In Wilmer-Hutchins ISD, optimism makes the grade; Latest test scores offer glimmer of hope to struggling district

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Decades ago, when David Foerch was a young teacher in Dallas, principals had a ready threat for staff members who didn’t pull their weight.

“They’d say, ‘If you folks don’t shape up, we’ll send you to Wilmer-Hutchins!'”

For years, the Wilmer-Hutchins schools have been a symbol of bad education. News reports about the southern Dallas County district have told of state takeovers, raucous board meetings, corruption investigations and abysmal student performance.

That makes what happened this month all the more remarkable. Officials announced the latest test scores from Wilmer-Hutchins High School – and they were good. Actually, by past Wilmer-Hutchins standards, they were outstanding.

Those scores, along with a few other developments, have given some people inside and outside the long-troubled district a glimmer of hope: Could Wilmer-Hutchins be turning the corner?

“Wilmer-Hutchins has been the laughingstock of the metroplex for decades,” said Dr. Foerch, who came out of retirement last fall to serve as a Texas Education Agency monitor over the district’s middle school. “But there are some really positive things going on here. The expectations are higher, and kids are meeting them.”

The district still has problems, including an ongoing grand jury investigation into allegations of financial misdeeds and continuing strife among board members. Any predictions for improvement play against a legacy of dashed hopes.

But Mr. Foerch and others say there’s more reason for optimism than there has been in some time.

“Wilmer-Hutchins has a much longer history of turmoil than any district we’ve been in,” said Betty Ressel, who as leader of the Texas School Performance Review has investigated dozens of school districts. “They’re poised to break the cycle. But it’s going to take an enormous amount of work.”

Most concretely, the district showed improvement this year on the exit-level Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the test taken each year by sophomores. Next year, TAAS is being replaced by the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, a more difficult exam that students must pass in order to graduate.

Last year, 65 percent of Wilmer-Hutchins sophomores passed the TAAS reading test, 67 percent passed the writing test, and 56 percent passed the math test – all more than 20 percentage points below the state average.

This year, those passing rates shot up to 93, 91 and 81 percent, respectively.

“We were totally focused on getting those scores up,” principal Evelyn Burks said. “We set our expectations high.”

The numbers, while below the scores of many other area districts, brought Wilmer-Hutchins High School nearly to the state average. Before, Wilmer-Hutchins could only aspire to being average.

Troubled history

Ms. Ressel’s Texas School Performance Review team summed it all up neatly in a report issued last month:

“WHISD has a troubled history of mismanagement over the last 20 years, numerous lawsuits and grievances, high turnover of superintendents, teachers and staff and a high degree of animosity and mistrust among board members and between the board and the community.”

Those working to raise the quality of education in Wilmer-Hutchins find the past a heavy burden.

“It’s hard to draw any quality people here because of the history,” said Dr. Foerch, who was assigned as a TEA monitor after Kennedy-Curry Middle School was rated low-performing by the state for a second consecutive year.

For the last 30 years, the superintendent’s office might as well have had a revolving door. From 1971 to 1984, no superintendent lasted longer than two years. Joan Bonner, who has been on the board for six years and now is president, said she couldn’t remember how many superintendents the district has had in that time – “five or six, I think.”

At one point in 1996, the district was paying four superintendents at once as a result of contract buyouts or lawsuit awards.

Board members are known for being argumentative and attacking each other at meetings, so much so that Education Commissioner Jim Nelson sent a formal letter to the board in 2000 expressing “concerns about the climate at board meetings.”

And there have been numerous investigations, most prominently a 1996 raid of district offices by FBI and IRS officials looking into allegations of corruption.

State officials have intervened several times. In the early 1980s, they threatened to revoke the district’s accreditation. From 1996 to 1998, a state management team took over the district.

According to last month’s Texas School Performance Review report, many problems remain. “The organization of the district is in chaos,” it said.

The comptroller’s report cited low test scores, extremely low attendance rates, high teacher turnover, a bloated central administration, a short-sighted budget process, chaotic record keeping and “a pattern of disregard for law.”

