Once every 40 years, Tigers stalk Longhorns in Cotton; ‘It was pre-assassination, pre-Vietnam, pre-everything’ the last time Texas and LSU clashed in football

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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There is no Sabine River Shootout. No Battle for the Old Crawfish Tail, no Toledo Bend Tussle.

Texas and Louisiana may share a 250-mile border, but their flagship universities haven’t shared much of a football rivalry.

On Wednesday, Louisiana State and Texas will battle in the SBC Cotton Bowl – 40 years to the day after their last meeting, in the bowl’s 1963 edition.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said Jimmy Field, LSU’s starting quarterback for that 1963 game and scorer of the game’s only touchdown. “Austin’s a great place to play, and Baton Rouge’s a great place to play. It shouldn’t have taken 40 years.”

Dallas was a different place back then. “It was pre-assassination, pre-Vietnam, pre-everything,” said Tom Sullivan, a Dallas retiree who played the euphonium in the LSU marching band that year.

For the LSU students who traveled to Dallas that year, the biggest difference might have been the drinking age: 21 in Texas, 18 in Louisiana. “We were used to being able to drink if you could reach the bar,” he said.

Mr. Sullivan remembers his band director, a Chicago native, had gotten his squad a new set of heavy wool band uniforms.

“We complained – in south Louisiana, even in the dead of winter, you’d never wear wool,” he said. “We sweat like hogs all season.” Until the bitter cold of the Cotton Bowl: “For once, we appreciated having those uniforms.”

The Tigers used a smash-mouth running offense like most teams of their era. The team had completed only 40 passes in 10 games that season.

“But we realized after watching film that it’d be very hard to run on the Longhorns,” said Mr. Field, now a Louisiana public service commissioner.

Going to the air

The Tigers unleashed what, for the time, was a high-powered aerial attack. Quarterbacks Lynn Amedee and Mr. Field were 13-of-21 for 133 yards.

The tide turned against the Longhorns just after halftime, when Texas fumbled the opening kickoff. Mr. Amedee recovered, and a few plays later, Mr. Field ran in from 22 yards for the game’s only touchdown. The final score: 13-0. Mr. Amedee, who also kicked two field goals, was named MVP.

Texas recovered nicely from the loss: The Longhorns won the national championship the next year.

But that was the last time the two teams played. Theories differ on why.

Texas already had strong rivalries with Oklahoma and Texas A&M. LSU’s top rivals have traditionally been Tulane and Ole Miss.

When LSU has played a Texas school, it’s usually been Texas A&M (49 games) or Rice (55 games).

“I think Louisiana has more ties to A&M than to Texas,” said Mr. Amedee, who would later be an assistant coach at Texas, Texas A&M and LSU. “With all the oil fields, there’s a bunch of Aggies in Louisiana. People would get fired up about A&M.” As for Rice, “the closeness to Houston was big for our fans.”

Tight schedules and other issues make negotiating out-of-conference road games between the two teams difficult.

So Texas-LSU border battles will continue to be played out where they most often are today: in the living rooms of high school kids. The two can compete fiercely for recruits, particularly at schools close to the border. Shreveport’s Evangel Christian Academy, a perennial power, will have five players represented in Wednesday’s Cotton Bowl: three Longhorns and two Tigers.

The Tigers returned to the Cotton Bowl once more after 1963. In 1966, an unranked LSU squad shocked No. 2 Arkansas, 14-7.

LSU thought it was headed for another invite in 1969, when the team ran out to a 9-1 record. Louisiana mythology maintains that the Tigers were promised a spot in that year’s Cotton Bowl against the undefeated Longhorns.

Irish interception

But 1969 was the year that Notre Dame decided to end its 45-year absence from postseason play. The Irish, 8-1-1 and led by future pro Joe Theismann, proved a powerful lure for Cotton officials, who brought them to Dallas instead.

Texas ended up beating Notre Dame, 21-17, to claim its second national championship. There weren’t as many bowl games back then, and LSU ended up staying home without a postseason game.

“They left LSU out in the cold,” said New Orleans investment manager Francis Cazayoux, one of several Tiger fans who e-mailed Cotton Bowl officials encouraging them to pick LSU this year. (His e-mail was blunt: “We have not forgotten 1969.”)

Cotton officials insist there was no ill will.

“I would certainly take exception to anyone implying there was anything improper,” said John Scovell, past chairman of the bowl’s board of directors. “If there was one defining game for the Cotton Bowl, it was that one. If there was a Baton Rouge Bowl and it had the chance to have Texas and Notre Dame playing, they would have done the same thing.”

