U.S. Justice allows dissolution of W-H district; Scandal-plagued district is set to merge with DISD schools July 1

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Wilmer-Hutchins schools have lost the final appeal of their death sentence.

The U.S. Department of Justice, in a letter to state officials Monday, said it would not object to the permanent dissolution of Wilmer-Hutchins. That clears the way for the district to be dissolved into Dallas ISD on July 1.

“We’re happy to get a conclusion on this,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe.

Wilmer-Hutchins exploded in a series of scandals in August 2004. That’s when the district’s high school was unable to open its doors on time after a rainstorm damaged its roof.

The district’s inability to repair the damage exposed rampant financial mismanagement, with district budgets containing made-up numbers and hundreds of thousands of dollars unaccounted for.

Three district officials have been indicted. Most prominent is the district’s former superintendent, Charles Matthews, who is charged with destroying purchasing documents and faking attendance records to obtain extra state funding.

Cheating inquiry

But the district’s shutdown derives from a separate scandal: widespread cheating on the state’s standardized tests. A Dallas Morning News investigation found strong evidence of educator-led cheating in the district’s elementary schools.

That prompted a state inquiry, which eventually found that two-thirds of Wilmer-Hutchins elementary teachers were improperly helping students – in some cases by distributing answer keys to students beforehand.

Because of the cheating findings, TEA lowered the district’s state rating to academically unacceptable and sent monitors to oversee testing this spring. Scores plummeted, triggering a second unacceptable rating.

Under Texas law, the state education commissioner can order a district merged into a neighboring district if it has been unacceptable for two consecutive years. Commissioner Shirley Neeley made that order in September.

Some opposed merger

The Justice Department has the authority to stop such mergers if it finds that they violate voting rights. Some Wilmer-Hutchins residents had hoped the federal agency would oppose the merger of Wilmer-Hutchins, which has a majority of black students, with Dallas, which has a majority of Hispanic students.

But the ruling disappointed those who sought to stop the merger.

“The attorney general does not interpose any objection to the specified change,” wrote John Tanner, chief of the Justice Department’s voting section. The letter was faxed to state officials at 4:59 p.m. Washington time – one minute before a 5 p.m. deadline set by law.

Dallas schools officials were not available for comment. But Dallas schools already have been teaching Wilmer-Hutchins students since August, because Wilmer-Hutchins didn’t have enough money to start school this fall.

“We hope that will make the transition easier,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

Bus rides to Dallas

Wilmer-Hutchins students are being educated in existing Dallas campuses, which means bus rides of 20 miles or more for some students. After the merger, Wilmer-Hutchins’ existing campuses will become Dallas’ property, and some residents have expressed hope students could return to their neighborhood schools.

Wilmer-Hutchins, founded in 1927, has been a troubled district for decades. It has been the subject of dozens of investigations and inquiries, including multiple raids by FBI agents and takeovers by state authorities.

It’s unclear who will lead Wilmer-Hutchins in its final days. On Monday, Superintendent Eugene Young confirmed rumors that he is considering resigning his position.

But he said he didn’t want to talk about it before conferring with the district’s board of managers at tonight’s meeting. “It’s not time to discuss it now,” he said.

Mr. Young was appointed to the job in May, after TEA threw out the district’s elected school board. He replaced interim Superintendent James Damm, who had been working under a short-term contract after Mr. Matthews was indicted last October.

If Mr. Young resigns, his replacement would be appointed by state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley, not by the state-appointed board of managers.

Redrawing boundaries

The merger will force a number of changes in the Dallas school district. First, the boundaries of trustee districts will have to be redrawn to integrate the 64 square miles of Wilmer-Hutchins. That could reopen an issue that has sharply divided the board along racial lines in the past.

Second, it will cost Dallas trustee Lew Blackburn either his job or his board seat. Dr. Blackburn is an administrator in Wilmer-Hutchins, and board members are not allowed to be district employees.

