Master urged for W-H; State report blasts troubled school district over ‘disregard for law’

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 29A

The long-troubled Wilmer-Hutchins school district has displayed “a pattern of disregard for law” and needs a full-time state master to oversee its activities, according to a withering report issued Thursday by the Texas comptroller’s office.

“You can fix things our way, or you can fix it your way,” said Betty Ressel, manager of the Texas School Performance Review, which assembled the report on the southern Dallas County district. “But one thing that is totally unacceptable is not to fix it.”

“I think they’ve given us the key to unlock the door today,” said school board President Joan Bonner. “It’s a very impressive report on what we need to do.”

The report outlines, in detail, the many problems faced by the district, which has 3,300 students, 72 percent of whom are poor:

*Its test scores are among the lowest in the state. Only 58 percent of the district’s students passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) last year, compared with 65 percent for Dallas ISD and 82 percent statewide. The mean SAT score for Wilmer-Hutchins seniors in 2000 was 721, well below the state average of 990. If scores don’t improve markedly, “few WHISD students will earn a high school diploma” when the new, tougher Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills replaces TAAS next year, the report concluded.

*Only 0.7 percent of Wilmer-Hutchins graduates get the “recommended” diploma, which requires a more difficult set of classes than minimum graduation requirements. Statewide, 39 percent do. The district also has no curriculum plan, and its attendance rate ranks 1,032nd of the state’s 1,034 school districts.

*There is little staff stability. Last year, 27 percent of Wilmer-Hutchins teachers left the district, a rate which has remained consistent for the last four years. The state average is 16 percent per year. The district also has had five superintendents since 1995.

*The staff is often poorly allocated. Since 1997, enrollment has dropped 6.1 percent, but the number of district employees increased 8.9 percent. The report recommends reducing the number of administrators from 15 to 10. Wilmer-Hutchins has four times as many central administrators as the state average for its size, despite having fewer teachers per student than similar Texas

*The district is disorganized, disregards regulations, and its leaders sometimes have little control over what goes on. For instance, the district has no idea how many computers it has at Wilmer-Hutchins High School. The current budget was created by a hurriedly hired consultant “with no real knowledge regarding the district’s inner workings” and “cannot be considered an accurate representation of the district’s fiscal operation.”

According to the report, “board members told the review team that they did not understand the budget or the financial statements” they were supposed to evaluate.

State officials also said the district regularly breaks the law by purchasing goods or services without putting them up for bid. The district could not produce contracts for vendors that supply its banking, legal, telephone or auditing services, the report said.

Record keeping is so bad that the report’s authors “had difficulty gathering and confirming data from the district” and instead relied primarily on the Texas Education Agency.

Although Ms. Ressel credited the district’s current leadership for “being ready to take the heat and head in the right direction,” she said it will be difficult to reverse the district’s many wrongs.

“This report was not easy to write, and it will not be easy to implement,” she said.

The biggest recommendation is for the district to hire a TEA master, who would have the power to overrule any decision of the school board, any campus principal or Superintendent Harvey Rayson.

TEA officials previously took over the district, which includes Wilmer and Hutchins and includes portions of Dallas, Lancaster and Ferris, from 1996 to 1998. A monitor is in place at Kennedy-Curry Middle School, which the state rates as low-performing.

“You’ve got to make sure there is no question in anyone’s mind that if someone in the district goes astray and does something not within the law, someone will gently bring them back in and tell them, ‘No, that is not possible,'” Ms. Ressel said.

The report makes 98 recommendations, which if fully implemented would save the district $7.3 million by 2007, Ms. Ressel said. The district’s annual budget is $19.9 million.

Mr. Rayson and Ms. Bonner said the recommendations are welcome and will be considered. The comptroller’s office has no statutory authority to force the district to follow its suggestions.

“We’re very pleased with the report, and we’re going to start work on it right away,” said Mr. Rayson, who had been on the job one year as of Thursday.

The school board requested the state review last April. Normally, when a district makes such a request, the comptroller’s office requires the district to pay 25 percent of the costs, which in this case totaled $150,000.

But financial controls in the district were so poor at the time that Wilmer-Hutchins officials didn’t even know if they could afford that contribution.