Mr. Scovell said Cotton Bowl officials were “all flabbergasted” when they realized it had been 37 years since LSU’s last visit.

“We think of LSU in the same category as we do the University of Texas – as a premier athletic program,” he said.

It certainly hasn’t hurt ticket sales to have the Tigers in the game. LSU’s batch of 7,700 tickets sold out in less than 12 hours, and an earlier set of 12,000 tickets were quickly snapped up by season ticket holders.

“There’s a real sense of excitement about LSU being here,” Mr. Scovell said. “There’s a buzz around town. I think the hotel’s going to be hopping when the alumni start showing up.”

A bleaker view of dropout problem; 17 districts’ ratings would be lower if federal definition used

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Seventeen area school districts would have had their state ratings lowered last year if the word “dropout” meant the same to Texas officials as it does to the federal government, according to a new data analysis.

For the first time, the state has recalculated the dropout rates of all Texas school districts using the federal definition of a dropout, which some critics say gives a more accurate picture of how many students actually quit school.

The result: The federal data say more than 9,000 students dropped out of North Texas high schools in 1999-2000. The state had reported only about 3,000.

Dropout rates are used to calculate school and district ratings. Test scores are also used in the calculations. Had the federal definition of dropout been used in the state’s accountability formula, seven area districts would have been rated “academically unacceptable” – the state’s lowest possible rating – including the area’s three largest districts: Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington.

“The federal definition is the one that’s most universally used,” said Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what Texas uses.”

Districts generally strive for higher ratings to improve the perception of their schools. But when a district is deemed “academically unacceptable,” it receives an official visit from the state and must create a plan to improve its performance.

The question of how to count dropouts has long dogged Texas and other states. The state’s preferred calculation is called an annual event dropout rate: It attempts to count the number of students in grades seven through 12 who drop out in a given school year.

By that count, the annual dropout rate in Texas was just 1.3 percent in 1999-2000.

But by other measures, the state underestimates the true size of its dropout problem. A study done last year for The Dallas Morning News by the education research group Just for the Kids estimated that about 20 percent of Texas high school students drop out before graduating.

Last year, Texas enrolled 364,000 high school freshmen, but only 225,000 seniors.

“I do not believe the way the state calculates it now is accurate,” said Jack Singley, superintendent in Irving, which reported a dropout rate of 0.6 percent to the state in 1999-2000. “I just don’t believe our dropout rate was 0.6 percent. I firmly believe we have a higher dropout rate than that. I believe that in my heart.”

Different method

The federal government uses a different method of calculating dropout rates. First, it looks at only grades nine to 12, excluding from the count a large number of middle school students, who rarely drop out.

Second, if a student drops out of a high school but says he will pursue a General Educational Development certificate, Texas officials don’t count him as a dropout – even if he never actually gets a GED. Federal officials count him as a dropout unless he actually earns the certificate.

As a result of these and other differences, the federal government argues Texas’ dropout rate was 5 percent in 1999-2000, not 1.3 percent. Irving’s annual dropout rate increased from 0.6 percent to 4.7 percent when using the federal definition.

“We have all the data, but if you use different definitions, you end up with different results,” said Criss Cloudt, the state’s associate commissioner for accountability reporting and research.

Arguing over statistics may seem unimportant, but dropout rates are crucial to school districts because they are a key element of the state’s rating system.

For the year in question, districts had to keep their annual dropout rate below 1 percent to earn an “exemplary” rating, the state’s highest. To be “recognized,” the state’s second-highest rating, the rate had to be below 3 percent. Finally, districts had to keep their dropout rate below 5.5 percent to avoid being rated “academically unacceptable.”

Lower assessments

Because dropout data collection lags behind other statistics the state gathers, the 1999-2000 dropout rates were used to determine school ratings last year, in 2001.

Of 53 North Texas school districts, 17 would have had their state ratings drop if their dropouts had been counted the federal way instead of the state way. Seven districts would have dropped all the way to academically unacceptable: Arlington, Azle, Castleberry, Dallas, Fort Worth, Terrell and Wilmer-Hutchins. As it was, only one district in the state received the academically unacceptable rating in 2001.

Nine other districts would have dropped from recognized to acceptable: Birdville, Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Ennis, Everman, Forney, Irving, Mabank, Mesquite and White Settlement.