Those problems have proved severe in a district already facing difficult odds. Three-quarters of its students are poor, and 95 percent are minorities.

The implications of a struggling school system reach beyond the students. With the schools’ reputation, it has been difficult to persuade anyone to build homes in Wilmer or Hutchins.

“Developers want to provide people with a solid school system to attend, and with the troubles, folks have been hesitant to put something up there,” said Guy Brown, former executive director of the Hutchins Economic Development Corp.

According to statistics from the North Texas Council of Governments, no homes were built in Wilmer or Hutchins between April and December 2000, the most recent period available. They were the only two of 24 municipalities in Dallas County to have zero housing growth in that period.

Meanwhile, enrollment in the district is declining, unlike nearly every other school system in the area. Enrollment went from 4,017 in 1994 to 3,283 last year as students moved away or switched to charter schools or other educational options.

Ms. Bonner and other school officials said the negative attention district leaders have drawn over the years has detracted from the accomplishments of the students.

“We have terrific children here,” she said. “Our children read the paper, and they see all these negative things. They wonder, ‘What’s wrong here?'”

Raise the scores

When Harvey Rayson started work as superintendent in March 2001, he set a single-minded focus for all district employees: Raise test scores.

Every teacher was given a goals worksheet with space to outline six things they wanted to accomplish this year. No. 1 was already filled in: “Eighty percent of my students will pass the TAAS tests.”

“If we’re going to be measured based on our test scores, then it’s all about test scores,” said Mr. Rayson, who has overseen test score turnarounds in several Texas districts. “If you set the expectations high, people will find a way to meet them.”

It was largely up to each school to determine how to meet that goal, and Ms. Burks, who took over at the high school two years ago, decided to ramp up the school’s pre-TAAS planning.

The school borrowed a test-scoring machine and gave three sample TAAS tests to students in the weeks before the test. The tests were graded instantly so teachers could determine exactly where students needed help.

“We knew we had to be data-driven,” said Yolanda Smith, a freshman English teacher. “With that instant feedback, the seriousness levelwent up.”

For two weeks before the TAAS was administered in February, sophomores did not attend their standard classes. Instead, they went to two three-hour classes a day – one in English and one in math. Each class featured student-by-student instruction on areas of weakness.

Teachers also emphasized the importance of the test to students. That had never been done before, they said.

“The students went from not taking things seriously to taking it very seriously,” said Janye Aldape, a sophomore English teacher.

“The teachers were more aggressive about the test,” said Reeva Seegars, 16, who passed all sections of the test. “You had no choice but to work hard.”

Armed with the test scores as evidence, district officials say they’re making significant progress. “We’re getting there,” Mr. Rayson said.

Dr. Foerch said, “There’s been an enormous change in attitude and in what’s expected of people, even since the time I got here” in December.

Lasting progress

But not everyone is convinced the scores signify a real, lasting turnaround. After all, test scores went up once before, in the mid-1990s, mostly during a period when the district was under state control.

In 1996 and 1997, the district had three schools rated recognized or exemplary by the state.

Stanton Lawrence, one of the officials brought in to manage the district during the state takeover, said at the time: “The kind of progress they’ve made in that span of time is remarkable.”

But state control ended in 1998, and scores began to drop again. Only two schools were rated as recognized that year, and none has been rated recognized since.

In 1999, TEA officials announced an investigation into allegations of TAAS cheating at one of the formerly recognized schools, Alta Mesa Elementary. Checks of test forms from 1996 to 1998 – the years when scores were highest – found that an unusually high number of incorrect student responses had been erased and replaced with the right answers.

TEA officials asked the district to do an internal investigation into whether teachers were cheating. That investigation noted that the number of erasures was “abnormally high,” but the district said it found no evidence of wrongdoing.

The TEA assigned state monitors to oversee the testing process at Alta Mesa to ensure that no cheating was going on. Only 50 percent of Alta Mesa’s students passed all sections of the TAAS that year. A year earlier, 83 percent had.

Dr. Foerch said he has heard no allegations of cheating since this year’s 10th-grade TAAS scores were reported.

