In Wilmer-Hutchins ISD, optimism makes the grade; Latest test scores offer glimmer of hope to struggling district

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Decades ago, when David Foerch was a young teacher in Dallas, principals had a ready threat for staff members who didn’t pull their weight.

“They’d say, ‘If you folks don’t shape up, we’ll send you to Wilmer-Hutchins!'”

For years, the Wilmer-Hutchins schools have been a symbol of bad education. News reports about the southern Dallas County district have told of state takeovers, raucous board meetings, corruption investigations and abysmal student performance.

That makes what happened this month all the more remarkable. Officials announced the latest test scores from Wilmer-Hutchins High School – and they were good. Actually, by past Wilmer-Hutchins standards, they were outstanding.

Those scores, along with a few other developments, have given some people inside and outside the long-troubled district a glimmer of hope: Could Wilmer-Hutchins be turning the corner?

“Wilmer-Hutchins has been the laughingstock of the metroplex for decades,” said Dr. Foerch, who came out of retirement last fall to serve as a Texas Education Agency monitor over the district’s middle school. “But there are some really positive things going on here. The expectations are higher, and kids are meeting them.”

The district still has problems, including an ongoing grand jury investigation into allegations of financial misdeeds and continuing strife among board members. Any predictions for improvement play against a legacy of dashed hopes.

But Mr. Foerch and others say there’s more reason for optimism than there has been in some time.

“Wilmer-Hutchins has a much longer history of turmoil than any district we’ve been in,” said Betty Ressel, who as leader of the Texas School Performance Review has investigated dozens of school districts. “They’re poised to break the cycle. But it’s going to take an enormous amount of work.”

Most concretely, the district showed improvement this year on the exit-level Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the test taken each year by sophomores. Next year, TAAS is being replaced by the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, a more difficult exam that students must pass in order to graduate.

Last year, 65 percent of Wilmer-Hutchins sophomores passed the TAAS reading test, 67 percent passed the writing test, and 56 percent passed the math test – all more than 20 percentage points below the state average.

This year, those passing rates shot up to 93, 91 and 81 percent, respectively.

“We were totally focused on getting those scores up,” principal Evelyn Burks said. “We set our expectations high.”

The numbers, while below the scores of many other area districts, brought Wilmer-Hutchins High School nearly to the state average. Before, Wilmer-Hutchins could only aspire to being average.

Troubled history

Ms. Ressel’s Texas School Performance Review team summed it all up neatly in a report issued last month:

“WHISD has a troubled history of mismanagement over the last 20 years, numerous lawsuits and grievances, high turnover of superintendents, teachers and staff and a high degree of animosity and mistrust among board members and between the board and the community.”

Those working to raise the quality of education in Wilmer-Hutchins find the past a heavy burden.

“It’s hard to draw any quality people here because of the history,” said Dr. Foerch, who was assigned as a TEA monitor after Kennedy-Curry Middle School was rated low-performing by the state for a second consecutive year.

For the last 30 years, the superintendent’s office might as well have had a revolving door. From 1971 to 1984, no superintendent lasted longer than two years. Joan Bonner, who has been on the board for six years and now is president, said she couldn’t remember how many superintendents the district has had in that time – “five or six, I think.”

At one point in 1996, the district was paying four superintendents at once as a result of contract buyouts or lawsuit awards.

Board members are known for being argumentative and attacking each other at meetings, so much so that Education Commissioner Jim Nelson sent a formal letter to the board in 2000 expressing “concerns about the climate at board meetings.”

And there have been numerous investigations, most prominently a 1996 raid of district offices by FBI and IRS officials looking into allegations of corruption.

State officials have intervened several times. In the early 1980s, they threatened to revoke the district’s accreditation. From 1996 to 1998, a state management team took over the district.

According to last month’s Texas School Performance Review report, many problems remain. “The organization of the district is in chaos,” it said.

The comptroller’s report cited low test scores, extremely low attendance rates, high teacher turnover, a bloated central administration, a short-sighted budget process, chaotic record keeping and “a pattern of disregard for law.”

Those problems have proved severe in a district already facing difficult odds. Three-quarters of its students are poor, and 95 percent are minorities.

The implications of a struggling school system reach beyond the students. With the schools’ reputation, it has been difficult to persuade anyone to build homes in Wilmer or Hutchins.

“Developers want to provide people with a solid school system to attend, and with the troubles, folks have been hesitant to put something up there,” said Guy Brown, former executive director of the Hutchins Economic Development Corp.

According to statistics from the North Texas Council of Governments, no homes were built in Wilmer or Hutchins between April and December 2000, the most recent period available. They were the only two of 24 municipalities in Dallas County to have zero housing growth in that period.

Meanwhile, enrollment in the district is declining, unlike nearly every other school system in the area. Enrollment went from 4,017 in 1994 to 3,283 last year as students moved away or switched to charter schools or other educational options.

Ms. Bonner and other school officials said the negative attention district leaders have drawn over the years has detracted from the accomplishments of the students.

“We have terrific children here,” she said. “Our children read the paper, and they see all these negative things. They wonder, ‘What’s wrong here?'”

Raise the scores

When Harvey Rayson started work as superintendent in March 2001, he set a single-minded focus for all district employees: Raise test scores.