Another district, Highland Park, would have dropped from exemplary to recognized, but that was because of a data error in that district’s dropout reporting, not because of an actual increase in the number of dropouts.

“I’ve never felt good about that state number,” said Dr. Singley, the Irving superintendent. “I don’t think it’s accurate.”

2 ways, 2 opinions

Neither method of counting dropouts has universal support. Critics such as Dr. Smink say the state system created artificially low rates. But Dr. Cloudt and others say the state’s more restrictive definition encourages schools to help more at-risk students by enrolling them in GED programs or re-enrolling dropouts back in school.

“We worry about the state definition because, once you start talking about anything else, there’s just no end to it,” said Arlington Superintendent Mac Bernd.

“There are a number of different organizations that calculate it in different ways. We follow what the state law and state regulations tell us.”

In future years, the state will report both its traditional annual dropout rate and a rate based on the federal definition. But it won’t use either when it rates school districts in the future, Dr. Cloudt said.

The state’s new accountability system, which will debut in 2004, will use an altogether different calculation called a completion rate, which tracks a group of students over four years of high school to see how many graduate.

“I think a completion rate is much closer to the public’s understanding of the goal of high school,” Dr. Cloudt said. “That’s to complete four years of education and receive a credential.”

St. Mark’s checkmates chess kings

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David took down Goliath all right – but with a rook, not a slingshot.

Freshman Nate Conrad pulled off a major upset last weekend in Atlanta to give St. Mark’s School of Texas ninth-graders the national team chess championship.

The team – Nate, Christian Leppert and Jared Forbus – beat out 18 teams, even the traditional powerhouse schools of New York City.

On the tournament’s final day, the team standings were so close that it all came down to Nate’s final match. He faced an imposing foe: a New Yorker rated 330 points higher in chess’s complex ranking system.

“That’s like me going up against the world champion,” said St. Mark’s coach Noureddine Ziane, no chess slouch.

After an epic three-hour struggle, Nate pulled out the victory, giving St. Mark’s the title.

— Joshua Benton

A changing of the Bard; GP teacher puts Shakespeare in students’ lingo

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Yeah, it may be pretty and all, but it goes on for another 23 lines! Why couldn’t Billy Shakespeare just cut to the chase: “Juliet is a hotty!”

That’s the approach taken by a newly published series of Shakespeare’s plays, which lets high school students trade in Elizabethan couplets for MTV talk.

“Some people don’t like it, but they’re always adults,” said John Price, the Grand Prairie English teacher responsible for shoving Romeo and Juliet into the 21st century.

“I tell them: ‘You’re not the audience I’m writing for. I’m trying to get high school kids to actually read for a change.'”

Dr. Price’s book features the full, standard text of Shakespeare’s play, a tale of love and suicide among young teens. But alongside the thous and anons is Dr. Price’s snarky running commentary – the same aesthetic made popular by VH1’s hit Pop-Up Video.

When Romeo learns of his banishment from Verona, he cries, “There is not world without Verona walls / But purgatory, torture, hell itself.” Dr. Price notes sarcastically: “He’s not taking this well at all.”

When Lady Capulet mourns her daughter’s death (“Alack the day, she’s dead, she’s dead, she’s dead!”), Dr. Price remarks: “Everybody got that? She’s dead.”

Annotated editions of Shakespeare are nothing new; usually they clue readers into the meaning of words long ago discarded by standard English. But Dr. Price’s book seems to reach a new level of sarcasm and pop-culture immersion.

He got the gig by answering an ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education seeking someone who knew his Shakespeare but could also crack jokes aimed at 14-year-olds. “I figured, ‘I can play cheesy for a while,'” he said.

Dr. Price, who teaches English at Grand Prairie High’s freshman center, said he relied on his teenage daughter for lingo advice, such as the meaning of “crunk.” (It’s like “phat,” only more so.)

His academic credentials – both his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation were on Shakespeare – were strong enough to handle the rest.

In his “Red Reader” edition, the traditional listing of characters is renamed from “Dramatis Personae” to “Shakespeare’s Peeps.” Lord Capulet, usually described as the head of the Capulet household, becomes “Juliet’s pop and a straight-up control freak.” Benvolio becomes Romeo’s “homey.” Friar Laurence becomes Father Larry.

The tone is clear from Act I, Scene I, which Dr. Price, 40, summarized thusly:

The servants of the two feuding families, the Montagues and Capulets, dis’ each other ’til a fight breaks out. Prince Escalus goes off on both families, warning that if another fight occurs, heads will roll.

