High praise at W-H; Despite ongoing turmoil, elementary gets exemplary rating

By Joshua Benton and Herb Booth
Staff Writers

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In the swirl of bad news that has surrounded Wilmer-Hutchins schools the last few months, the new state ratings provided a welcome bit of optimism.

One of the district’s elementary schools, Alta Mesa Elementary, had test scores high enough to be exemplary, the state’s highest rating. Two others, Wilmer and C.S. Winn elementaries, earned recognized status.

“You’ll find that there’s a lot of teaching and learning transpiring in our district,” said Superintendent Charles Matthews. “It’s time for you all to say Wilmer-Hutchins is one of the best districts around.”

But the district’s middle school and high school continued to produce some of the lowest academic performances in the state. Both avoided the state’s lowest rating, “academically unacceptable,” because of new rules that excuse low scores at some schools.

Wilmer-Hutchins has been in turmoil since the announcement in early August that the high school was in such poor condition that it could not open for classes. It finally opened a month later.

But in the meantime, criminal investigations were launched into the district’s finances and allegations of corruption. Among the agencies investigating Wilmer-Hutchins: the FBI, the Texas Rangers, the Dallas County district attorney, the U.S. attorney’s office.

Two grand juries are hearing evidence. A team of Texas Education Agency auditors is poring over the district’s finances. And at one point in August, the district ran out of money and couldn’t pay its teachers.

Against that backdrop, the solid performance of the district’s elementary schools was welcome.

“We start out with the belief that every student make measurable academic growth,” said Jata McCollister, Alta Mesa’s principal. She said the school uses teacher training, field trips and community support to achieve success.

Dr. Matthews said the elementary schools have been successful because of a strong commitment to early childhood education, begun when he was previously superintendent in 1986.

“You know, probably in the next couple of years, the nation will be focused on Wilmer-Hutchins on how to teach students – especially minority children,” he said.

Results were not so strong with older children. Wilmer-Hutchins High and Kennedy-Curry Middle had TAKS passing rates low enough to be rated unacceptable. Only 102 of the state’s 7,813 schools earned that tag.

But both were bumped up to “acceptable” status because of new rules introduced this year. The high school was deemed acceptable because its math scores, while still among the state’s lowest, were substantially better than last year’s. The middle school was granted a special exception that allows some low scores to be excused.

In addition to Alta Mesa, Wilmer and C.S. Winn, two other elementary schools were given high ratings, but not through any doing of their own. Neither A.L. Morney nor Bishop Heights Elementary teaches any students old enough to take the TAKS test – both stop at first grade.

But for ratings purposes, they are each paired with other Wilmer-Hutchins schools. So Bishop Heights was automatically assigned Alta Mesa’s exemplary rating, and Morney shared C.S. Winn’s recognized status.

Alta Mesa has been lauded for high test scores before. After years of middling performance, Alta Mesa’s passing rate began to rise in the mid-1990s. The school’s rating jumped from acceptable to recognized in 1996 and stayed there through 1998.

But a Texas Education Agency inquiry in 1999 found evidence of widespread cheating between 1996 and 1998. The agency found “abnormally high” numbers of erasures on test forms – incorrect answers being erased and replaced by correct ones before tests were sent away for grading.

TEA sent monitors to Alta Mesa in 1999 to monitor the administration of the TAAS test. With state officials watching, only 50 percent of Alta Mesa’s students passed all sections of the TAAS. The year before, without monitors, 83 percent had passed.

But the district’s internal investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing. Alta Mesa has been rated acceptable every year since until this year’s exemplary rating.

Alta Mesa’s scores increased substantially in the transition from TAAS to TAKS – a time when most schools saw movement in the opposite direction.

In 2002, the last year of TAAS, 3,837 elementary schools took the TAAS test. Alta Mesa’s passing rate was only the 3,075th highest in the state.

This year, only 12.1 percent of elementary schools scored highly enough to be exemplary, as Alta Mesa was. The school’s passing rates in reading, math and writing were all 98 percent – better than many wealthy suburban schools.

Ms. McCollister said Alta Mesa’s results were solid. “There was no cheating,” she said.

Instead, she credited strong support from parents and the hard work of teachers.

“We’re not talking about something that happened overnight. You have to nurture and build that kind of community rapport and student success.”

TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said the agency has received no reports of cheating and does not investigate testing until it receives a formal letter of complaint.