“Mr. Rayson told us, ‘I need help, but I can’t tell you if we have the money or not to pay for it,'” Ms. Ressel said. In the end, the comptroller’s office agreed to foot the bill.

More schools turning to lockerless lifestyle; Educators extol combination of order, fewer security worries

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

But where do they hang their Britney Spears posters? The photos torn out of Tiger Beat and YM? The loving mash note never sent to Johnny in Miss Thompson’s homeroom?

At Birdville High School, students have somehow learned to live without what for generations has been a bedrock of the teenage experience: the school locker. And really, they don’t mind.

“I don’t miss it a bit,” said junior Chelsea Seaton, who had a locker at her last school. “It’s less of a hassle without one.”

Birdville High is a poster child for a movement to eliminate lockers from junior highs and high schools in Texas. Locker opponents say they’re a threat to safety, encourage immature behavior and give too many excuses to students looking to slack off.

“When the lockers came out, everything was quieter, cleaner, in its place,” said James Bartosh, superintendent of Granger schools and the state’s leading evangelist for the lockerless school. “Kids became more organized. They learned how to carry what they needed and not what they didn’t. It was a wholesale change.”

Mr. Bartosh was principal of Granger High School, about 45 miles northeast of Austin, four years ago when he first heard about the concept. He took some inspiration from the old industrial psychology principle of the Hawthorne effect: “If you want to dramatically improve the production of your employees, you have to drastically change their environment.”

As soon as the lockers were pulled out, test scores boomed. The school went from barely avoiding low-performing status to being recognized.

Couldn’t the improvements have come from other factors, such as an improved curriculum or better teacher training?

“The only thing we changed was getting rid of lockers,” he said. “We kept doing everything else the same way we’d done it before. It was this one change.”

Maintenance issue

Why are some principals opposed to lockers?

“Maintaining them takes an enormous effort,” said Jim Chadwell, principal at Northwest High School, which is eliminating its lockers this summer as part of a campus renovation. “You want an image of a clean, safe, orderly facility, and a key being dragged across 25 lockers can make that hard.”

“They’re not going to have lockers when they go off to college, so they might as well learn how to be organized and responsible now,” said Dr. Debbie Tribble, who has been principal at Birdville High since it opened three years ago.

Students at Birdville learn to strip down their belongings so they can all comfortably fit in a light backpack. “I love these kids, but they can be so, so messy,” Dr. Tribble said.

Students waste time lounging around their lockers between classes, which can spawn discipline problems, particularly on already crowded campuses.

“We had many more fights when we had lockers,” said Jim Yakubovsky, principal of DeSoto High School’s freshman campus, which is in its second year without lockers. “Now they just go straight to class.”

In DeSoto, the freshman campus goes an extra step and bans backpacks as well. Students are supposed to carry around nothing more than an organizer.

“Kids are so used to carrying things around that it’s like Linus and his security blanket,” Mr. Yakubovsky said. “If they have a winter coat, they take it with them to class instead of putting it in their locker. If they bring their lunch to school, we have an icebox to put it in in the morning.”

There are safety issues in both the no-lockers and no-backpacks movements. Post-Columbine, schools are vigilant about eliminating any possible hiding places for guns, knives, drugs or other contraband. In places that have adopted either measure, kids learn to carry less stuff.

Schools without lockers aren’t new. In some parts of the country, such as California, lockerless schools are the standard, often because classrooms are designed to open to the outdoors, not locker-lined hallways.

Lockers have traditionally been a part of Texas schools. The Texas Education Agency doesn’t keep track of how many schools make do without lockers, but Mr. Bartosh said there are about 60 junior high and high schools without them. Nearly all of those have gone lockerless in the last two or three years, he said.

The biggest adjustment for a school making the switch comes in textbooks. With some texts weighing in at several pounds and more than 1,000 pages, it might be considered cruel and unusual punishment to require students to drag seven or eight books around in a backpack all day.

“Carrying a 40-pound backpack was fine when I was in the Army, but freshman girls shouldn’t have to do it, too,” Mr. Yakubovsky said.

So lockerless schools usually give students two sets of books. One set goes home at the beginning of the school year and stays there until school is out. The other set is kept in the student’s classroom.