MacDaddy Romeo (or so he thinks!) is bummed about Rosaline, a babe he wants to hook up with, because she ignores him. His cousin Benvolio (Benny) encourages him to get his groove on elsewhere.

“This is really part of a trend that’s been going on for 300 years or so,” said James Harner, a Texas A&M University professor and editor of the World Shakespeare Bibliography, a massive database of just about everything that’s ever been written about the bard. “Shakespeare gets remade for each generation.”

The Shakespeare scholarly community has its share of purists, but many seem fine with the liberties Dr. Price has taken.

“My view is that Shakespeare is the most wonderful thing that’s ever been done in the English language,” said David Crystal, a linguist and professor at the University of Wales.

“But most people never read him or discover him too late. Getting kids interested is difficult, and I’m all for efforts to interest them. Maybe next time, they’ll dip their toes into the water a little deeper.

“Of course, half or three-quarters of the Shakespeare world would sniff at it.”

The approach seems to be working, at least financially. Dr. Price finished writing in April; the book’s already sold 40,000 copies, according to its publisher, Michigan-based Teacher’s Discovery.

With Romeo’s success, five more works will get the Red Reader treatment in 2003, including a Price treatment of MacBeth and editions of The Scarlet Letter and Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories.

“Teachers already do all these things in their classes,” said Lori Pendley, a South Texas Community College instructor who annotated The Scarlet Letter. “We talk about a chapter in a novel, then we say, ‘Here’s what they’re really saying.’ We put it into their language.”

Dr. Price hasn’t actually used his book in class yet – his freshman students won’t get to Romeo and Juliet until next month. But he asked a teaching colleague to try it out last spring, apparently with winning results.

“My kids adored it,” said Debbie Dobbs, head of the freshman center’s English department. “They could understand everything, so they dug into it deeper than they ever had before.

“You have to have some sort of catch to reach today’s student.”

One district reaps the benefit of another’s belt-tightening; Pinch of state finance law getting worse, Richardson ISD says

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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QUINLAN – For a while, there were no Friday night lights at Boles High School. They couldn’t afford them.

Boles is part of the poorest school district in Texas. Years ago, someone figured out the school could save money on electricity if the field lights weren’t turned on until 8 on game nights.

That worked fine in August. But as the season went on and the sun set earlier, fans were left to sit in the dark while waiting for the dim lights strapped to roadside telephone poles to turn on.

When they did, parents saw their Hornets in run-down uniforms and ill-fitting helmets – hand-me-downs from a nearby school. Wide receivers dodged random humps and fire-ant mounds on the field.

“It was sad to watch,” said Pat Madden, a teacher at Boles since 1981. “The bleachers were all broken planks – you had to be careful where you sat. The kids deserved more than what they had.”

Fast forward to today: The much-maligned Texas school funding system has bought Boles new bleachers. And computers. And a new middle school. And lights that go on when they’re needed.

“We’re very proud just to have normal things now,” said Superintendent Graham Sweeney. “Things other districts have taken for granted, we’re just getting.”

That progress has largely been paid for by districts wealthier than Boles through the state’s school finance system. Districts such as Richardson, which has given up $151 million so far by sharing its property wealth.

Officials in Richardson ISD, which sent $3.4 million directly to Boles ISD through last year, say they’re happy for the gains in poorer districts. But they also feel cheated as programs they want to offer begin to erode.

“‘Robin Hood’ started out hurting a little,” said Charles Pickett, principal of Richardson North Junior High. “Now it’s killing us. The needs in places like Boles are real. But how far can you cut districts like us without hurting our children’s education?”

The first salvo in the modern battle over school finance came in 1984, when the Edgewood school district in San Antonio sued the state, saying Texas’ method of funding education was unfair, unequal and unconstitutional. Since then, primarily in reaction to court rulings, the Legislature has tried a variety of methods to equalize the funding between rich and poor.

The current system, called Robin Hood by its critics, arrived in 1993. The idea: The state would put a cap on how wealthy a school district could be. Districts that brought in too much revenue from local property taxes would have to send millions back to the state or directly to poorer districts.

Working toward balance

The system is supposed to bring funding levels for rich and poor districts closer together. That’s been bad news for the 118 “wealthy” Texas districts that must give up much of their local tax revenue – $1.5 billion total in the current two-year state budget cycle.

Richardson gave out only $4.5 million over the first three years. Since then, as property values have revved up, so have the payouts: $9.6 million in 1997-98, $28 million in 1999-2000, nearly $43 million last year.