Dr. Foerch said he told Ms. Burks, the principal: “You’re going to get very large gains because of the work you’ve done, and people are going to think you’re cheating. You have to document all the strategies you’ve used to prove them wrong.”

Problems persist

Despite the high school’s apparent strides in the classroom, some of the old problems persist in the district’s administration. State education officials have launched at least four investigations and reviews of the district in the last two years, on subjects from the reporting of dropout data to problems with special education.

A Dallas County grand jury is investigating allegations of financial misconduct by the district. Mr. Rayson said that he was subpoenaed by the grand jury earlier this month but that he had no further details about the investigation.

Eric Mountin, chief prosecutor in charge of the public integrity division of the Dallas County district attorney’s office, said his office does not comment on grand jury investigations. But he said complaints about financial corruption and other matters often reach his office.

“We’ve had lots of complaints over the years,” he said. “A lot of it is the result of frustrated parents or taxpayers concerned about the manner the board are running the finances of the district.”

And the comptroller’s report found enough systemic problems in the district to recommend that it ask the TEA to provide a master to oversee the district.

A master is a stricter level of state authority than a monitor such as Dr. Foerch. Masters have the power to overrule any decision of the superintendent or board. A monitor may only advise district officials. The report said a master would help keep WHISD from breaking laws regarding contracts, nepotism, open meetings and other areas.

The board passed a resolution opposing the hiring of a master earlier this month.

Ms. Ressel said that despite the board’s rejection of a master, she has seen more reasons for optimism since she unveiled the report last month.

“They’re systematically going through the report and calling to ask for help: ‘How do we do this? We’re looking at this. … Can you give us a name of someone to do this?'” she said. “That is so encouraging to me.”

Board members, despite continued internal strife, are far ahead of where they once were, Ms. Ressel said.

“If you look back at the board’s long history and you compare how they act today to how they acted yesterday – everything is relative. They’re still struggling, but they’re trying.”

Ms. Bonner said she doesn’t think board relations have improved in her six years.

She said that if trustees can’t get along, “then we may need new people.”

Other board members declined to comment.

Those wondering about Wilmer-Hutchins’ progress will get more evidence one way or the other next month. That’s when TAAS results come back for students in grade three through eight.

This month, during testing week, Mr. Rayson shied away from a specific prediction on how they’d do. But he said he was optimistic.

“I’d told the staff that if we get two recognized schools, I’ll sky dive into the stadium,” Mr. Rayson said. “They were teasing me today: ‘Have you practiced your sky diving?’

“They’re telling me to practice, so I’m encouraged.”

New state exam to get a test run; Now that TAAS is done, students will take early version of the TAKS

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Don’t put down those No. 2 pencils just yet.

Many Texas students probably thought that last week’s Texas Assessment of Academic Skills was their last state test for a while. But sometime over the next three weeks, they’ll fill in one more bubble sheet.

And this time, it’s the test being tested, not the student.

Between Monday and May 10, every student between third and eighth grade will take an early version of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the test that will replace the TAAS next year.

The TAKS has been in development for nearly three years, and state officials have developed thousands of potential TAKS questions. But they can’t be on a real TAKS until they’ve been tested by real students.

“No Texas test has an item on it that hasn’t been field-tested by real Texas kids,” said Ann Smisko, the Texas Education Agency’s associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment and technology.

Schools aren’t being told when to give the test, except that it must be in a three-week window ending May 10. Each grade within the school will have to take the TAKS in one subject area – just math or just social studies, for instance.

Any student hoping to peek at the test of the kid sitting next to him will also be out of luck. More than a dozen different tests will be distributed in each classroom so that a maximum number of test questions can be tested at one time.

“I’m very thankful to give students the opportunity to see what the test is like,” said Sheila Maher, principal at Creekview High School in Carrollton. “It will help when we talk to them about the test next year, because they’ve all grown up with TAAS and this will be a new experience.”