That way, students never have to carry textbooks, and their backpacks become minimalist depositories for a few binders and some loose-leaf paper.

Of course, some students still insist on lugging around the kitchen sink, or at least the “Band-Aids, spray perfume, makeup, paper, mint gum” and more you’d find in the backpack of Birdville freshman Kristin Weed.

Principals said that students typically resist the change.

“My daughter was going into ninth grade, and she said, ‘Man, you’re killing me,'” Mr. Bartosh said. But he said they come around. The dual-textbook strategy has academic benefits, principals say. It eliminates many of the most common excuses for student slacking, such as,”I forgot my book at school, so I couldn’t do my homework.”

“The first year we got rid of lockers, we actually had students who tried to get out of class saying things like, ‘I forgot my book in my locker,'” Mr. Yakubovsky said. “The teacher would say, ‘What locker?’ You can’t blame a guy for trying.”

Costs manageable

And while more textbooks cost more, the expense is not extreme, they say. Several classes can share the classroom’s set of books. Dr. Tribble estimated that Birdville’s textbook costs are only about 10 to 15 percent higher than they would be at a school with lockers.

But she said designing the school without lockers saved about $250,000 during construction.

A full-length locker can cost $100 to $150, and maintenance isn’t cheap, either. Going lockerless allows architects to save thousands of square feet in their floor plans. That can cut back on construction costs or allow other extras to be included in the building.

“Now you can build that library you want, or that auditorium you thought you couldn’t afford,” Mr. Bartosh said.

In the Birdville school district, only Birdville High is without lockers. But leaders at the district’s two other high schools, Haltom and Richland, are hoping they’ll join them soon.

“Everybody’s eager to expand it,” said Karen Hibbs, Birdville ISD’s director of secondary instruction.

“It makes a high school a more pleasant place to be.”

With test mandate, companies score big; San Antonio becomes industry center as states scramble for exams

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

SAN ANTONIO – It’s within the city limits, but Harcourt Educational Measurement qualifies as its own boomtown.

Like other champions of the No. 2 pencil and the properly filled-in bubble, Harcourt has exploded in size over the last decade thanks to education reform. Its campus, a 560,000-square-foot string of buildings, is barely a year old, and already construction workers are building new offices.

But the real boom, the likes of which few industries have seen, lies ahead.

The federal education bill signed by President Bush in January requires states to test their students in reading and math every year from third grade to eighth grade by 2006. There’s also a requirement for a high school test, and science tests become mandatory for three grades in 2007.

The regimen won’t be a problem for Mr. Bush’s home state of Texas and 15 other states, which already test in all of those grades.

But 34 states have gaps in their testing programs. Some, like Alabama, which is missing only fifth- and seventh-grade math tests, will be relatively easy to fill. Others have lots of work to do. Nebraska, for example, didn’t test math at all last year, and tested reading at only three grades.

Someone has to design, build, refine and grade the dozens of tests that don’t yet exist. And with the testing industry already stretched by rapid expansion – it has gone from a $141 million industry to a $390 million one from 1996 to 2001, according to the nonprofit group Achieve – some are concerned that companies might not be ready to deal with the coming demand.

“I don’t see how they can do it,” said William Koch, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas. “I just don’t see it happening.”

Ready-made won’t work

In years past, when states or districts wanted to test their students, they usually went to a testing companies and bought a ready-made exam, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Stanford Achievement Test, out of a catalog.

But the federal legislation requires that tests be tailored to states’ own educational standards, which can vary widely. A national off-the-shelf test won’t do. The result is a major challenge for the testing industry.

“There’s never been this kind of demand for new tests,” said Gerald Sroufe, executive director of the American Education Research Association.

San Antonio is an industry center. Harcourt, which produces the Stanford test, controls about 40 percent of the industry. That’s about the same amount as its California-based rival, CTB/McGraw Hill.

“We grow and grow,” said Beverly Nedrow, who oversees Harcourt’s reading and language arts group. She said her staff has nearly tripled in her nine years at the company, and she wouldn’t be surprised to see another doubling or tripling in the next few years.