Every teacher was given a goals worksheet with space to outline six things they wanted to accomplish this year. No. 1 was already filled in: “Eighty percent of my students will pass the TAAS tests.”

“If we’re going to be measured based on our test scores, then it’s all about test scores,” said Mr. Rayson, who has overseen test score turnarounds in several Texas districts. “If you set the expectations high, people will find a way to meet them.”

It was largely up to each school to determine how to meet that goal, and Ms. Burks, who took over at the high school two years ago, decided to ramp up the school’s pre-TAAS planning.

The school borrowed a test-scoring machine and gave three sample TAAS tests to students in the weeks before the test. The tests were graded instantly so teachers could determine exactly where students needed help.

“We knew we had to be data-driven,” said Yolanda Smith, a freshman English teacher. “With that instant feedback, the seriousness levelwent up.”

For two weeks before the TAAS was administered in February, sophomores did not attend their standard classes. Instead, they went to two three-hour classes a day – one in English and one in math. Each class featured student-by-student instruction on areas of weakness.

Teachers also emphasized the importance of the test to students. That had never been done before, they said.

“The students went from not taking things seriously to taking it very seriously,” said Janye Aldape, a sophomore English teacher.

“The teachers were more aggressive about the test,” said Reeva Seegars, 16, who passed all sections of the test. “You had no choice but to work hard.”

Armed with the test scores as evidence, district officials say they’re making significant progress. “We’re getting there,” Mr. Rayson said.

Dr. Foerch said, “There’s been an enormous change in attitude and in what’s expected of people, even since the time I got here” in December.

Lasting progress

But not everyone is convinced the scores signify a real, lasting turnaround. After all, test scores went up once before, in the mid-1990s, mostly during a period when the district was under state control.

In 1996 and 1997, the district had three schools rated recognized or exemplary by the state.

Stanton Lawrence, one of the officials brought in to manage the district during the state takeover, said at the time: “The kind of progress they’ve made in that span of time is remarkable.”

But state control ended in 1998, and scores began to drop again. Only two schools were rated as recognized that year, and none has been rated recognized since.

In 1999, TEA officials announced an investigation into allegations of TAAS cheating at one of the formerly recognized schools, Alta Mesa Elementary. Checks of test forms from 1996 to 1998 – the years when scores were highest – found that an unusually high number of incorrect student responses had been erased and replaced with the right answers.

TEA officials asked the district to do an internal investigation into whether teachers were cheating. That investigation noted that the number of erasures was “abnormally high,” but the district said it found no evidence of wrongdoing.

The TEA assigned state monitors to oversee the testing process at Alta Mesa to ensure that no cheating was going on. Only 50 percent of Alta Mesa’s students passed all sections of the TAAS that year. A year earlier, 83 percent had.

Dr. Foerch said he has heard no allegations of cheating since this year’s 10th-grade TAAS scores were reported.

Dr. Foerch said he told Ms. Burks, the principal: “You’re going to get very large gains because of the work you’ve done, and people are going to think you’re cheating. You have to document all the strategies you’ve used to prove them wrong.”

Problems persist

Despite the high school’s apparent strides in the classroom, some of the old problems persist in the district’s administration. State education officials have launched at least four investigations and reviews of the district in the last two years, on subjects from the reporting of dropout data to problems with special education.

A Dallas County grand jury is investigating allegations of financial misconduct by the district. Mr. Rayson said that he was subpoenaed by the grand jury earlier this month but that he had no further details about the investigation.

Eric Mountin, chief prosecutor in charge of the public integrity division of the Dallas County district attorney’s office, said his office does not comment on grand jury investigations. But he said complaints about financial corruption and other matters often reach his office.

“We’ve had lots of complaints over the years,” he said. “A lot of it is the result of frustrated parents or taxpayers concerned about the manner the board are running the finances of the district.”

And the comptroller’s report found enough systemic problems in the district to recommend that it ask the TEA to provide a master to oversee the district.

A master is a stricter level of state authority than a monitor such as Dr. Foerch. Masters have the power to overrule any decision of the superintendent or board. A monitor may only advise district officials. The report said a master would help keep WHISD from breaking laws regarding contracts, nepotism, open meetings and other areas.

The board passed a resolution opposing the hiring of a master earlier this month.

Ms. Ressel said that despite the board’s rejection of a master, she has seen more reasons for optimism since she unveiled the report last month.

“They’re systematically going through the report and calling to ask for help: ‘How do we do this? We’re looking at this. … Can you give us a name of someone to do this?'” she said. “That is so encouraging to me.”

Board members, despite continued internal strife, are far ahead of where they once were, Ms. Ressel said.

“If you look back at the board’s long history and you compare how they act today to how they acted yesterday – everything is relative. They’re still struggling, but they’re trying.”

Ms. Bonner said she doesn’t think board relations have improved in her six years.

She said that if trustees can’t get along, “then we may need new people.”

Other board members declined to comment.

Those wondering about Wilmer-Hutchins’ progress will get more evidence one way or the other next month. That’s when TAAS results come back for students in grade three through eight.

This month, during testing week, Mr. Rayson shied away from a specific prediction on how they’d do. But he said he was optimistic.

“I’d told the staff that if we get two recognized schools, I’ll sky dive into the stadium,” Mr. Rayson said. “They were teasing me today: ‘Have you practiced your sky diving?’

“They’re telling me to practice, so I’m encouraged.”