Nigerian nuns happy with German pope; Sisters had rooted for African cardinal but weren’t disappointed

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 17A

ENUGU, Nigeria – “The pope is coming! The pope is coming!”

Sister Chinyere was yelling at the television the moment she saw the crawl across CNN’s screen. She and three other Sisters of Divine Love were in the front room of the small hostel they run in this eastern Nigerian city, watching the white smoke rise on a 13-inch set.

It was no secret who the sisters, and most of Africa’s 130 million Catholics, were rooting for: Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze. The church’s highest-ranking African, he was the first legitimate black candidate for the papacy in more than a millennium.

Cardinal Arinze was born in the nearby village of Eziowelle and attended seminary here. Nearly all the nuns had occasion to meet him at one time or another.

So one might have expected disappointment at the naming of another European pope – particularly after Cardinal Arinze’s candidacy had been promoted as validation for an entire continent. But there was nothing but joy in the room when it was announced that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a close adviser to the beloved Pope John Paul II, had become Pope Benedict XVI.

“He is the one!” one nun exclaimed. “He is the one!”

A dozen sisters, smiling broadly, lunged and danced, their robin’s-egg blue habits shaking against the robin’s-egg blue walls. The flop of sandals announced each nun who came running down the tiled hallway.

“I think Ratzinger probably learned a lot sitting beside John Paul, and I think he will be a great pope,” said Sister Chizogie.

During the new pope’s benediction, the Nigerian nuns heartily echoed each “amen” and added a few “viva papas” for good measure.

Some clutched rosaries. Others were on their cellphones, calling sisters who might not be near a television. “New pope” and “CNN” were the only English words; whatever else they said into the phones they said in their native Igbo.

The nuns expressed surprise when it was announced what papal name Cardinal Ratzinger had taken. Sister Okechukwu had been betting on continuity and the unveiling of a John Paul III.

Standing behind the sisters, a man reached into his torn right pants pocket and pulled out a small notepad. He flipped past a few filled pages and slowly wrote it out: “Pope Benedict the 16th.”

Since John Paul’s death, Nigerian Catholics had been torn between opposite hopes.

They wanted their man Arinze to succeed, of course. But they also questioned whether the universal church was ready for a black man to take charge.

“The stage is not right,” Sister Chigozie said. “It would have been a giant shock to the church.

“We are just now in the years of acceptance for Africa in the church. It must move slowly.”

State stiffens school ratings; Many more will be ‘unacceptable'; bill could spur privatization

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

The number of schools the state considers failing will skyrocket next year under a tougher accountability system approved by state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley.

And a new Senate proposal could pave the way to dozens or hundreds of those failing schools being taken over by private companies.

“I’m not concerned about how many schools become ‘unacceptable,'” said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chairwoman of the Senate education committee. “I’m more concerned about what happens in the classroom that makes them unacceptable.”

The confluence of two distinct shifts in the Texas education world has some wondering whether schools are being set up for failure.

“There are people out there promoting the idea that public schools are bad,” said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. “You’d almost forget that we have a president who ran on the idea that he had fixed the schools in Texas.”

Dr. Neeley formally approved the new system Monday after more than a month of consideration by Texas Education Agency committees and staff members. Starting next year, the passing rate schools have to reach to be “academically acceptable” will increase by 10 percentage points in reading, writing, social studies and science. In math, the required passing rate will increase 5 points.

That – combined with other changes in the accountability system – will make it much harder for schools to stay out of the ratings gutter. Last year, 92 Texas schools were labeled unacceptable. If the new standards had been in place, 1,213 schools would have received the tag. Texas has about 7,700 public schools.

“Our goal is to bring our schools up to a really good standard,” TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said.

It’s unlikely that the number of failing schools would reach 1,213. Scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test generally improve every year as teachers figure out how best to teach to the test. Those improvements will probably reduce the number of unacceptable campuses by several hundred.

But if Ms. Shapiro’s bill becomes law, many of those schools would be managed by private – perhaps for-profit – companies. Under her proposal, any school that is rated unacceptable for two years must be removed from the control of the local school board and handed off to “alternative management.”

The most likely candidates for such management would be school management companies.

The best-known is Edison, a for-profit company that has managed public schools in Dallas and elsewhere. It’s received mixed reviews; many of the districts that’ve worked with Edison, such as Dallas, have severed ties to the company.

For-profit fears

Ms. Shapiro emphasized that “alternative management” does not necessarily mean a for-profit company. “It could be a group of parents that wants to do a better job,” she said. “It could be UT-Austin or UT-Dallas or a school with a college of education. I think we’re focusing too much on the potential of a for-profit management team.”

But her bill includes language that appears to favor established companies over upstarts. The bill requires anyone wishing to take over a school to have “documented success in whole school interventions that increased the educational and performance levels of students in low-performing campuses.”

Her bill is a Senate substitute to House Bill 2, the school finance bill passed last month by the Legislature’s lower chamber. The House bill contained a similar private-management provision. But instead of tying takeovers to the “unacceptable” label, it targeted schools whose test scores ranked in the bottom 5 percent of the state.