Once all the tests are completed, they’ll be graded, and those results will be used to create statistical analyses of each test question. They’ll detail how many students answered each question correctly, along with what alternate answers appealed to those who got it wrong. Committees of educators will meet this summer to look at the data and start choosing which questions will make it onto a real TAKS.

That’s when the questions start being asked: Does this item work? Does it test what the TEA thinks it tests? Is it fair?

“If an unusually low number of students are getting a question right, we try to figure out why that is,” said Muffet Livaudais, TEA’s director of English language arts curriculum, who will sit in on all the TAKS test selection meetings for reading and writing. “What was wrong with the question that drew students to a particular wrong answer?”

Dr. Livaudais said the data can be used to see what questions the top test-takers – the ones who get nearly every question right – got wrong. “That’s a red flag that there might be something wrong with the question,” she said. Statistics are also broken down by race, ethnicity and economic class, so if there’s a cultural bias in a question, it can be smoked out.

All that information is for TEA’s purposes, not the school’s. Schools and students will never learn how they did on the field test.

“We’d love to see the results, but we don’t expect to after a field test,” Dr. Maher said.

But she said the test can give students and teachers a valuable window to what will be coming for real next spring. “For the teachers serving as proctors, they can see how the test is designed, what the instructions are,” she said. “They can see what students’ reactions are to the test: ‘That was easy; that was difficult; gee, I’ve never heard of this.'”

TEA officials field-test new test items every year. But for the last decade, they’ve simply included the new questions in the body of the regular TAAS students have taken. (The new items aren’t counted toward a student’s TAAS score.)

But this year, the new TAKS questions are so different from the TAAS that they couldn’t be readily included in the older test. For instance, TAKS math questions often aren’t multiple choice. They require students to complete their own calculations and fill in their response in the bubbles of an answer sheet – bubbling in “8” and “6” if the answer is 86 instead of just choosing A, B, C or D. That sort of question couldn’t be tested with a standard TAAS answer sheet.

“These items look so different,” Dr. Smisko said. “They cover different subjects at different grade levels than TAAS. They can’t be on the same test.”

The mix of questions on the TAKS isn’t the only thing still unknown about the new test. State officials haven’t determined what the passing standard will be, or how schools will be held accountable for their students’ TAKS performance. Those issues will be hashed out by the State Board of Education over the rest of the year.

One thing that is certain: The test will be harder than the TAAS. Using a crude system to estimate how students would have done last year if they’d taken the TAKS instead of the TAAS, state officials estimated that only 39 percent of eighth-graders would have passed all portions of the test. Sixty-eight percent of them passed all portions of the TAAS.

State to have ‘dropout czar'; Education chief says disjointed retention effort needs revamping

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Texas will soon have a “dropout czar” to oversee all of the state’s efforts to keep children in school, the new education commissioner said this week.

Felipe Alanis, who took office on April 1, said the Texas Education Agency needed to do a better job of coordinating the work it does to stem Texas’ dropout problem.

“I’ve asked the staff to look at all the elements of the agency and see how we can integrate them better,” he said.

TEA’s dropout efforts are divided among different parts of the agency, including those who oversee alternative schools, adult education, accountability reporting and other areas. The reorganization would create a dropout division within TEA, and agency employees who deal with the dropout problem would report directly to its leader.

According to official state data, about 1.3 percent of Texas students in grades 7 through 12 drop out of school each year. But critics say those numbers underestimate the size of the problem. A study conducted last year for The Dallas Morning News by the education research group Just for the Kids estimated that 20 percent of students who entered Texas high schools in 1994 did not graduate within five years.

“I don’t want to argue much about numbers: They’re high, we know that,” Dr. Alanis said.

The reorganization will be completed sometime this summer, Dr. Alanis said. Details of the new structure and who will lead the dropout unit have not been determined.

Dr. Alanis was appointed commissioner by Gov. Rick Perry after Jim Nelson resigned the post to enter the private sector. From 1995 to 1999, Dr. Alanis served as deputy commissioner for programs and instruction, one of the positions likely to be affected by the reorganization.

Mr. Perry cited Dr. Alanis’ work with dropouts as a West Texas superintendent in the early 1990s as one of the reasons for his selection.

