Last stop, Nicaragua: Countries snap up American school buses; Aging vehicles get a second life in public transportation

By Laurence Iliff
Staff Writer

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MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Yellow school buses bearing names like “Cranberry Area School District” and “Dade County Schools” ply the streets of this Central American capital, as passengers hang out of the windows to fight the heat.

Making their way around tiny Asian SUVs, the tightly packed buses could be carrying American kids on a reality tour of Nicaragua, the hemisphere’s second-poorest country after Haiti. But these passengers are not schoolchildren from Indiana’s Fayette County School Corp., Pennsylvania’s Cranberry schools or Florida’s Dade County.

The buses – big slices of Americana sold in the United States as junk after a long life of spitball fights – form the backbone of a public transportation system left to cash-strapped private operators who look for the cheapest vehicles.

Indeed, the vast majority of all Managua buses are yellow-and-black imports from school districts across the United States. And similar vehicles can be found throughout Central America and the Caribbean, from Guatemala to Havana.

The American school bus invasion, as the Nicaragua case shows, is an exercise in economics.

The government-controlled bus fare in Managua is 13 cents, regardless of distance, with no subsidies.

“This is a job of daily survival in Managua,” says Leonel Orozco, head of the 12th of October public transportation cooperative, one of many bus operators. “The 13-cent fare barely covers our costs. The real fare should be at least 20 cents.”

It would be easy just to give up the job entirely. But this is a country with massive unemployment, and Managua is a city of more than a million, all of whom need to get around.

Enter the school buses. Mr. Orozco has personally bought and transported 17 of them from resellers, including one from Texas.

Why? Because they are cheap. Very cheap.

A new city bus in Nicaragua costs from $170,000 to $200,000, and there is virtually no financing from the government or the near-bankrupt banking system, says Mr. Orozco.

In contrast, a typical used American school bus sells for $4,000 to $6,000. And once it’s been driven through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, that very same vehicle can be sold in Nicaragua for around $20,000, he says.

No wonder 70 percent of the 1,200 buses criss-crossing Managua – and of the 2,500 buses in this country of 5 million people – are used American school buses, according to Mr. Orozco. Another 20 percent, he says, are Brazilian-made Mercedes-Benz vehicles bought by the Sandinista government during its rule from 1979 to 1990.

A small number are Eastern European units once used by the Soviet-backed Nicaraguan military, which was fighting U.S.-backed contra rebels.Nicaragua’s transportation cooperatives prefer their used American school buses to run on diesel fuel because it’s cheaper than gasoline. Likewise, stick shifts are favored over automatics, Mr. Orozco says, since the constant stop-and-go of city bus service is hard on automatic transmissions.

After two or three years of the buses trundling through Managua, engine problems begin to take their toll, and fresh used buses are needed, he adds. Luckily, there’s always a ready supply in the United States.

“The transportation system works pretty well, despite the obstacles,” says Mr. Orozco. His cooperative and others in charge of providing bus service in the capital are in constant struggle with the government, which has not raised the fare in two years.

While the population is happy with the low fares, operators are not, Mr. Orozco says. They are threatening to charge a higher fare on their own, with or without official permission.

Are some of the buses here from Texas schools, or more specifically, from Dallas County Schools? Probably, but it’s hard to tell.

When Dallas-based buses are sold, their names are removed from the side of the buses, says Deanne Hullander, public information director for Dallas County Schools, which handles transportation for districts within the county.

“You don’t really want your name out there if it’s being used for other purposes,” she says.

Indeed, many of the U.S. vehicles in Nicaragua have their origins blacked out.

Most Dallas buses get retired after 10 or 12 years of service, says Ms. Hullander.

“Most of our buses go to individuals or churches,” she says, but adds: “It would not surprise me one bit if they did [take them abroad.] We really don’t know where they end up.”

Some of the yellow school buses have made it into the hands of solidarity groups that take them through Mexican ports to communist Cuba over the objections of the U.S. State Department.