That change makes Dr. Neeley’s change to the definition of “unacceptable” more important. Under current law, schools rated unacceptable for several years can be subject to dissolution by the commissioner. But that tool has been used rarely.

Ms. Shapiro’s proposal removes much of the commissioner’s leeway in determining whether intervention is appropriate.

“I just think we need a stronger plan,” Ms. Shapiro said. “We’ve talked about low-performing schools for an awfully long time and said that, over a period of time, they would change. And they haven’t.”

Whether her assertions are correct come down to what, exactly, it means to be “unacceptable.” Texas has had a school-rating system since 1993, but what it takes to earn the state’s lowest label has changed in most years since then. Nearly every school in the state has seen dramatic increases in state test scores over that time, and the state’s standards have increased to match them.

Over the last decade, the rating system has kept the number of failing schools relatively low – generally 50 to 150.

But prominent players in education policy – led by former Bush education adviser Sandy Kress – believe that number is too low. Mr. Kress, a former Dallas school board president, has said the state’s system should identify about 10 percent of schools as poor performers.

“This is a bigger jump than anyone was looking for,” said Whit Johnstone, Irving’s director of testing and research, who served on a statewide committee that recommended a smaller increase in standards than what Dr. Neeley chose. “Resources are finite, and you can’t spend as much money as you want to move everything along at the same time,” he said.

Challenges ahead

He said dealing with the increases would be difficult for districts such as his. Irving would have had several schools slip to unacceptable status had the standards been in place last year.

“A 10-percentage-point increase in the passing rate is pretty significant,” he said. “It’s not going to be a simple thing for any school district.”

Some educators said there’s little evidence that removing schools from the control of school districts increases their quality.

“If charter schools are to serve as an example of the effectiveness of the private sector, I think the results have been very mixed,” said Maria Whitsett, executive director for accountability in the Austin school district. “I don’t believe we can assume privatization is a blanket solution.”

Staff writer Russell Rian contributed to this report.

W-H cancels meeting; But state overseers gather, rehire interim superintendent

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The great Wilmer-Hutchins agenda debate continues.

Last week, both the district’s school board and its state overseers produced agendas for Monday night’s meeting. The documents differed in some fairly substantial ways – for instance, about who would be the district’s superintendent and who would serve on its school board.

On Monday afternoon, board President Luther Edwards threw up his hands and canceled the meeting. But state-appointed monitors held a meeting Monday night and rehired James Damm, the interim superintendent who was fired by the board last month.

The agenda debate stemmed from very real confusion over who is in charge of troubled Wilmer-Hutchins, which has been in a state of financial collapse since summer. In November, the Texas Education Agency appointed two overseers who have broad legal control over the school board’s actions. But a restraining order issued March 25 temporarily removed their power.

That order was reversed by an appeals court Friday, but another appeal of that decision was filed Monday.

Ironically, TEA officials had said earlier Monday that they expected the meeting to go forward with Mr. Edwards’ preferred agenda.

Column: History teacher cut from starting lineup

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

I can’t promise you Linda Hosey would be a great history teacher.

I’ve never seen her try to wrangle a classroom of distracted 16-year-olds. I’ve never seen her try to explain the fall of the Bastille or the rise of the New Deal.

But I think it’s fair to say that her inability to coach offensive linemen shouldn’t stop her from getting into a classroom.

You see, a few years ago, Linda decided to go back to college in her 40s. Living in Lubbock at the time, she enrolled at Texas Tech and became an academic star.

She graduated in 2002 with a perfect 4.0 GPA, summa cum laude. She knew she wanted to be a social studies teacher, so she majored in economics and minored in history. She did stints as an apprentice teacher, she took a rigorous course schedule, and she got all her necessary certifications. And having school-age kids, she’d spent years as a PTA mom.

“I wanted to make a difference in young people’s lives,” she says.

Which is why it came as a surprise to her that, when she started applying for teaching jobs at North Texas high schools, she got the cold shoulder.

“Everyone I talked to said their social studies jobs were set aside for coaches,” she says. “If I wasn’t a coach, I didn’t have a chance. I couldn’t even get an interview.”

Linda isn’t alone. “I think it’s extremely common,” said Shannon Pugh, a history teacher at W.T. White High and past president of the Dallas Council for the Social Studies. “There’s been this perception that anybody can teach history.”

Just hand them a textbook and tell them at what year to start reciting facts, I suppose.

I pulled together some data for North Texas high schools to see how many teachers in each major subject received side pay for also coaching UIL athletics. It turns out that more than one out of every three area social studies teachers also coaches.

Proportionally, that’s almost four times as many coaches as you find among English teachers, and about twice as many as you find among math and science teachers.

“We look for teaching ability first,” said Linda Massey, a Dallas teacher and president of the Texas Council for the Social Studies. “But if there happens to be a coaching position that needs to be filled, that’s what they’re going to do.”

Now, I’m not saying coaches can’t be good teachers. They can be great ones. Ms. Pugh says the history-teaching coaches at W.T. White are all wonderful, and I don’t doubt it.