The growth is easy to see at Harcourt’s sprawling headquarters. If you want to eat at the company cafeteria, be prepared to stand in line for 20 minutes. And if you want a parking place that doesn’t require a lengthy hike, show up early. “If you leave for lunch, good luck finding a spot when you get back,” said Joyce McDonald, director of Harcourt’s Performance Assessment Scoring Center.

To protect test materials, the building operates at top secrecy. Photography is banned in areas where there might be test questions. Security approval is required to enter the large scoring rooms, where at peak times hundreds of scorers sit and read the essays of children. The corporation’s home is marked by only a small sign that gives no clue what goes on there.

Last year, company employees made 49.5 million grading decisions – and that’s not counting all the multiple choice questions graded by machine.

Even that kind of capacity won’t be nearly enough for the millions of additional tests to be administered in coming years.

Bush administration officials have said they expect market forces to address any industry shortcomings before 2006. Small newcomers already have begun to appear, such as San Antonio’s months-old ETS K-12 Works.

But no matter how many new companies are founded, the number of qualified testing professionals is limited. In order to make tests, companies need psychometricians, and they’re in short supply.

Psychometricians design the structure of tests and fine-tune them to ensure they measure what they’re supposed to. They have in-depth training in psychology, statistics, and educational theory, typically through a doctoral program.

Psychometrician dearth

Other areas of the testing industry can be scaled upward in size with relative ease. Corporations can always buy more scanners to read bubble sheets. The people who write test questions typically are former teachers, a group of whom there is little shortage.

But it’s difficult to suddenly double or triple the number of psychometricians. There are no more than a few thousand in the country.

“We’re producing about the same number of psychometricians as we used to, but the demand is so much greater than it was before,” said Dr. Koch, who chairs UT’s quantitative methods unit. “All the major companies are desperately looking for qualified people. Anybody who wants a job in the testing industry can get one.”

UT’s program, like many, graduates only two or three psychometricians a year.

“It seems like a fair guess it’ll only get worse,” said Charles Lewis, director of the graduate psychometrics program at Fordham University in New York City.

He said he fears a tight supply of employees will lead to lower quality for the tests that are produced. In the last year, several testing companies have had to fix misgraded exams that in some cases caused students to repeat classes.

“The more tests you produce without sufficient technical support, the greater the chance there will be some low quality tests and there will be a mistake that affects students,” Dr. Lewis said.

With capacity problems looming, states and companies are investigating ways around building new tests for every state. Some are looking into creating consortiums among states with similar standards, so they could join together to build a test of their own. Other states that don’t meet the federal guidelines are
lobbying to be exempted from the requirements.

“We’re hoping we don’t have to change our direction,” said Betty VanDeventer, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Education. Nebraska now allows school districts to determine what tests they will use to meet the state’s minimal testing requirements.

Dr. Margie Jorgensen, a Harcourt vice president, said she expects some states to create half-new tests that combine an off-the-shelf test such as the Stanford with a smaller, state-specific test. California, Hawaii and Delaware already have such a system.

“It’s been a big success for us to be able to test on our standards and compare our students to others around the country” who take the Stanford, said Robin Taylor, Delaware’s associate secretary of assessment and accountability. Using a ready-made test can also save cash-strapped states money.

At the grading end of the process, much of the work is automated. Banks of industrial scanning machines run over the familiar filled-in bubbles on answer sheets and generate scores quickly.

Replacing humans

The more difficult problem comes when grading answers that aren’t multiple choice – essay questions or short, open-ended responses. Traditionally, those have required hiring human graders, often retired or vacationing teachers.

But getting qualified graders – willing to work long hours in the short bursts required by testing calendars – isn’t always easy. As a result, companies such as Harcourt are looking hard at artificial intelligence: computer programs that can read and grade essays as though they were human. Dr. Jorgensen said that AI technology has advanced to the point that a computer grader is virtually indistinguishable from a human.

“It feels to me that it’s so close to being doable,” she said. “I think in a couple of years you’ll see AI being used to grade a major test.” Both Harcourt and CTB/McGraw Hill now offer AI grading of essays on selected writing tests.

As the push to 2006 continues, companies are likely to seek out whatever methods they can to meet the demand.

“We’re going to encounter huge deficiencies,” Mr. Sroufe said. “The question is how it’ll be dealt with.”

