Texas’ worst schools; Wilmer-Hutchins’ recent woes are part of a long, dismal pattern

By Joshua Benton and Herb Booth
Staff Writers

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No one who has paid attention through the years could have been surprised by word that Wilmer-Hutchins High School was finally so neglected and dilapidated – roach-infested, full of rot, leaky roof – that it couldn’t open for weeks or even months.

To those who have spent decades trying to shut down Wilmer-Hutchins ISD, the bad news has become background noise.

Barely five miles south of downtown Dallas, it is quite likely the worst school district in Texas.

“I think there are some who just don’t care – about students, about buildings, about anything,” said Sharon Holden, whose daughter Sharee was supposed to start her senior year at the broken-down high school last week.

“What’s happening to the money that we’re paying to the schools? Where’s our tax money going? We’re not seeing anything out of it.”

It’s hard to imagine a school district performing so poorly, in so many ways, for so very long.

Wilmer-Hutchins’ test scores are abysmal. Its buildings are falling apart for lack of maintenance. State auditors say it can’t manage money. Staffers at the Texas Education Agency break out in sad laughter when the district comes up. Parents unlucky enough to live there plot escape routes; enrollment has been dropping steadily for years.

“It’s disgraceful,” said Johnny Brown, the district’s superintendent in the late 1990s, a period of brief optimism. “It just breaks my heart. Those children in that community can learn as well as any children in any community.”

The state has taken over the district before. One Texas education official said last week that the state might have to head down that path again.

Until then, nearly 3,000 children try to find some way to squeeze an education out of what they’re given by “the Hutch.”

Idle time

At midday Friday, students across Texas were in school. The underclassmen of Wilmer-Hutchins High School were just hanging out. Somewhere.

Few kids were on the street in the Highland Hills neighborhood. None were at the parks or a nearby recreation center.

A couple of younger students in uniforms walked up to someone’s garage door. They knocked, and a window opened. A man stuck his head out: “Whaddya want?” The kids said something. The man took their coins and handed over a couple of red sodas.

Nearby, some men drank from large bottles of beer.

And down the street, Chris Pratt, 15, answered his door. The Wilmer-Hutchins sophomore had been watching TV. He wanted to start school this week.

“I sure hope they hurry up and fix that high school,” he said.

He worries about the education he’s getting.

“Some of the teachers are OK, but sometimes the kids get out of hand and the teachers don’t know what to do,” he said.

The latest word from Wilmer-Hutchins officials is that the 450 underclassmen will start class Monday, a week late. For now, they’ll go to Hutchins Elementary and the broken-down portables out back.

Dreadful for years

Wilmer-Hutchins has been awful for decades.

It was bad in the 1960s, when a school board controlled by whites battled integration and children performed so poorly that the TEA dropped its accreditation.

It was bad in the 1970s, when separate grass-roots efforts tried to dissolve it into the Lancaster, Ferris and Dallas school districts.

It was bad in the 1980s, when a trustee went to prison for food-stamp fraud and the TEA had to loan the district money to meet payroll.

And it was bad in the 1990s, when the state took over for two years, four superintendents in four years came and went, and evidence was uncovered of cheating on the TAAS test.

“When I was a kid, we had to fight the gnats and the flies,” said Luther Edwards, the current school board president and a member of the Wilmer-Hutchins High School Class of ’73. “We didn’t have air conditioning. The problems go way back before desegregation. When people say things used to be so much better, I know better.”

District makeup

The district includes its two namesake cities, part of Lancaster, and a large swath of southern Dallas. It is a disjointed mix of urban and rural landscape, cotton fields and weed-choked abandoned lots.

Considering the area’s relative poverty, a surprising percentage of people – three-quarters – own their own homes. Many of the dwellings are small, worn wooden homes valued at less than $50,000. Pockets of older, white retirees live in the district’s southern reaches, but black residents have been in the majority for years. The district also has a growing Hispanic population – about one in five residents.

The simplest way to assess the district is through test scores. Wilmer-Hutchins, whether measured against all schools or against only those schools with similar levels of poverty, has consistently had some of the lowest scores in the state.

Student performance suffers most at Kennedy-Curry Middle School and the high school. Kennedy-Curry has earned the state’s lowest rating, low performing, five times since 1993.

In 2003 – the last year for which complete state data are available – 11th-graders in Wilmer-Hutchins had the lowest TAKS passing rate of all 488 Texas school districts with at least 1,000 students. Only 5.7 percent of juniors passed all sections of the state test. Statewide, 49.8 percent did.

The district’s 10th-, 7th-, and 6th-graders were dead last among all districts. Ninth-graders were among the worst five; eighth-graders were in the bottom 15.

The numbers go on. Rank Texas schools on just about any academic measure – Advanced Placement tests taken, SAT scores, even attendance – and Wilmer-Hutchins is at or near the bottom.

“From public schools, private schools, colleges – it’s one of the worst,” said Cyrus Holley, a consultant who was the TEA monitor over district finances in 1996. “I’m terribly sorry for the kids.”

Quwana Harris has five of those kids. She balanced a toddler Friday outside her home on Frosty Trail. Her hands were full.

“We moved here from Duncanville schools for a better housing deal,” Ms. Harris said of the modest home with maroon trim.

“I’m not so sure we made the right decision,” Ms. Harris said. “Wilmer-Hutchins is terrible.”

Her oldest, 15-year-old Jasmine Griffin, is a sophomore.

“We’ve got no options,” the mother said. “I’m thinking about letting the kids stay with relatives or something like that so they can go to good schools.”