But is it a good thing if the features we look for in teachers – pedagogical ability, strong subject knowledge – somehow rank below ability to decode a 1-3-1 zone defense?

“It’s appalling,” says Peggy Althoff, a school administrator in Colorado Springs and vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “I would hope the top priority is whether they’re good teachers. Otherwise you’re encouraging promising teachers to go do something else.”

Linda went to a teacher job fair last spring and tried to talk to as many local districts as she could. She said about a dozen of them gave her variations on the same theme: Be a coach and we’ll think about hiring you.

Last month, she e-mailed one local principal about a possible vacancy for the fall. “There will probably not be any additional openings in SS [social studies] this year,” the principal wrote back. “The need to have coaches has already filled SS.”

Her daughters started telling Linda that maybe she should give in and learn a sport. Golf can’t be that hard, right?

“But I’m 47 years old and I don’t know anything about sports,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to be a coach to teach history. I shouldn’t have to be a coach to teach economics.”

Some say the situation will improve over time, since Texas schools are now being evaluated for their students’ performance on the social studies TAKS. That creates an incentive for schools to worry about history more than before. But the test has proved so easy to pass that I doubt it’s increased the attention to social studies more than a smidge.

When I started calling administrators for this column, it was remarkable how quickly they said they didn’t want their name in the paper. “I can’t believe they’d say it out loud,” one top local social studies administrator said before insisting on her name being kept quiet. “I know it happens, but I can’t believe they’d say it out loud.”

Will Linda Hosey be a great teacher? History will tell. But we’ll never find out if no one gives her a shot.

State back in charge of W-H school district; Court order overturned; more changes ahead as fired chief plans return

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

State officials are back in charge of running Wilmer-Hutchins schools, and changes are on the way.

The 5th District Court of Appeals threw out a week-old temporary restraining order Friday. That order, issued by state District Court Judge Merrill Hartman, had removed the state-imposed management team that has overseen the troubled district’s operations since November.

The ruling was not a surprise to state officials, who have said for days that they believed the restraining order was not on solid legal ground.

“Now we hope to reverse most, if not all, of the actions the school board took without the management team present,” said Suzanne Marchman, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman.

“We knew everything we had done was in accordance with the law,” said fired interim Superintendent James Damm, who said he has agreed to return as interim superintendent Monday.

The two state managers, Albert Black and Michelle Willhelm, had the legal authority to overrule nearly any decision the school board made – an authority they used with regularity in recent months, as the board has resisted cost-cutting measures the state deems important.

With the managers temporarily rendered powerless Monday by the restraining order, the board made numerous moves that state officials didn’t approve of – including firing Mr. Damm, dismissing several of the district’s attorneys and tentatively re-creating the district’s controversial Police Department.

State managers scrambled Friday to schedule a school board meeting Monday night, when TEA officials are expected to express their displeasure at the board’s actions and reverse many of them.

The appeals court ruling, written by Justice Douglas Lang, finds that Judge Hartman had no jurisdiction to issue the restraining order. That’s because it was issued as part of a lawsuit against the district that Judge Hartman effectively agreed to dismiss on Feb. 1.

Under state law, the appeals court ruled, a judge retains jurisdiction over a case for only 30 days after a “nonsuiting.” That means Judge Hartman lost jurisdiction more than three weeks before he agreed, at the request of attorneys for plaintiff Brenda Duff, to revive the lawsuit and grant the restraining order.

Now the TEA has to consider how best to interact with a school board that is intermittently in open rebellion against state authority.

Ms. Marchman said the agency’s attorneys were investigating ways to be more aggressive against what it views as the board’s intransigence.

“There’s some discussion on what we can do instead of having the board vote and be overruled, back and forth, if they continue to go against the advice of the management team,” she said.

But Mr. Black struck a more conciliatory tone. “We will give this board the respect it deserves,” he said. “I am attempting to hold out a hand of cooperation. Hopefully, they’ll accept the gesture as an authentic one.”

The management team’s interactions with the district may only last a few more months. The state’s education commissioner, Shirley Neeley, has decided to eliminate the district’s school board entirely and appoint state replacements. That move will require Justice Department approval, which is pending.

Whoever is in charge, the district’s leaders will be seeking financial stability in the form of two major loans. One, for about $3.5 million, will allow the district to pay off an outstanding loan to Wells Fargo bank. The other, for about $2 million, will allow the district to meet its payroll obligations through the summer months before a new infusion of state funding is due.

The first loan may be running into difficulty. The Wells Fargo loan was due last month, but district officials negotiated an extension to May. On Thursday, representatives of a Houston law firm, writing on behalf of Wells Fargo, said they were cutting off further discussions with the district because they were concerned about the precarious state of the district’s leadership.

“They said they cannot agree to move forward and continue those negotiations until we address the management structure of the district,” Mr. Black said.

He said Wells Fargo was not calling the loan, a move that could push the district into bankruptcy. But Mr. Black said he was confident that, with the management team back in place, the matter could be resolved.