Teachers, students voice frustration with DISD; Informal survey reveals hopes and concerns

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

The state comptroller’s report on Dallas schools starts with 908 pages of financial analysis and management critiques. It ends with 120 pages of voices from the classroom.

Stuck in appendixes at the end of the two-volume document are the complaints and concerns of more than 2,000 11th- and 12th-grade students and nearly 800 teachers.

Their responses to a voluntary questionnaire late last year offer a rare glimpse into classroom life, where concerns run more toward drugs in the hallways, old textbooks and crumbling schoolhouses and less toward growing bureaucracy and overstocked warehouses.

The comments in the unscientific survey were not uniformly negative. Teachers, for example, gave mostly positive reviews to the district’s academic programs, including high marks for reading and math initiatives. Students also ranked several academic programs highly, including social studies and science.

But, overall, the comments show a frustrated teacher corps and students who wish their schools were better.

“At one point in my life, I never wanted to be anything other than a teacher,” one student wrote. “Yet I see what the schools are becoming, and it has changed my attitude.”

Said one teacher: “Mediocrity and surviving until the next day is the norm. We are losing our best and brightest students and teachers.”

Superintendent Mike Moses said through his spokeswoman Tuesday that he would not respond to elements of the comptroller’s study until he has a chance to review it in detail. The survey was conducted shortly before Dr. Moses took office in January.

Among the findings: Most teachers consider the district’s administration inefficient. Only a third of responding teachers said the district is meeting the needs of students, whether they’re headed for college or a job. Fewer than a quarter of them agreed with the statement that “highly qualified teachers fill job

Among student responses, fewer than half of the respondents consider their teachers “high quality.” About half said they feel safe and secure at school. Half say drugs are a problem in the district.

The questionnaires were conducted as part of the Texas School Performance Review, unveiled Monday, in which the comptroller’s office recommended 193 ways to save money and streamline operations.

Betty Ressel, manager of the report, said state officials find the surveys helpful in identifying different points of view on key topics.

Respondents participated only if they wanted and represented only a fraction of all teachers and students, although the racial and ethnic makeup of students roughly matched the district as a whole. There are about 160,000 students and 10,000 teachers in the district. The office surveyed teachers by mail and questioned students in their classrooms.

Nevertheless, state officials and others say, the survey results provide a window into the problems that frustrate those involved with education.

“It’s one of the best ways to get an idea what the climate is in the schools,” Ms. Ressel said.

In addition to multiple-choice responses to a battery of questions, teachers and students were asked to write anonymous comments about the state of life in the district.

The teachers who responded showed little support for the district’s school board and administrators. Fewer than a fifth said board members listen to the opinions and desires of others. Even fewer said the board had a good image in the community or were willing to call district administration “efficient.” More than two-thirds consider the student-teacher ratio in DISD classes unreasonable.

“I have 170 students on a block schedule,” one teacher wrote. “My smallest class has 27 students. It is difficult to deliver quality education under those circumstances.”

Comments like that, combined with very low ratings for the district’s salary and health insurance plans, make it clear that responding teachers are unhappy with the state of the district.

“I wish I could say this is surprising, but it’s not,” said Aimee Bolender, vice president of the Alliance of Dallas Educators. “Morale is clearly very low.”

A majority of teachers and students called vandalism a problem. Most teachers and more than a third of students said gangs are a problem.

And when there are consequences for actions, nearly half of responding teachers and students said there was not “fair and equitable discipline for misconduct.”

A significant number of students focused on facilities problems at their schools. “Our school can get really cold to where it is uncomfortable to learn,” one wrote. “I go to a nice school, but the restrooms stay nasty and locked all the time,” another wrote.

“The walls are separating and the doors can no longer be shut properly because of the settling of the building,” wrote another student. “The band hall for example is literally falling apart. One wall is just about fallen down.”

Ms. Ressel said gathering the data was not easy. In November, officials tried to survey students by mailing questionnaires to 657 randomly selected juniors and seniors. But only three or four surveys were returned, Ms. Ressel said.

“I suppose it wasn’t a high priority for them,” she said. “They must have viewed it as junk mail.”

Officials had to recover by going into high schools and asking students whether they were willing to fill out surveys during class time.

The comptroller’s office had somewhat better luck surveying teachers by mail. It sent out 2,945 surveys and got 781 back, a response rate Ms. Ressel said was typical.

Many respondents expressed a fear for the district’s future.

“The problem with our school is that no one cares anymore,” a student wrote. “Teachers lack the passion they once had for teaching. When the teachers don’t care, the students don’t either.”

“We’re in trouble,” one teacher wrote. “Our future rests in the hands of a divided school board, an interim superintendent, pressured principals and overwhelmingly tired teachers.”

In January, after the surveys were conducted, Dr. Moses became superintendent, leading some in the district to be more optimistic about DISD’s future.

“If you had this same survey today, I’m sure the results would be more positive,” Ms. Bolender said. “Teachers definitely feel there’s more cooperation going on between the board and the superintendent.”