Tornadoes hit area; Storms rip FW neighborhood, but no serious injuries reported

By Kim Horner and Nancy Calaway
Staff Writers

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FORT WORTH – A band of severe storms sliced through East Fort Worth during Tuesday afternoon’s rush hour, spawning at least one tornado and smashing homes but causing only minor injuries.

Tornadoes touched down in at least three places in Tarrant County, officials reported, evoking fears and memories of the deadly storms that slammed downtown Fort Worth and parts of Arlington in March 2000. Tornadoes were also sighted in Ellis and Johnson counties.

As the evening progressed, it became clear that the damage would not match the severity of the 2000 storm. But the fierce winds and hard rains seemed no less threatening to those affected.

“The wind was howling. The house was shivering,” Corey Patrick said after he and 10 relatives waited out the storm under a mattress in their Felder Lane home. “Pieces of the fence fell off like dominoes.”

The twister ripped off part of the roof, but Mr. Patrick said he was just thankful that no one was injured. “This can always be replaced,” he said, pointing at his house. “But everyone’s all right, and that’s the main thing.”

About 30 Fort Worth homes and many businesses were damaged, city officials said, though sunset and downed power lines cut short damage assessments in some neighborhoods.

Six injuries were reported in Fort Worth, most of them in a 53-vehicle traffic accident caused by the weather. None of the injuries was considered life threatening.

After hitting Tarrant County, the storms moved northeast, across Irving, Richardson and Plano before exiting the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Heavy rains caused localized flooding, and golf-ball-size hail damaged vehicles. But those areas saw none of the tornado activity that Fort Worth faced.

A southern wing of the same system hit Ellis and Johnson counties, with multiple tornado sightings but no significant damage. High winds overturned a tractor-trailer on Interstate 35E, damaged roofs and downed power lines, officials said.

Some of the worst damage was concentrated in Mr. Patrick’s Fort Worth neighborhood, near Loop 820 and Ramey Avenue, where dozens of homes and business were damaged.

Alton Wilkerson was driving through the area when the storm hit. He pulled over to wait it out, then watched the damage come: first, a chair whipped across Ramey, then a large tree toppled.

He was in the 6200 block when he saw the home in front of him disintegrate.

“I was going to seek cover and I couldn’t believe it, the house blew up right then,” Mr. Wilkerson said.

The homes still standing had varying degrees of damage, including missing patches of roofs and missing bricks from exterior walls.

Several people from the neighborhood were treated for injuries from flying glass, including Mr. Wilkerson, who had glass fly into his eye. One resident was being treated for a possible heart attack, emergency officials said.

Fort Worth authorities cordoned off the area to keep onlookers away and allow emergency workers and Red Cross volunteers to do their jobs.

The other hardest-hit area of Fort Worth was in the Handley neighborhood, where 10 young children were inside the day care at Handley United Methodist Church when the storm hit.

Workers rushed them to safety, away from windows, and no one was injured. The church sustained major damage, including losing a portion of the roof.

Bob Whitt, chairman of the Forest Avenue church’s board, said it is too early to say what the 300-member congregation will do about Sunday services.

“This is a faithful congregation. This is a resilient church,” said Jim Porter, district superintendent for the United Methodist Church in Fort Worth. “These are folks who can handle a situation like this and handle it faithfully. They are so thankful the children were not hurt.”

Within hours of the storm, the community was responding to the need. A Fort Worth lumber company donated plywood to board up the church’s buildings. Members of other Tarrant County Methodist churches were clearing debris by nightfall.

The church is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.

“We will rebuild,” Mr. Whitt said.

Not far away, Dale Hennington was shopping for auto parts at High Standard Manufacturing Machine Shop on South Handley Drive when he and other customers noticed the high winds outside. Then the winds blew open the store doors.

“I tried to shut the door, but I couldn’t,” he said.

The wind blew items from the shelves, he said.

“I ducked under a table, and the roof just came off,” Mr. Hennington said.

