to acceptable, put the blame on their drop on the new subgroups rule. In previous years, the passing rates of black and poor students on all tests and the passing rate of Hispanic students on the writing test had not been considered separately.

“We are not considering this a huge disaster,” said Deborah Smothermon, an assistant superintendent in Rockwall. “We were aware of the criteria change and that it might affect the rating.”

The Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district saw its academic ranking downgraded from recognized to acceptable because a single student at the district’s alternative education campus failed the writing TAAS. That failure lowered the school’s rating to low performing because he or she was the only student in the school who took the writing TAAS.

No district with a low-performing school can be rated above “acceptable,” and H-E-B lost its recognized title.

But the rating might be reversed on appeal by the school district. A TEA spokeswoman said the district stands a good chance of winning the appeal because it appeared that the inclusion of the alternative school’s scores was a mistake.

Regarding the low ratings for so many charter schools, Mr. Nelson and other education officials pointed to a new law that will beef up state oversight of those schools, beginning Sept. 1. The law also caps the number of charter schools at 215.

Charter schools are publicly financed and operate independently of the school districts where they are. They are not bound by many of the state regulations that apply to public schools, such as class size limits and minimum teacher requirements.

Staff writers Laurie Fox, Jeff Mosier and Jennifer Packer contributed to this report.

State’s dropout rate continues to fall, but data controversial; Critics say accounting system is flawed, problem much worse

Friday, August 17, 2001
Page 25A

State’s dropout rate continues to fall, but data controversial
Critics say accounting system is flawed, problem much worse

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

The Texas Education Agency reported Thursday that the state’s annual dropout rate had declined from 1.6 percent to 1.3 percent in the last year, continuing a decade-long trend.

But critics of the state’s dropout accounting method said the latest numbers don’t represent reality and grossly underestimate the size of the state’s dropout problem.

The annual rate – the measure used in calculating the accountability ratings for each district and school – has dropped steadily since 1987-88, when the official rate was 6.7 percent.

“Districts are obviously doing a better job keeping students in school,” said Jim Nelson, the state’s education commissioner. “Despite the stepped-up efforts to both keep students in school and bring dropouts back to school, our dropout rate remains too high. We must continue to push for improved academic performance and reduced dropout rates.”

“I’m sure the TEA and the districts are doing the absolute best they can to track dropouts, but this is fantasyland,” said Patricia Duttweiler, assistant director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University.

Some sources have estimated higher rates. A study conducted for The Dallas Morning News by the nonprofit educational research group Just for the Kids in May found that 20 percent of students who entered Texas public high schools in 1994 had not graduated by 1999. Other groups put the number even higher.

The TEA has acknowledged some shortcomings in its methods and is moving toward a variety of improvements during the next few years.

For example, Mr. Nelson has said the state will begin using a four-year high school completion rate in its accountability system in a few years.

Dr. Duttweiler took issue with several subsets of TEA’s dropout data.

The state reports an annual dropout rate among Hispanics of only 1.9 percent; she and other researchers say it is much higher than that. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 28.6 percent of Hispanics between ages 16 and 24 not enrolled in school lack a high school diploma.

For the second consecutive year, Dallas schools had a lower dropout rate than the state as a whole – something that runs counter to what researchers would expect an accurate rate to find. Dallas students are 92 percent minority and 73 percent economically disadvantaged, and 33 percent have limited English skills – all factors that tend to increase dropout rates, not reduce them.

Last year, Dallas schools enrolled 14,421 ninth-graders but only 5,941 12th-graders. Much of that gap is caused by students dropping out over the course of high school. But the Dallas Independent School District’s new annual dropout rate is just 1.2 percent.

“There’s no way a district with those disadvantages and those horrendous barriers would have a rate that low,” Dr. Duttweiler said.

DISD Superintendent Mike Moses, a former state education commissioner, said DISD had a more accurate handle on the size of the problem.

“Our [four-year] dropout rate is closer to 31 or 32 percent,” he said. “Our dropout rate is just too high.”

This year, as part of an effort to hold districts to a higher standard, the TEA toughened the dropout-rate requirements for acceptable, recognized and exemplary ratings. For example, a high school needed a 6 percent or lower annual dropout rate last year to be rated acceptable; this year, it needed a 5.5 percent rate.

$1.5 billion is a lotta loot for most folks

Monday, August 13, 2001
Page 15A

$1.5 billion is a lotta loot for most folks

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has put a tentative price tag on his dream stadium complex: up to $1.5 billion. What else would that amount buy?

– Three current sports champions – the Baltimore Ravens, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers – with enough left to pay Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez for a year.

– An end to traffic: 287 bus rides for each of the 5.2 million people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

– Four years at a Texas state university for 101,000 children.

– Every house on Mockingbird Lane in Highland Park – 20 times over.

– Twenty Santiago Calatrava-designed bridges over the Trinity River.

– Roughly all the facilities improvements needed in Dallas schools.

– 292,000 face-lifts.

— Joshua Benton