Richardson expects to pay $55 million this year, more than 20 percent of the district’s operating budget.

“We’ve cut and cut,” said Patti Kieker, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources. “All that’s left to cut is people.”

The rules of school finance have allowed Richardson to spend 42 percent more per student now than 10 years ago. But that hasn’t kept pace with the district’s needs, officials say.

“The cost to provide an education is substantially higher now than it was 10 years ago,” said Tony Harkleroad, Richardson’s finance director. “Teacher pay is up. Utilities are up. Construction costs are up for new schools.”

As those prices rise, the demographics of Richardson schools have also changed.

In 1993-94, 21.2 percent of RISD students were poor. Last year, 38.4 percent were poor.

The irony isn’t lost on Richardson officials: Students in their “wealthy” district are more likely to be poor than students in Boles. And though Boles is rated “recognized” by the state, Richardson is one step down at “acceptable.”

Initially, Richardson’s approach was to target central office expenses. More than 100 jobs were cut. Cellphone and travel expenses were cut; the district saved more than $1 million by making changes in its phone system. Maintenance schedules were scaled back.

But over time, such cuts weren’t enough. “This is really the first year we’ve had to touch classrooms more directly,” Mr. Harkleroad said.

The district reduced the amount of one-on-one time some elementary students get with reading instructors. Middle school art, music and P.E. teachers were asked to take on more classes and more kids.

There are fewer field trips, fewer speakers, fewer extra materials. Teacher free time was reduced, making it harder to arrange planning time for groups of teachers.

“We’re shortchanging the kids,” said Lori French, a P.E. teacher at Richardson North Junior High, whose classes of 35 kids now have 50 or more. “It’s very difficult on the teachers – it’s a stress load.”

Just try teaching volleyball to 50-plus kids in a gym with one net, she said.

“You get to the point where you say, ‘Beyond this number of students, we just physically can’t have a class,'” Mr. Pickett, the principal, said.

Unlike some other property-wealthy districts, Richardson has avoided charging fees for extracurricular activities or pushing elementary classes beyond the state class-size limits. And the district still provides a 15 percent homestead exemption to its residents.

Officials in Richardson don’t begrudge poor districts the benefits they’ve reaped from the school funding system. They do say, however, that Richardson should be able to spend more on its children if it chooses. With its tax rate already at the $1.50 state-mandated cap and its annual payout climbing, it now can’t.

“If our community wants the burden of providing a better education…they should be able to,” Mr. Harkleroad said.

The Boles Independent School District grew from an act of charity. William and Mary Boles were aging Hunt County farmers who, by the 1920s, had assembled 436 acres north of Quinlan, near Lake Tawakoni.

Both husband and wife had been orphans raised by relatives, and they had raised three orphan children. In their 60s, they determined they would give their land to a church willing to build an orphanage on the site. The Church of Christ agreed, and the Boles Orphan Home opened in 1924.

A small school was formed to educate the children who lived in the home. In the 1930s, the school was organized into a public school district, one of the state’s smallest.

Crunching the numbers

From the beginning, there was almost no money to support what was then called Boles Home ISD. The entire district is only nine square miles, with not a single business within its boundaries. It’s mostly farmland.

When Boles held a school board election in May, 32 people voted – the most in district history. (“We had to really beat the bushes to get that many,” Dr. Sweeney said.)

The state defines how wealthy a school district is by looking at how much property value it has for each student. Last year, Boles had $16,897 in property per student – less than one-tenth the state average. Richardson had $467,475 – more than double the state average.

That tiny tax base means that no matter how high Boles raises its taxes, it can’t generate the money it needs to run a school system.

Raising Richardson’s tax rate by 1 cent provides $1.6 million, about $45 per student. If Boles raises its tax rate by one penny, it generates $887, or about $1.82 per student.

Luckily for Boles, the state recognized its financial problems decades ago. As far back as the 1970s, the state was paying for 90 percent of the cost to educate Boles children.

But that wasn’t enough. During the 1980s, teachers would sometimes teach two or three grades in a single classroom while earning the lowest salaries allowable under state law. History teachers taught the Civil War without maps. The entire school had one TV. Students had state-issued textbooks, but additional instructional materials were too expensive.

“It was very primitive,” said Ed Voss, who one year in the early 1990s taught high school kids world geography, U.S. history, math, reading, speech and drama.