Ed Cox, president of Sunset Bus sales in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., says he even gets inquiries from as far away as China and Eastern Europe for used vehicles, although not all are for school buses.

“Most of the old school buses seem to go out of the country because they’re cheap,” he says.

Buyers generally show up with cash, and some are never heard from again, he adds, wondering out loud why anyone would care.

But back in Managua, Mr. Orozco, the bus operator, takes a different view. If there were no used school buses to buy from the United States, it’s hard to imagine how Nicaraguans would get around, given the controlled fares.

“Things would be very chaotic without these vehicles,” he says. “It would be like returning to the 19th century. We would have to use horses and buggies.”

Staff writer Joshua Benton in Dallas contributed to this report.

Finishing what they started; DISD program turning ever more dropouts into high school graduates

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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It was his son who made Jesus Barraza want to go back to school.

“I knew I wanted a better life for him,” said Mr. Barraza, 19, who dropped out of North Dallas High School soon after his son, also named Jesus, was born. “I knew I had to go back to school to get that for him.”

So after a year and a half out of school, he went back, through one of the Dallas schools’ reconnection centers. And now he’s ready to don his cap and gown.

“I stood strong because I knew I needed to get this done,” he said.

On Thursday, he and about 100 other reconnection center students will graduate in a ceremony at Kimball High School. That’s almost five times as many students as graduated at the same ceremony last year. Dallas school officials say the increase shows the progress they’re making in drawing dropouts back into the system.

Last year at this time, the centers enrolled about 2,000 students. That number is up to 2,800.

“I think young people are finding it’s more difficult than they imagined to survive without a diploma,” said H.B. Bell, associate superintendent and director of the Dallas schools’ dropout prevention program. “We’ve redoubled our efforts to help youngsters come back to school.”

The reconnection centers are an attempt to reclaim some of the ground lost to the dropout problem, which by most estimates claims a third or more of Dallas high school students. Last year, Dallas schools enrolled 14,566 freshmen but only 5,949 seniors.

When a dropout comes back through a reconnection center, he gets an individualized program and is allowed to work at his own pace. The curriculum is split about evenly between computerized course work and textbook learning; when needed, a teacher is available to help students through rough patches. Reconnection center students take the same exams as regular students.

Students have the option of transferring back into their regular high school and normal classes, and many do. The others stay with the self-paced programs to complete their credits, but their diplomas will bear the name of their high school.

Those who stay at the reconnection centers are allowed to graduate with the rest of their high school class, but some finish their work months before their school’s graduation. Thursday’s midyear ceremony is for them.

Mr. Barraza, for example, finished his final class work in math and history in October, despite maintaining a difficult schedule: working from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. as night manager of a local supermarket, then attending school from 8 a.m. to noon.

He credits his wife, Maricela, for pushing him to stick with it. He also credits the reconnection center, whose flexible system allowed him to handle both work and school.

“I don’t think I could have done it if I had to just go to regular school,” he said. “I had to work for my family.”

Last year, 529 former dropouts who had been funneled through reconnection centers graduated from Dallas schools, 22 of them at the midyear ceremony. While school officials don’t know what this year’s final numbers will be, the increased size of Thursday’s graduating class makes them optimistic.

“We’re touching a lot of kids’ lives, and we’re making progress,” said Norma Villegas, a dropout prevention specialist with the district.

School officials aren’t the only ones with newfound hope.

“Now I consider myself a person who can do things,” Mr. Barraza said. “If I just put my mind to something, I can do it. I wasn’t so sure about that before.”

Ratings of 10 FW high schools rescinded over dropout tracking; State says too many students unaccounted for in district

By Laurie Fox
Staff Writer

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FORT WORTH – Fort Worth school Superintendent Thomas Tocco says he’ll seek an outside consultant and meet with principals after 10 schools were sanctioned for losing track of students who had left.

The Texas Education Agency has told the district that it will rescind the “acceptable” school ratings of 10 of its 14 high schools after an audit of the district’s reporting procedures. The schools will now be rated “not-rated [data quality].”