Oilman’s UT gift biggest of its kind; Jackson’s donation of $150 million is largest to one public campus

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Eighty-eight-year-old John “Jack” Jackson never had children, but his generosity will help generations of Texas young people.

The University of Texas will announce Saturday that Mr. Jackson, a retired Dallas oilman, will give at least $150 million to improve UT’s program in earth and environmental sciences. It is the largest gift to an individual public university in history.

“Jack has characterized this gift to me as an investment in the future of Texas,” said Larry Faulkner, UT’s president. “He believes in the land of this state and what it means to the future of people here. This is a gift to all the people of Texas.”

The donation will be turned over to UT upon Mr. Jackson’s death. Mr. Jackson’s longtime accountant, Jim Langham, described the gift as “the residue of his estate when he dies.”

The exact amount can’t be determined until then, but UT officials estimate it is between $150 million and $200 million. He already had been a generous donor to the university, having given $40 million over the last two years.

Mr. Jackson has been ill for several months and will not be able to attend Saturday’s announcement. Mr. Langham said the donation shows the depth of his feelings toward the university.

“Other than his wife, I think he thought the greatest thing that ever happened to him was to go to Texas,” he said. “That was the foundation that allowed him to make this fortune.”

When Mr. Jackson first tried to enroll at UT, university officials told him to look elsewhere.

“They told him that he didn’t have what it took at that time,” said Ed Fjordbak, president of the Communities Foundation of Texas, which has channeled some of Mr. Jackson’s philanthropy. “He was told to go to Temple Junior College and study there until he was prepared to handle UT.”

He followed the suggestion and graduated from UT with a degree in petroleum geology in 1940.

Mr. Jackson discovered oil fields in Wise County and parlayed those findings into substantial wealth. He then used that money to purchase tracts of farmland north of downtown Dallas and stretching up to Frisco. Much of that land was eventually purchased for construction of the Dallas North Tollway and surrounding development.

Mr. Jackson’s gift is not the largest in public higher education. Last year, a Silicon Valley couple pledged $250 million to the entire University of Colorado System, which includes four campuses. And there have been several larger gifts made to private universities, led by a $600 million pledge to the California Institute of Technology by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore.

In 2000, Mr. Jackson and his wife gave $15 million for the renovation and expansion of the geological sciences building on campus. Last year, Mr. Jackson gave another $25 million to endow the John A. and Katherine G. Jackson School of Geosciences.

Mr. Jackson has long credited UT with his success in the oil industry.

“My education at UT-Austin helped launch and sustain my career,” Mr. Jackson said last year after his $25 million gift. “Now I want to help others get the best education possible.”

Much of Mr. Jackson’s philanthropy has been aimed at education. Along with UT, he has been a major donor to Texas Lutheran University, Austin College and Temple Junior College.

He’s also the largest donor in the history of Presbyterian Healthcare System, having given more than $14 million and the land Presbyterian Hospital of Plano sits on. The Jackson Building at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas is named for him.

He helped finance the creation of the Dallas Blue Foundation, which assists the relatives of police officers hurt or killed on duty, and he has helped to support the Press Club of Dallas. The Katie Awards, the region’s top journalism prize, are named in his wife’s honor.

Many of his donations have been made in the name of his wife, whom he met at junior college. His philanthropic foundation is the Katie Foundation; he named his oil company Katie Petroleum. Mrs. Jackson died a year ago. The couple had no children, no nieces and no nephews.

“He doted on Katie because he loved her intensely,” Mr. Fjordbak said. “When Katie became ill, he hardly left her side for two years, insisting on a double-bed hospital room so he could sleep with her and make sure her every need was met.”

Mr. Jackson’s donation will be used to expand the endowment of his namesake geosciences school. But Dr. Faulkner said Mr. Jackson wants the money to be used for broader purposes within the earth sciences, including environmental and water-quality issues.

“The resources of the earth have been important to me and to what Katie and I have been able to achieve,” Mr. Jackson said in a statement.

Despite his enormous wealth, friends say Mr. Jackson has lived a frugal life, trading extravagant spending for giving. “He once told me that money’s not important,” Mr. Fjordbak said. “‘People try too hard to earn it, to become somebody. But money is only good for helping build things for others.'”