Column: If home-schooling counts, make it accountable

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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While other kids sat in their classrooms this fall, Roger’s 13-year-old granddaughter was roaming around the West Coast with her mother, staying up late and following their favorite band on tour.

“I think they’re still somewhere around California,” he told me a few days ago. “I think they got as far as Phoenix. But they ran out of money and spent a day or two in the car until someone could get some more money sent to her.”

Why is a 13-year-old girl playing groupie on the road, when she should be at a desk somewhere learning algebra?

Because in the eyes of the Texas Education Agency, she’s being home-schooled. And that means the state has no authority to check on her.

It’s impossible to know how many Texas kids are being “schooled” as Roger’s granddaughter is – which is to say, not at all. But they’re out there.

“There’s supposed to be a law that all kids will be educated, but nobody can go check on her and make sure it’s happening,” Roger told me. (That’s not his real name. He doesn’t want to get in trouble with his daughter-in-law.)

To the legitimate home-schoolers out there, the ones who work hard to give their kids the one-on-one attention they can’t get in a classroom: Hold your e-mail fire. This isn’t about you.

It’s about people abusing the system, both schools and parents. And it’s about a state education bureaucracy that, under law, can’t do a thing about it.

Under Texas law, home-schooling is essentially unregulated. Once a parent tells a school district a child will be home-schooled, the district’s jurisdiction ends.

State regulations say that parents should teach basic literacy, math and citizenship – but that’s it.

And state officials don’t even have the authority to check whether those minimal requirements are being met. As one home-schooling Web site puts it: “If you live in Texas, you are in the BEST state in the union for home-schooling! … The best part is that you are not required to prove that you are doing any of [the state requirements]!”

I know this happens, from first-hand experience. Growing up in Louisiana, a good friend of mine wasn’t doing well in high school. He’d been held back a couple times and wasn’t likely to graduate.

But his father – rather than have his son drop out – instead announced he was going to home-school him.

At least that’s what the school heard. The reality was that my friend started working alongside his father on construction jobs.

There was little, if any, instruction in anything beyond proper operation of a circular saw. My friend ended up with a diploma bought from some mail-order outfit.

How common is this sort of fake home-schooling? Work with me through a little math.

The state requires public high schools to track what happens to all the students who leave them – whether that’s for a good reason (the family moves, for instance) or a bad one (the kid drops out).

In 2003-04, 10,894 kids in grades seven to 12 left public schools to be home-schooled. That’s quite a few more than the number who left to switch to a private school – only 6,114.

That 10,894 number seems awfully high to me. Here’s my reasoning.

There are a lot more kids in private schools than in home schools. According to the most recent federal estimates, there are about 5.3 million kids enrolled in America’s private schools – almost five times more than the 1.1 million who are home-schooled.

So for there to be twice as many Texas kids going in to home schools as privates seems high.

Then consider that we’re talking about older kids – almost all of them high school. But home-schooling is by far most popular with younger kids. A lot of parents feel confident teaching their kids how to do basic math. But fewer think they’re ready to teach, say, trigonometry and physics. As a result, high school is the traditional time when a lot of home-schooled kids enter public school, not leave it.

So I have a tough time imagining large numbers of parents thinking public school is fine until sophomore year and suddenly dedicating themselves to home-schooling when their kid hits 15.

I can’t say how many. But some of those 10,894 kids are using home-schooling as a way to cloak being a dropout – like Roger’s granddaughter and my high school friend.

And I’m sure some Texas schools are happy to go along with the charade. After all, a fake home-schooler doesn’t count against the high school when it comes time to calculate its dropout rate. With one signature from a mom, it can chisel its dropout rate a little closer to zero.

(Schools have gotten miscounting dropouts down to a science. Dallas ISD, for instance, claims it had only 780 dropouts in 2003-04 – a mere 1.8 percent of its high school students. That’s despite the fact it had 14,485 freshmen that year against only 6,935 seniors.)