Texas school districts are asked to account for all students who leave from one year to the next by indicating a reason for the departure, whether they dropped out, received a GED or transferred to another district.

In its 2001 report to the TEA, which included students who left the district in the 1999-2000 school year, the Fort Worth district initially reported that it could not account for 1,600 students. Before the TEA audit last fall, that list had been whittled to 600.

The TEA audits districts when the number of unaccounted-for students exceeds 1,000, or 10 percent of the total enrollment for grades 7-12.

Investigators who combed through the list of 1,600 found erratic recordkeeping – there were no records for some students – and that some of the 600 on the district’s most recent list had dropped out, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a TEA spokesperson.

Overall, she said, the district is not tracking potential dropouts closely enough.

Dr. Tocco agreed Wednesday, saying that whether there were 600 or 1,600 students unaccounted for, it was “a substantial number and entirely too large a percentage.”

He said he’d seek outside help to improve the situation.

“This represents an apparent inability to track students from one year to the next,” he said. “We need to clean up our act and provide better and more correct data. There is so much at stake. The achievement levels and the hard work of our staff could be tarnished by this.”

According to a study conducted last year for The Dallas Morning News, 32 percent of students who should have graduated from Fort Worth high schools in 1999 dropped out. Last year, Fort Worth enrolled 7,121 freshmen but only 3,790 seniors.

The TEA sanction fell on Carter Riverside, Arlington Heights, Eastern Hills, North Side, Paschal, Polytechnic, O.D. Wyatt, Dunbar, Western Hills and Success high schools. The nonrating will apply at least until TEA releases its new school ratings this summer.

Dropout information is one of several measures the TEA uses to evaluate school performance in its annual school accountability ratings. The rescinded ratings carry no real penalty beyond “a black eye for the district,” Ms. Graves Ratcliffe said.

She said Fort Worth was among 20 school districts and 24 charter schools that had high numbers of students who were unaccounted for. She declined to name the districts, but she said “Fort Worth is far and away the largest district with the most leavers.”

In the last few years, the TEA has strengthened the requirements on districts to account for former students.

Texas’ system is better than many. Some states don’t require schools to track students who leave.

Once students remove themselves from the school system, it can be difficult to find out what happened to them, experts say.

“Texas is getting better at it, but kids can still fall through the cracks,” said Chrys Dougherty, director of research at Just for the Kids, an Austin-based nonprofit educational research group that conducted The News’ study last year.

Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University, said he considered the number of students missed by Fort Worth ISD “alarmingly large.”

Dr. Smink said the large number of missing students could point to a problem with identifying potential dropouts sooner – a big key to keeping kids in school.

“If you catch them when they’ve just missed a few days of school, you can usually track them down much more easily than if you wait until they’ve been gone for a while,” he said.

Staff writer Joshua Benton contributed to this report.

Lesson learned in DISD; After last bond, officials stress that needs for money may change

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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When it was still on the drawing board, the campus of Townview Center was the finest top sirloin. By the time it opened in 1995, the campus had lost some of its sizzle.

The Oak Cliff school, built with bond money approved by voters in 1992, saw its budget shrink from $44million at planning to $35.1 million at construction. That meant cutting about 61,000 square feet from the floor plans. Gone were the oversize classrooms, the 60-seat planetarium, and the separate building for a technology school.

“We had to cut out a lot of things that would have helped kids,” said Grady Jennings, the building’s architect throughout the process. “The reason’s pretty simple: money.”

Those cutbacks hold a lesson for voters, as they prepare to decide on the Dallas school district’s $1.37 billion ballot proposal: You don’t always get what you expect from a bond issue. Costs go up. Construction problems pop up. Money runs out. Especially in a project so massive, needs are certain to change.

Superintendent Mike Moses and trustees have stressed that their plan for spending the next round of bond money is open to change well after voters go to the polls Saturday. Most notably, officials say, the location of new schools will be reassessed periodically through the five or six years of the program.

“It’s difficult to exactly predict where students are going to be, and we might need to change our plans if circumstances and enrollments change,” Dr. Moses said.