Roofs or parts of roofs blew off or caved in at businesses on South Handley. At Harrison Carpets, a tree fell into the roof, leaving huge rolls of carpet strewn outside the building.

Mike Harrison, co-owner of the business, said he and his employees were not there when the twister hit.

“Fortunately, we were all gone,” he said as he stood outside the business late Tuesday, looking at the damaged roof. “This is pretty much a total loss. We’re kind of in shock.”

The Red Cross opened a shelter at the Handley-Meadowbrook Community Center, 6201 Beaty St. By 10 p.m., about half a dozen people had visited the shelter, mostly to get food. Nurses were on hand to deal with any prescriptions lost in the storm, and mental-health counselors were available.

“We’ll have a better damage assessment at sunrise, and tomorrow, we’ll start working with them on long-term plans,” said Anita Foster, a spokeswoman for the Tarrant County chapter of the American Red Cross.

Fort Worth Mayor Pro Tem Ralph McCloud, who visited the shelter Tuesday night, said, “It seems to have impacted a lot of private homes and small businesses, but there doesn’t appear to be any loss of life and we’re grateful for that.”

A tornado was also reported at the Bonaventure Mobile Home Park on Forest Hill Drive. About 20 mobile homes were damaged, Fort Worth police said, with no injuries reported.

The storm was at least partly to blame for a 53-vehicle pileup about 6 p.m. on Interstate 30. Four people went to area hospitals with minor back and neck injuries after a tractor-trailer lost control on the slick pavement, slammed into the guardrail and ricocheted across several lanes, police said.

The highway remained closed for hours because the truck, which crashed between the Bryant-Irvin and Green Oaks exits, spilled fuel on the roadway.

“I’m banged up a little bit, but mostly it’s my pride,” said the truck’s driver, Doug Manning.

Meteorologists with the National Weather Service said they plan a ground survey of the area.

“We are not sure if that is the same tornado or a different tornado that created constant damage across southeast Fort Worth,” meteorologist Gary Woodall said.

TXU reported only scattered power outages, with the largest group of 2,000 customers in southwestern Fort Worth. A spokeswoman for SBC/Southwestern Bell reported no major trouble spots.

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Love Field closed down during the storm. The FAA evacuated two of its air traffic control towers at D/FW, and delayed and canceled flights left hundreds stranded in the terminals. Passengers were shepherded into stairwells to get them away from windows. Love Field officials moved about 200 people into a basement. Both airports reopened soon after the storm passed.

D/FW reported 1.71 inches of rain, with 1.65 of that amount falling between 6 and 7 p.m., the National Weather Service said.

Waylon Hawkins, who lives on Haynie Street, not far north of Ramey, was in his home with three children when he said a tornado touched down in his back yard.

“I had my three kids in the hallway. I was watching out front and it was circling,” he said. “It sounded like a train coming.”

It wasn’t the first time the family huddled through a storm.

“I had all my kids in the same spot at the same time last time” during the March 2000 tornado, he said.

This time, their home sustained several thousand dollars in damage.

Dena McDonald was in her house on Ramey when she heard tornado sirens, she said.

“Something just told me to get out,” she said.

Ms. McDonald ran to a neighbor’s house, shut herself in a bathroom and started praying. The twister ripped half the roof off her home. She was uninjured.

Willie Williams was “hiding in the living room behind the couch” with his brother and two neighbors. The tornado ripped his fence and blew out windows in his house. From his safe spot, he could see the winds lift his van off the ground. It landed in his driveway.

“This is the first tornado that I have seen, and hopefully the last,” he said.

Staff writers Joshua Benton, Tiara M. Ellis, Holly Warren, Jason
Trahan, Staishy Bostick Siem, Michael A. Lindenberger, Herb Booth,
Jaime Jordan, Debra Dennis and Jennifer Packer contributed to this
report.

UT officials pitch scholarship program across D-FW area; In tour of ‘underserved’ schools, they promise aid to all who get in

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Larry Faulkner, president of the University of Texas, had a blunt message for the students of South Oak Cliff High School.