Assigning blame

Who or what is to blame for decades of pathetic performance?

*District officials said they are handed a uniquely difficult set of children to educate. “We’re not a rich district like some,” Mr. Edwards said last week. “Kids are a product of their environment. When you fall behind early, you can’t ever catch up.”

According to state data, 63.1 percent of Wilmer-Hutchins students meet the state’s definition of poor – meaning their families’ income is low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch. Statewide, 51.9 percent meet this definition.

About a third of Texas’ school districts have a student body with greater poverty than Wilmer-Hutchins.

Grand Prairie, Irving and Fort Worth all have comparable levels of poverty but much higher scores. A greater percentage of Dallas Independent School District students are poor (77.6 percent). Despite DISD’s many problems, its test scores have never dipped to Wilmer-Hutchins’ levels.

*Mr. Edwards said the district’s test scores are low because some Hispanic students have a weak command of English. “How many of the districts in this state have so many kids who can’t even speak English?” Mr. Edwards said. “That hurts your scores.”

But Wilmer-Hutchins actually has fewer non-English-speakers than the state norm. According to state statistics, 12.7 percent of its students have limited English skills. The state average is 14.9 percent. Many suburban districts – including Arlington, Richardson, Garland, Grand Prairie, Carrollton-Farmers Branch and Irving – have higher rates of non-English-speakers. In DISD, the rate is 32 percent.

*Mr. Edwards and others say the state doesn’t give Wilmer-Hutchins enough money. “The problem has always been the lack of funds,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem, right there.”

Again, the record does not support that contention.

A series of court judgments in the late 1980s and early 1990s guaranteed all Texas districts roughly comparable funding per student. The state makes up the difference for what local tax dollars can’t raise.

Most of Wilmer-Hutchins’ money comes from outside the district’s boundaries. It gets more state funding per pupil than any other district in Dallas County. It also gets more federal dollars than anyone else.

In Dallas County, only one district – Carrollton-Farmers Branch – spends more money per pupil than Wilmer-Hutchins. Among the area districts that spend less per pupil: Dallas, Fort Worth, Duncanville, Richardson, McKinney, DeSoto, Rockwall, Cedar Hill, Garland and Allen.

‘Lack of leadership’

Outside observers with experience in the district are more prone to blame Wilmer-Hutchins’ problems on the school board and a string of superintendents.

“We found basically a true lack of leadership and accountability,” said Lois Harrison-Jones, the former superintendent of Boston schools who served as the district’s TEA-appointed master in 1996.

She cited what have become common complaints : infighting and micromanagement.

“There might have been good intentions, but the board failed to truly understand what governance is about,” Dr. Harrison-Jones said. Her former co-master, Cyrus Holley, is more direct: “They were focused on their own personal agendas: hiring their friends, making sure that anything personal that they wanted done got done. They weren’t focused on the kids.”

Mr. Edwards, the board president, said fingers shouldn’t be pointed at the trustees. “The board doesn’t deserve any blame,” he said. “People don’t really know what’s going on. They’re talking without information.”

Budget woes

Wilmer-Hutchins’ problems go well beyond academics. Just managing its budget has been a decades-long struggle. Charles Matthews, the superintendent, said money management is one of the strengths of his administration.

But the state, which has shuttled state financial monitors in and out of Wilmer-Hutchins since the early 1980s, sees things differently.

“It’s a pattern,” said Ed Flathouse, TEA’s associate commissioner for finance and compliance. “We go in, and we help them out. And it seems that they’re able to chart a correct course, so we leave. Then they regress. Then we go back in again.”

Last week, TEA released its second annual Financial Integrity Ratings. Out of 1,039 districts statewide, only 21 had problems serious enough to earn the lowest rating, “Substandard.” Wilmer-Hutchins was on the list.

The district was one of only 12 statewide to finish the 2002-03 school year with a negative balance in its cash reserves. It also is paying back the state $1.9 million it overspent in 2002. In June, the district borrowed $500,000 from a Utah bank to pay its bills.

When asked how he would describe Wilmer-Hutchins’ financial management over the last decade, Dr. Flathouse pauses: “I’m searching for an adjective that would be appropriate.”

A few seconds later: “I’ll be kind. I’ll say ‘minimal.’ Their management of financial matters has been minimal.”

Dr. Flathouse said it’s possible another state financial monitor could be in the future.

“I suspect if things continue to go the way they appear to be going, we will intervene, yes,” Dr. Flathouse said. “But that’s not definite.”

Moments of optimism

Dr. Matthews is confident that Wilmer-Hutchins’ test scores are headed up. He is planning new early-childhood programs, a summer bookmobile and “other innovative things” to increase passing rates.

He said his previous term as superintendent, from 1984 to 1994, was a “renaissance period in the school district.” Scores were strong enough to earn him the title of State Superintendent of the Year in 1991.

But when the board asked Dr. Matthews to resign in 1994, the main reason trustees cited for their decision was the district’s poor academic performance. In spring 1994, 21.7 percent of 10th-graders and 12 percent of eighth-graders passed all the state tests. The average composite SAT score for the Class of ’93 was 634.

There have been moments of optimism before in Wilmer-Hutchins. With each new superintendent, residents have hoped things were getting better. But each time, those hopes have turned out to be misplaced.

“In the community, expectations were much lower than what they should have been,” said Dr. Brown, the only superintendent to leave the district on friendly terms in the last decade. He now leads the 100,000-student DeKalb County school district in suburban Atlanta.

“If there’s going to be change, the public’s got to insist upon it. The leadership has to be held accountable.”