St. Rita to screen students’ parents; School policy requires background checks on all as safety measure

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 35A

If you want your child to attend St. Rita Catholic School this fall, be prepared to answer a few tough questions.

For the first time, the northern Dallas school is asking all of its parents to undergo a background check before the school year starts. Other area Catholic schools are considering a similar move.

“We want to make sure the school environment is as secure as it can be,” said Elena Hines, St. Rita’s principal.

Kenneth Trump, a national expert in school safety programs, said he hadn’t heard of a public or private school going as far as St. Rita is.

“It sounds like they’re taking it to the next level,” said Mr. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland. “Lots of private schools do an informal screening of parents, but it’s not commonly phrased from a school safety perspective.”

Dr. Hines said the heightened security is partially in response to recent revelations of child molestation by Catholic priests. But it’s also meant to ease the concerns all parents have about their young children at school.

“If we have every parent have a background check, then every other parent will know their child will be safe,” said Charles LeBlanc, director of schools for the Dallas Diocese.

Since the mid-1990s, St. Rita has required fingerprint-based background checks for all school volunteers who spend time with children. Dr. Hines said that included less than one-third of parents last year. Volunteers are fingerprinted again every five years to recheck for criminal records.

Under the new policy, those volunteers would still be fingerprinted. But now Dr. Hines said all other parents will be asked to undergo a separate, “very thorough” screening process – even if they never plan to volunteer for the school.

Parents will have their names checked against the contents of state criminal databases. They won’t be fingerprinted, but school staff will check three personal references for each parent. Parents will then attend a 31/2-hour training session on “what is appropriate behavior with children, what’s inappropriate, and how you can be alert to watch for trouble,” Dr. Hines said.

The new screening is being required of all new parents at the school and strongly encouraged of all other parents. In addition, new parents will have to sit down for an interview with a member of the school’s safety committee.

“I think the times call for us to clamp down on security some,” said Shawn Young, a former parents’ club president whose children have attended St. Rita for the last 12 years. “Every parent comes in contact with someone else’s child some time or another, so it makes sense to check everyone.”

After the recent slew of molestation revelations within the Catholic Church, Dr. Hines said, it made sense to toughen the requirements. “Because of everything that came to light this year, it just made this something for us to do to be certain, absolutely certain that we had covered all our bases,” she said.

Dr. Hines said since the K-8 school began fingerprinting seven or eight years ago, “about two” people have been found to have backgrounds that kept them from being appropriate school volunteers.

Because they can be more selective in whom they admit, nonpublic schools are often more stringent in setting requirements for parents. “Most public schools I deal with wish they had some of these same tools at hand to use,” Mr. Trump said.

Dr. Hines said she didn’t know how much the new policies would cost, but it will likely be a substantial investment for the 660-student campus. Fingerprint background checks of state and federal databases cost about $40 per person; checks without fingerprints are available for lower costs from private vendors. Just checking the references of all St. Rita parents will tax the school’s staff, she said.

“The price is certainly worth it for the security,” she said. “We wanted to be sure we were doing the best we could to avoid any harm to children.”

Security at St. Rita has been a concern in part because of its location, at the intersection of busy Inwood Road and the Dallas North Tollway.

In the last several years, St. Rita has tightened its building security substantially, keeping all doors but the front entrance locked and requiring visitors to sign in at the front office and wear a identification badge. Once they sign in, visitors have to be buzzed into a secure set of interior doors before they reach classroom areas.

Dr. Hines said parental reaction to the new policy has been positive.

“Changes like the doors were difficult for some parents to accept,” said parent Anne O’Brien. “But I respect that they’re trying to do everything they can. This may be a bit farther than necessary, but they’ll find a happy medium between too strict and too loose.”

Dr. LeBlanc said the diocese sets broad rules for school security, including the volunteer fingerprinting requirement, but most decisions are left up to individual campuses. He said other area Catholic schools had been discussing instituting a similar requirement for the new school year, but he did not know if any other than St. Rita were following through.

School district ratings decline; But more campuses earn high marks; area rankings stay same

By Terrence Stutz and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

Page 1A

Performance ratings for Texas school districts declined for the first time in several years in 2002 as middle-school students came up short in their knowledge of government and history.

But collective marks for individual campuses were up over last year as a record number of schools achieved one of the two highest performance ratings from the state based on test scores and dropout rates.

Charter schools, meanwhile, continued to fare poorly as more than 40 percent of the open-enrollment campuses received low ratings, according to the Texas Education Agency.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, there was no change in the number of exemplary districts. The three districts that got the top rating last year – Carroll, Highland Park and Sunnyvale – maintained it.