District leaders also have stressed that the bond money will be managed differently this time to avoid some of the problems that hampered the 1992 program.

The 1992 program was managed by the district’s facilities bond program department, with the help of an outside consultant. This time, the district plans to have an outside firm oversee the entire project and will appoint a citizens review committee to serve as a watchdog and help prioritize the work.

“We will have people watching us, and we know that, so we are going to make sure this project is as well-managed as it can be,” Dr. Moses said.

For the most part, the 1992 bond program was carried out as billed. Each of 15 promised new schools was built, plus one additional unplanned school, Cesar Chavez Learning Center. Often, however, schools went up with smaller budgets and smaller floor plans.

“All of the projects in the original program were carried out,” said Kathlyn Gilliam, a trustee from 1974 to 1997. “Some just weren’t carried out to the degree we initially hoped.”

Former trustee John Dodd agreed: “A host of things that were promised didn’t get done.”

The reasons for curtailed work started with cost overruns, some of which were beyond the district’s control.

Unexpected asbestos costs pulled nearly $500,000 from the bond issue’s contingency fund. That, along with other unexpected costs, meant that more than $12 million of the $14 million contingency fund had been spent by 1995, when only one new school had been completed. That necessitated further small cuts in many other schools’ renovation and construction plans.

Overruns also meant the district had to use $8 million from its regular operating budget for items that were supposed to be covered by the bond, such as rewiring classrooms, building a school addition, and paying the salaries of bond project staff.

The Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center wasn’t the only school affected by the overruns. Molina High, for example, lost more than $2.1 million from its budget and more than 13,000 square feet from its floor plan.

Inflation also affected execution of the package, which coincided with the North Texas construction boom of the mid-1990s. As contractors were kept busy by prison, highway, and housing construction, bid prices went up on schools. Other growing area districts, including Plano and Lewisville, had similar cost problems during the same period.

But there also were management issues. In 1993, the district replaced the bond project’s main overseer less than a year after hiring him. By the following year, seven of the 11 planned renovation projects were behind schedule. In 1995, trustees temporarily froze all new spending of bond money to examine cost overruns. At the time, more than half of the bond program’s 27 projects were behind schedule.

“There were some problems, and money was tighter than expected,” Ms. Gilliam said.

Michael Gonzales, deputy district director for the League of United Latin American Citizens of North Texas, said Hispanic leaders will be watching to be sure similar problems don’t reoccur.

“Last time around, funds were not invested as we were told they would be, and many of our schools still have dilapidated facilities,” Mr. Gonzales said. “We want to make sure there are safeguards implemented to prevent it from happening again.”

DISD officials say such safeguards will be in place, including the citizens review committee. Dr. Moses has said the district will conduct a national search for a project manager. More than $131 million is set aside in the bond proposal just for environmental testing and program design and management.

Even with those precautions, the bond program is likely to change as it progresses. That isn’t unusual, said Barbara Worth, spokeswoman for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, an industry association.

“It’s really the norm, unfortunately,” she said. “Costs go up, different things become more important, and people say we’ll do this but we won’t do that. Some things have to go to the wayside.”

In any case, DISD isn’t likely to suffer the public backlash it did when the Townview project was scaled back, partly because specifics haven’t been put on the table this time around.

Public disappointment with Townview was magnified because plans for the campus had been public for years. U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders had ordered the “supermagnet” high school built in his 1982 desegregation order, and district officials made Townview a selling point in the 1992 bond election.

So when the cuts were made, they did not go unnoticed. Months after the campus opened, a group of activists led by County Commissioner John Wiley Price began holding daily protests outside the school, in part because they said facilities promises had not been met.

“Even with the cuts, I believe we still ended up with a very good campus,” said Mr. Jennings, the architect. He said many of the cuts were for “extras” such as a two-story sculpture and higher-quality finishes in common areas.

This time, officials haven’t gone far beyond broad descriptions of where new schools would be built and which existing schools would get refurbishments. Specifics are largely not on the table.