Dr. Sweeney, who arrived in 1986, used to help mow the school’s lawn, on a cheap riding mower. “I kept a box of nuts, bolts, screws and tools in my office so I could go fix things when they broke.” The secretary was also the school nurse, the business manager, the food service director and the transportation director.

“We had one bus you didn’t know if you’d get to Quinlan three miles away with,” said Marie Walton, who has taught at Boles since 1974. Teachers tell tales of hours spent on the side of a country road while someone walked miles to call for help.

The gym was a converted aircraft hangar from a nearby military installation, more rust than roof.

“We were basically living paycheck to paycheck as a district,” said Julie Spears, the assistant superintendent.

Those times are barely memories for the staff at Boles now. The impact of more state funding has been remarkable.

For the first time, the district could afford to own its schools. (It had spent decades in buildings owned by the orphan home.) With its first bond issue and state help, Boles even built a new middle school.

Now Boles can pay teachers more than the state minimum, even if it pays about $10,000 a year less than Richardson. The district has a full-time school counselor for the first time.

The high school has two high-tech distance learning classrooms, good for tapping into courses at Texas A&M University. There are awnings over the sidewalks to keep students dry. There’s a school band for the first time.

A draw for students

There has been academic success, too. Boles has been rated “recognized” – the state’s second-highest label – for two of the last three years. More than half of the school’s graduates go on to college.

Perhaps most important, Boles has become so much of a draw that kids in neighboring towns want to go there. The district, itching to get its enrollment numbers up, will take anyone it can, and there’s a waiting list. This year, Boles enrolled 520 students, about 300 of whom transferred from neighboring districts such as Greenville and Terrell.

While it’s no longer a one-room schoolhouse, Boles’ financial stability allows it to bring out the positive qualities of a compact, small-town education.

“You don’t have to worry about anything going wrong here,” said senior William Nichols. “The teachers really care about you here. I love it.”

“One kid who transferred into Boles didn’t show up for school one day, and we called to check on him,” Ms. Madden said. “He couldn’t understand. He said, ‘In my old district, I could miss school for a week and no one would notice.'”

Has the school finance system succeeded in offering children in Richardson and Boles a comparable education? By the numbers, yes.

Last year, Richardson spent $6,116 to educate each student. Boles spent $6,106.

The size of that gap has jumped around a bit each year since the finance system’s creation in 1993, growing larger in some years, smaller in others. But considering the yawning divide between the two economically, the gap isn’t nearly as large as it would be in some other states.

Closing the gap

Because Richardson pays its teachers so much more than Boles, Boles can spend more on supplies, instructional materials and school maintenance than Richardson.

“In terms of equity, Texas looks very favorable compared to other states,” said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group that analyzes state education policies. “There are several different ways to measure how equitable a system is, but Texas does very well in all of them.

“The reason is that the entire system is designed to create equity,” he said. “In other states, equity is a focus of the funding system. But not many states have equity as the main goal.”

The two districts are so close in part because, last year, Richardson, in effect, “adopted” the children of Boles. Richardson, rather than send all of its payout to the state, sent more than $3.4 million of its payment directly to Boles, as state law allows.

That Richardson payment made up about 90 percent of Boles’ total budget.

Officials in both districts, despite their differing circumstances, agree on one thing: The system needs more state money, however it’s distributed. One byproduct of the system is that the state pays for a significantly smaller share of education now than even three years ago.

Texas ranks 34th of the 50 states in how much it spends per student. Mr. Griffith said many states are moving beyond issues of equity because equal funding doesn’t guarantee appropriate funding.

“What you end up with is a system where everybody is equitable, but nobody has enough money,” Mr. Griffith said.

But while the Legislature debates various remedies in the upcoming session, Dr. Sweeney is just pleased there’s still a superintendent’s job to be had at Boles.

“If Robin Hood hadn’t come along, it’s questionable if Boles would still be around,” he said. “But now we’ve got a nice little school district here, don’t we?”

Captain dies after fighting blaze; Officials suspect he had massive heart attack

By Joshua Benton and Tiara M. Ellis
Staff Writers

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A Dallas fire captain died Thursday after he helped fight a house fire in Far North Dallas.

Capt. Michael L. DePauw, 51, was rushed to Medical City Dallas Hospital as CPR was administered. He was pronounced dead at the hospital at 9:04 p.m.

Fire officials said that they suspect Capt. DePauw suffered a massive heart attack but that they will continue to investigate.

No one else was hurt in the fire, which was reported about 8 p.m.