“Here’s my pitch: We want you,” he told an audience of juniors and seniors Monday. “We want to see you in Austin, and we’re going to stay committed to you and to South Oak Cliff.”

Dr. Faulkner also offered something more substantial than rhetoric: cash.

He and other UT officials took a whirlwind tour of seven urban campuses in Dallas and Fort Worth, dispensing more than $500,000 in scholarships. They also promised that any student from 20 disadvantaged area high schools who gets into UT would be guaranteed a scholarship.

“If you achieve at a high level and get accepted at UT-Austin, we will get you money,” said Augustine Garza, the university’s deputy director of admissions.

UT and other state universities have been trying to increase minority enrollment since the 1996 Hopwood court order, which effectively prohibited the consideration of race in admissions decisions, ending affirmative action at Texas universities. The enrollment levels of black and Hispanic students tumbled after
Hopwood, though they have since rebounded somewhat.

The state’s biggest response was the top 10 percent law, which said that any Texas student ranking in the top 10th of a class gains automatic admission to any state university. That put students at poor, predominantly minority schools on an equal footing with top students in wealthy suburban districts.

But UT has also focused on making four years in Austin more affordable to minorities, called “underserved populations” since the Hopwood ruling. A centerpiece of that effort is the Longhorn Opportunity Scholarship, which goes to students in the top 10 percent of 70 Texas high schools that traditionally have sent few students to UT.

For many students and parents, that influx of cash can make the difference.

“I work two jobs – a day and a night,” parent Jesus Jaime said, sitting in the front row of the North Dallas High School auditorium. “The day job is $7 an hour. The night job is $4.75 plus tips.”

Mr. Jaime’s daughter, Beti, is about to graduate at 22 with a $5,000-a-year scholarship to UT. She started high school as a 19-year-old freshman when she moved here from Mexico. “I need help for her to go to college,” he said.

In past years, the 70 schools in the Longhorn program were allotted a set number of scholarships to be given to top students each year. But UT officials told students Monday that they were broadening that effort by using other scholarship funds.

“If you are admitted to the university, we will find the money for you – there’s not going to be a limit on how much we can give,” said Joe Wilcox, a UT scholarship coordinator who told students, “I’m known as the Money Man.”

School administrators have the task of emphasizing to students the scope of what’s being offered.

“It’s a pretty sweet deal,” North Dallas High principal Lynn Dehart told juniors at an assembly Monday. “I challenge anybody to find a better opportunity out there.”

North Dallas had four scholarship recipients this year and is aiming for eight in 2003.

“If they’re in the top 10 percent, we’re talking about giving them automatic admission, automatic scholarships and lots of support when they’re down in Austin,” said Larry Burt, UT’s director of student financial services. “That’s quite a package.”

So while the official reason for the visits was to hand out scholarships, the real target was each school’s junior class. Juniors were told repeatedly to prepare to accept what UT could soon be offering them.

Judging by the reaction of some students, it might be working. “I really hadn’t thought about UT before, but now I’m interested,” South Oak Cliff junior Carla Venters said.

Flaws found in screening of teachers; Up to 2,400 with criminal records may slip through yearly; Texas agency urges fingerprinting for all prospective hires

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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As many as 2,400 people become teachers in Texas every year despite having unnoticed criminal records, according to a state agency that is recommending all new teachers be fingerprinted before being allowed into a classroom.

“There’s no surefire way of protecting the children, but we want to do more,” said William Franz, executive director of the State Board of Educator Certification.

The recommendation comes from the Sunset Advisory Commission, a state body that evaluates state agencies every 12 years. Its new report on Mr. Franz’s certification board says that the current ad hoc method of screening would-be teachers has “led to situations in which the safety of children has been compromised.”

When people apply for teacher’s certificates in Texas, their names are checked against the Department of Public Safety database of known criminals. If a serious criminal offense is found in an applicant’s background, the state may deny a certificate.

But there are holes in the way the checks are done. No attempt is made to check criminal records in other states. Name-based background checks have high error rates and can miss when a criminal changes his or her name.