“If the voters approve [the bond issue], then we’ll go ahead with the specifics,” Dr. Moses said.

Bush signs far-reaching education bill; ‘America’s schools will be on a new path of reform'; More funding for low-income students to benefit area districts

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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President Bush signed his education bill into law Tuesday, acting on his top domestic priority and pushing many of the reforms that Texas has seen to a national scale.

“As of this hour, America’s schools will be on a new path of reform and a new path of results,” he told an audience outside an Ohio high school.

The bill is an immensely complex result of months of negotiations between the administration and congressional leaders. “In that box is the bill,” Mr. Bush said before the signing. “I don’t intend to read it all. It’s not exactly light reading.”

Its major themes of accountability and testing are holdovers from Mr. Bush’s days as Texas governor and the school reform movement that preceded him. Many of the biggest changes – such as mandatory state testing and tying financing to student performance – will be familiar to Texans.

“The state of Texas is in the very happy position of just having to make a few refinements to our current system,” said Frank Fanning, administrator of federal programs for Fort Worth schools. “The main thrust of the legislation, we’re already doing all of that.”

Perhaps the bill’s biggest effect on the Dallas-Fort Worth area will be an increase in federal funding that is directed to school systems with many poor students and is often used to improve reading and math skills for young children who are behind their peers.

The bill is a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which marked the first major incursion of federal money into local education policy.

Over time, the act has become a catchall for a variety of educational initiatives. For example, the bill’s many nooks and crannies include increased financing for early reading education, teacher training, school safety, after-school programs, and college tuition grants.

But for most of the country, the biggest change will be the increase in standardized testing, which the bill requires for all students in grades three through eight. Performance on those state-designed tests will be reported in school “report cards” and used to judge schools.

If a school’s students consistently score poorly and fail to make adequate annual improvements, they will be subject to penalties of increasing severity. Two straight bad years, for instance, would allow the school’s students to transfer to another public school. Three bad years would release a portion of the school’s federal financing to parents for private tutoring. Further problems could mean replacing school staff members or a complete restructuring.

While they differ in some details, most of these provisions are similar to ones in place in Texas. For other states, however, the changes will be sharp.

“I have contacts with a lot of people in other states, and this is a shock to them,” Mr. Fanning said. “Some states don’t even have state tests of any kind. They’re going to have to bite the bullet and do what Texas has done.”

Texas will benefit from a boost in Title I financing under the law. Named for a section within the 1965 act, Title I dedicates federal money to school districts based on how many poor students they teach. The methods for determining whether a student is poor are similar to those used to determine whether a student can receive school lunches for free or at a reduced price.

For districts with poorer populations, the money can be a lifesaver, allowing for individual tutoring or small-group instruction at an early age. Most Texas school districts receive between $500 and $700 per poor student annually.

The bill increases Title I financing to Texas by 25 percent, from $804 million this year to just over $1 billion next year. Although it hasn’t been determined how much individual districts will benefit, large districts such as Dallas and Fort Worth will receive several million dollars more, and other area districts should get hundreds of thousands.

“It lets us hire additional teachers who can focus in on individual kids,” said Barbara Baird, coordinator of district title support in Richardson ISD, which has 14 schools with enough poor students to receive Title I support.

“Our student achievement started improving dramatically when we started receiving Title I funds,” said Cheryl Jennings, principal of Good Elementary in Irving, which was recently named a federal Blue Ribbon school and has a student population that is 80 percent poor.

“Any of our first-grade students who has trouble reading can get 30 minutes a day one-on-one with a reading specialist, and that’s paid for with Title I money. I couldn’t do without it.”

Area school officials caution that there will be many months of regulatory formulas and other bureaucratic action before any more money arrives at schools. But they’re cautiously optimistic that the benefits will be substantial.

“We’re in a people business, and the more we can get people working one-on-one, the better,” said Martha Stone, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Irving schools. “I won’t say it would be impossible to educate a lot of these kids without Title I money, but it might be virtually impossible.”