The boundary between the next two ratings was more fluid. Eight area districts – Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Duncanville, Ennis, Everman, Ferris, Lewisville, Royse City and Wylie – dropped from recognized status to acceptable.

Another eight districts moved in the opposite direction and became recognized: Denton, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw, Mansfield, McKinney, Northwest, Red Oak, Sanger and Waxahachie.

Allen and Grapevine-Colleyville each earned recognized ratings, but school leaders might be excused for wanting more. All of both districts’ nonalternative campuses were rated exemplary, the highest rating possible.

The area’s two biggest districts, Dallas and Fort Worth, were rated acceptable.

In all, the area had 31 recognized districts and 20 acceptable districts, both unchanged from last year. No area districts were rated academically unacceptable.

Model for federal plan

Release of the annual ratings came as Texas closed out the school accountability system that has been used for nine years and was a model for the federal No Child Left Behind Act approved by Congress earlier this year. The state will shift to a new system of rating schools in 2004.

In announcing the ratings on Thursday, state Education Commissioner Felipe Alanis focused on the positives and pointed out how far the public schools have come since the first ratings were compiled in 1994.

“We know there is still work to be done, but the improved academic performance we have seen in this state since the accountability system began is a testament to the hard work of educators, students and parents,” Dr. Alanis said.

This was the second year in a row that a majority of students in the state were enrolled in schools that received either an exemplary or recognized rating.

Campuses and school districts are graded with one of four performance ratings under the accountability system. Those are exemplary, recognized and acceptable, with unacceptable for districts and low-performing for schools.

Here are the highlights of this year’s school performance ratings:

*There were 143 exemplary school districts, down from 178 last year, and 425 recognized districts, down from 471 last year. In addition, the number of academically unacceptable districts jumped from one last year to 17 this year. The rest of the state’s 1,040 districts were acceptable.

*A total of 1,908 campuses were exemplary and 2,400 were recognized. Both are the highest numbers ever recorded in the top two categories of the rating system. At the other end of the spectrum, the number of low-performing campuses jumped from 100 last year to 162 this year.

*Out of 201 independent charter schools that were graded, 83 received poor ratings, including 40 that were evaluated under the same system as regular schools and 43 that were evaluated under alternative criteria.

Social studies faulted

State education officials said the lower ratings for school districts were primarily the result of poor scores by eighth-graders on Texas Assessment of Academic Skills social studies questions.

This was the first year those scores figured into the performance ratings.

“Social studies was the key factor in the drop,” Dr. Alanis said. He predicted that schools will put more focus on social studies in the next few years now that it has become a permanent element of the accountability system.

As far as the increase in the number of campuses with low performance ratings, the commissioner pointed to the difficulty students had on the social studies and writing portions of the TAAS as well as the tougher standard to get an acceptable rating.

This year, campuses had to get a 55 percent passing rate on the TAAS to be rated acceptable – up from 50 percent last year. They also had to have a dropout rate of 5 percent or less.

Ratings earned this year will be in place for two years while the state develops new accountability standards based on a new test to be administered next spring, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

The new exam will be more difficult, test students in more subjects and be taken by more students annually than the TAAS.

“I hope the public will be patient with us as we learn our new system,” Dr. Alanis said, predicting that test scores and performance ratings will almost inevitably drop.

Districts to appeal

Because schools and districts will be stuck with their ratings for two years, at least six area districts are planning to appeal their ratings to the TEA.

Arlington, for example, is appealing the low-performing rating given to Carter Junior High, which lowered the overall district rating from recognized to acceptable. Had five more Hispanic students passed the writing test, Carter would have been rated acceptable. Administrators have asked that those writing tests be rescored.

“Let’s just say I’m not effusing with optimism,” Superintendent Mac Bernd said.

Carrollton-Farmers Branch fell one passing student short of a recognized rating for the entire district. Richardson’s Berkner High School fell to low-performing because of its dropout tally. Lewisville fell 10 students short of recognized, based on writing scores. All are appealing.

The state also released its latest round of dropout data Thursday. The state’s annual dropout rate dropped to 1 percent, from last year’s 1.3 percent.

Critics have long charged that the state’s dropout methodology underestimates the size of Texas’ dropout problem. Last year, for example, Texas schools enrolled 360,000 freshmen but only 220,000 seniors, despite low reported dropout rates.

By the state’s count, the annual dropout rate has fallen by 85 percent since 1988, when it reported that 6.7 percent of students dropped out each year.