The fire broke out in a two-story home in the 6700 block of Briar Cove Drive, and officials said Capt. DePauw was among the first to reach the second floor to battle the blaze in the attic.

Flames were shooting through the roof, but the fire was quickly brought under control. Damage was estimated at $150,000.

Fire Lt. Doug Dickerson said some of the 40 firefighters shifted their energies to helping the captain once his condition was known.

“That always is the focus when one of your own is felled,” he said.

Capt. DePauw had been with the department since March 1972 and worked at the station at Belt Line and Hillcrest roads.

Up to 20 of his comrades and friends stood near the hospital’s emergency room entrance, hugging and consoling one another.

When Mr. DePauw’s wife arrived at the hospital, firefighters lined the walkway, many with their hands crossed behind their backs.

Dallas Fire Chief Steve Abraira joined the vigil.

“Unfortunately, losing anybody is a tragedy in our minds,” he said. “It really hurts us. We consider every one of us a big family.”

Success driven by a singular focus; School standardizes its curriculum, becomes exemplary in El Paso

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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EL PASO – One of the perks of becoming a math teacher at Del Valle High School in El Paso: You’ll never have to write a test again.

The math department chairwoman writes them all for you.

Along with your entire curriculum. And what you’ll be teaching every day of the year. Want some leeway to do your own thing?

“You can be one day ahead of the plan or one day behind – that’s it,” said Patty Lucero, the department chairwoman.

“The idea of academic freedom is truly a thing of the past,” said principal J.R. Guinn. “We’ve got a curriculum, and everybody’s going to learn it. That’s how we’re going to be able to set the academic bar every other school will try to reach.”

That sort of academic centralization and a single-minded focus on success have helped Del Valle become one of the state’s rarest stories: an excellent urban high school.

“They don’t let you quit. It’s not an option,” said Daniel “Moose” Chavez, a senior and football captain.

To the degree that urban school districts have had much success in the state’s accountability system, it’s usually been in elementary schools. Their smaller size and less diverse student populations often make test score success easier.

The urban high schools that do find success are typically magnet schools, which often get to keep their size small and choose their students from a pool of the district’s best. Dallas, for instance, has seven high schools rated “exemplary,” but all are magnet schools.

Del Valle has no magnet program. It’s by all appearances a standard, traditional high school, filled with about 1,800 students. Eighty-five percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

It’s barely a mile from the Zaragosa Bridge and the Mexican border, and many of its students are recent immigrants.

And like many urban schools, it’s seen its share of instability in leadership. Ysleta, Del Valle’s school district, has had six permanent or interim superintendents since 1998. (It’s searching for one now.)

Del Valle has never had a principal survive all the way from a freshman class’s arrival to its senior graduation. Mr. Guinn, who is white, was the subject of a bruising, racially charged school board battle when he was hired as principal of the almost entirely Hispanic school.

Stable faculty

Just about the only area of stability has been in its faculty. The average teacher at Del Valle has 15 years of experience, three more than the state average. A core of academic leaders has remained in place through multiple principals, and they’ve taken charge of improving student performance. Mr. Guinn calls them the Power Ladies, although he allows there are a few men in their number as well.

Take Ms. Lucero in math, for example. When she became department chairwoman in the mid-1990s, she centralized and standardized, so that every teacher would be teaching and testing the same material at the same time.

“That way you know exactly what kids should know at every point in the year,” she said.

It also made it easier to compare how teachers were doing. After a test, passing rates for each teacher are distributed among the math faculty.

“A teacher who isn’t successful here is sweating bullets,” Mr. Guinn said.

In 1996, Del Valle’s passing rate on the state’s Algebra I exam was 2 percent. This year, it was 73.6 percent – 16 percent ahead of the state as a whole.

“Scores don’t just happen,” Ms. Lucero said. “You have to deliberately go out and get them.”

With the transition to the new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills – a test expected to be significantly tougher than the TAAS, particularly in high school math – Del Valle could be excused for lowering expectations.

But instead, the goal already emblazoned on the wall of the teacher workroom is lofty: “95% TAKS passing in 2004.”

“You have to have a dream,” she said. “We had a vision that all kids could learn. I don’t know why we wouldn’t be able to reach our goal.”

That sentiment – that success is the default, anything less an aberration – appears to be one of Mr. Guinn’s most significant contributions to the campus.

When he arrived as principal in 2001, the school was already successful, having been rated “recognized” for the previous two years. But it had fallen short of its ultimate goal, the state’s top rating.