Legitimate home-schoolers know these fakers are hurting their cause. On its Web site, the Home School Legal Defense Association complains about “the disturbing trend in a number of states that treat home-schooling as a ‘dumping ground’ for problem children” – primarily states that, like Texas, punish schools for high dropout rates.

“Creative school officials have learned to evade these accountability systems by turning their problem cases into ‘home-schoolers,’ ” the association writes. “Instead of allowing a child to drop out, they hand him or her home-school paperwork.”

But those same legitimate home-schoolers have resisted the kinds of laws that might help weed out the bad apples. In 2003, state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos proposed a bill requiring new Texas home-school parents to pledge, in writing, their commitment to “adequately teaching the child based on a curriculum designed to meet basic education goals.”

The Home School Legal Defense Association fought back, flooding his office with calls and e-mails, because the association felt it opened the door to potential further regulation. The bill died.

Roger initially called me because he wanted to know if there was some way for the state to check on his granddaughter. He’s considered calling Child Protective Services, but he’s not sure he wants to get them involved.

“She’s just 13, and she says she’ll get a diploma from some company,” he told me. “They’re just out playing and running around, doing what they want to do. You can’t say ‘Go to school’ when it’s like they’re on vacation all the time. She doesn’t comprehend what she’s missing.”

Hundreds mourn fallen FW officer; Kid who played cops and robbers became dedicated policeman

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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FORT WORTH – Hank Nava used to serve on the Fort Worth Police Department’s honor guard, the men and women who stand at perfect attention at the funerals of their fellow officers.

“He always knew death was a possibility,” said his former partner on the force, Mike Montgomery. “We used to talk about it. We’ve been at hundreds of these ceremonies. And now it’s him.”

Hundreds of mourners took their turns walking slowly in front of Officer Nava’s coffin Sunday afternoon.

He died Thursday, two days after being shot in the head while investigating an identity-theft operation in a mobile home in northwest Fort Worth.

Some mourners were close friends and family. Many were fellow officers. But others were just regular North Texans who’d never heard of Hank Nava until it was too late.

“I’m not kidding, he was the finest officer you could imagine,” said Officer G.V. Ramirez, who joined the Fort Worth force in part to model herself on her friend of seven years. “He was so dedicated and loyal. The epitome of a neighborhood officer.”

The man accused of shooting Officer Nava with a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun, Stephen Lance Heard, is being held in the Tarrant County Jail in lieu of $2 million bail. He is expected to be charged with capital murder of a police officer, a charge that can carry the death penalty.

Mr. Montgomery, Officer Nava’s former partner, said he had 15 voice mail messages on his phone within a half-hour of Officer Nava’s shooting. They’d both served on the honor guard. “You had to be asked to be on it,” he said. “You had to show you could carry yourself and show professionalism.”

At the viewing, his coffin was flanked at all times by two members of the honor guard, dressed in shiny-toed black spats, white leather stirrups and police-blue visors pulled low over their eyes.

Officer Nava lay in an open coffin, under a marble panel that quoted the closing words of the Declaration of Independence: “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

He was flanked by two photographs of himself on the job. On the left, he stood proudly in front of his patrol car, his aviator sunglasses topping a broad smile. On the right was Officer Nava in a more formal setting: standing straight at attention, looking stern, his hair trimmed to a military-style buzz cut.

Cathy Madrigal grew up across the street from Officer Nava in Round Rock, and she remembered him playing cops and robbers outside as a kid. He’d come back several times a year, making the rounds around the neighborhood, visiting family and friends. “I still don’t believe this has happened,” she said. “It’s a shock.”

Officer Ramirez has been on the police force for less than a year. But she said her friend’s death would inspire her to be a better officer. “I’m a rookie, so this hits close to home,” she said. “We talked about working together someday. And I won’t get that chance.”

Services, which are open to the public, will be held at Birchman Baptist Church, 9100 N. Normandale St., at 1 p.m. today. Burial will follow at Greenwood Cemetery, 3100 White Settlement Road.

Officer Nava is survived by his wife, Teresa, and two children, Kayleigh, 9, and Justin, 4.