“Texas has a reputation as a state that will easily certify educators with criminal history records that have prevented employment in other states,” the report says.

The Sunset report recommends that Texas join the 33 states that already require some sort of fingerprinting of teachers. Fingerprints could then be checked more accurately against Texas records and checked against the FBI’s master database, which includes criminal records from all 50 states.

“We don’t know how many people have come in from other states and been able to avoid scrutiny,” Mr. Franz said.

The Sunset report recommends passing the cost of the national background check – estimated at about $42 – to the new teachers as part of their certification fees.

The Sunset Commission will meet to consider the report’s recommendations on April 23 and 24. If the commissioners approve, they are expected to be formally adopted in June, which means they will be drafted into a bill to be considered in the next legislative session.

Craig Tounget, executive director of the Texas PTA, said his group would support the move.

“I think whatever steps they have to take to make sure no one who has any history of child abuse is teaching in our schools is one of the most important things we can do,” Mr. Tounget said.

The certification board’s current checks are made only once, when a teacher is first certified. It’s up to individual school districts to determine what additional background checks they run when a teacher is hired. Most, including Dallas schools, run state or national background checks, although the Fort Worth Independent School District is one of the few that already use fingerprints.

“Some of them, when they find out they’re going to be fingerprinted, they eliminate themselves from consideration quickly,” said Cecelia Speer, the district’s executive director for student affairs. “They know they’ll be caught.”

During the 2000-01 school year, Fort Worth fingerprinted nearly 3,000 people whose jobs would put them in one-on-one contact with children. About 10 percent were found to have a criminal record. And 10 individuals were found to have committed sexual offenses in states other than Texas – precisely the sort of person a national fingerprint check is designed to catch.

“It’s preventative,” said Tom Parker, assistant director for human resources with the Region 10 Educational Service Center in Richardson, which runs non-fingerprint background checks for about 50 school districts and charter schools in the Dallas area.

“People just don’t apply for a job in public schools if they have criminal records if they’re knowledgeable, because they know they’ll get caught.”

To determine how many teachers may be slipping through the system, Sunset Commission staff members used a study done in 1999 in Florida. The study ran both name-only and fingerprint checks on more than 90,000 state employees and state license recipients. About 12 percent of the people who the first check said had a clear record were found through a fingerprint check to have a criminal
history.

Using that figure, the report estimates that 2,400 of the roughly 20,000 teachers who are certified every year in Texas could have unnoticed criminal backgrounds.

While most states have adopted fingerprinting, it hasn’t always been popular with teachers. When Maine started fingerprinting all its teachers – not just new ones – in 1997, the backlash was strong. Teachers held protests at the state Capitol, and more than 70 teachers refused to be fingerprinted and left the state’s
schools.

“When you have an issue as explosive as child abuse, some people can forget that we have civil liberties to protect us,” said Bernie Huebner, who leads Maine Educators Against Fingerprinting.

Mr. Huebner said there is little evidence that abuse by teachers is a serious problem and that fingerprinting thousands of teachers in hopes of catching a handful is an invasion of privacy and a misuse of resources.

Largely because of teacher lobbying, the state’s Legislature voted to repeal the fingerprinting law last year, although Gov. Angus King vetoed the repeal.

In Texas, teacher groups appear more receptive to the idea. Mr. Franz said he has heard little or no negative reaction from teachers.

“We certainly understand the need to run background checks,” said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. “They’re an excellent idea. I don’t know enough about it to know if fingerprinting is necessary, but if it is, the public interest overrides teachers’ interest in keeping information private.”

But Mr. Cole noted that a plan aimed at filtering out criminals through the certification process might still miss thousands of people. Nearly a quarter of the teachers hired by Texas schools last year were less than fully certified, including many who received emergency permits to fill classrooms that would have otherwise gone without a teacher.

“It sends an unfortunate and discouraging message to would-be teachers at a time when we’re trying to get them into the classroom,” he said.

Targeting newly certified teachers would also do nothing to track down current teachers with criminal records. A recent simple Social Security number check by the certification board found 67 certified teachers who were also registered sex offenders.