He set about determining what obstacles stood in the way of exemplary status. To earn the rating, Del Valle had to have more than 90 percent of its students pass the reading, writing and math TAAS tests, along with having an annual dropout rate below 1 percent.

In 2001, Del Valle had math scores high enough to earn exemplary status and was close in writing. But it was a few points short in reading, and its dropout rate was more than twice the level required.

The school tackled the dropout rate first. The way Texas calculates dropout rates, schools can pursue students who have already dropped out and try to persuade them to re-enroll. If they do, they don’t count against a school’s record.

Eager Beaver Leaver

So enter the Eager Beaver Leaver committee, an ad hoc group led by assistant principal Gilbert Baca. The committee of truancy officers and other community liaisons gathered a list of all the students who had dropped out in the last year and divvied up their names. Then they started knocking on doors.

“Beavers are known for lots of hard work – that’s why we picked the name,” Mr. Baca said.

They learned tricks of the dropout trade, like calling dropouts from cellphones instead of their offices, so Del Valle would not show up on caller ID.

If a male truancy officer couldn’t convince someone, they would try a female community liaison instead.

Within a few months, they had “recovered” 28 dropouts. In some cases, the students had re-enrolled at another school and records simply had to be updated. Some were directed into GED programs or alternative schools. About half a dozen re-enrolled at Del Valle.

“They called at least 10, 15 times,” said Anthony Mendoza, who had dropped out when his family moved to Las Vegas and never re-enrolled when they moved back to El Paso. “They were all calling me telling me to come back. They talked to my dad. They said I was always welcome at Del Valle.”

After eight months out of school, he’s now back at Del Valle, headed to graduation this spring. He hopes to study architectural drafting in college.

Reading targeted

Last Dec. 17, after the Eager Beavers had done their work, Mr. Guinn got on the school intercom and announced the school’s dropout rate would be below 1 percent – enough for exemplary. Now, it was just a matter of test scores.

“I sent the stress level in this school way up,” he said.

Since reading was a relative weakness, the school instituted a special effort to boost reading speed in students with weak skills. About 80 percent of Del Valle’s freshmen arrive on campus reading below grade level, Mr. Guinn said.

When TAAS scores came back this spring, the reading passing rate had jumped 7 points, to 94.5 percent. Math and writing were both up, too. The school had earned its first exemplary rating – the first of any traditional high school in the El Paso area.

“We’ve done what people said was not possible,” Mr. Guinn said.

The push for success isn’t limited to academics.

“His whole philosophy is about building a tradition of success,” said Lea Wilson, the school’s cheerleading coach. “When our girls are at a competition, they’re thinking, ‘We’re gonna win, we’re gonna win – there’s no choice!'”

Last year, Del Valle’s cheerleading team won the national championship. Five years ago, the cheerleaders didn’t even attend local or regional competitions.

“You have to make the expectation of success part of your belief system,” Mr. Guinn said. “Whether its athletics, academic competitions, band – whatever it is – we’re raising the bar. We expect success.”

He’s willing to spend money and make changes to make those expectations reasonable. When Ms. Wilson said a new practice floor would give cheerleaders an edge in national competition, Mr. Guinn found $5,800 in the budget for it.

“It puts us six months ahead” of other schools’ training, she said.

The football team has a new set of coaches, and for the first time, they all have college playing experience.

For the debate team, he hired a former national speech champion as coach. A new band director has pushed a middling program into one of the region’s strongest.

Out with excuses

“The other big urban districts in Texas complain, ‘We’ve got too many minorities, our kids are too poor,'” said B.J. Powell, a career education teacher. “They keep giving excuses. Well, we’re all poor and all minority, and look at us. The excuses don’t work any more.”

Mr. Powell heads the school’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter, one of the state’s most successful in academic competitions.

“Before, the goal for kids was, ‘I hope I qualify for state.’ Then it was ‘I hope I qualify for nationals.’ Now, it’s ‘I want to win nationals.’ It’s an evolutionary thing that has grown each year.”

The master plan is for success to become addictive. Once a school is exemplary, what student wants to be part of the first class to lower its rating?

“We’re very thankful for what we have here, and we’re not going to do anything to mess it up,” said “Moose” Chavez, the football captain and star right guard. “It’s pride and self-discipline.

“I woke up feeling sick this morning. My dad said I didn’t have to go to school. But I wanted to. Before, I’d fake being sick to get out of school. Now I want to go.”