Ruling: Classes Divided By Race

Kent Fischer, Dallas Morning News, Nov. 18, 2006

For years, it was an open secret at North Dallas’ Preston Hollow Elementary School: Even though the school was overwhelmingly Hispanic and black, white parents could get their children into all-white classes. And once placed, the students would have little interaction with the rest of the students.

The result, a federal judge has ruled, was that principal Teresa Parker “was, in effect, operating, at taxpayer’s expense, a private school for Anglo children within a public school that was predominantly minority.”

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The judge ordered Mrs. Parker to pay $20,200 to Lucrecia Mayorga Santamaría, the lone named plaintiff, who sued on behalf of her three children.

Although the judge did not find the Dallas school district liable for Mrs. Parker’s actions, he strongly criticized DISD administrators for being “asleep at the wheel.”

“The court is convinced that several of the area superintendents knew, or should have known, about the illegal segregation at Preston Hollow,” the judge wrote in his 108-page ruling.

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District spokesman Celso Martinez said Mrs. Parker would remain the school’s principal “until further notice.”

Mr. Martinez said the school has undertaken steps to comply with the court order, namely relying on student language scores to place students.

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However, when asked if there are still classes at Preston Hollow containing only white students, Mr. Martinez replied: “That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Desegregation plan

In 2003, a federal judge released the district from its court-ordered desegregation plan. That plan, however, focused on the allocation of resources and treatment of black students. In the 30 years the district operated under the order, whites fled and Hispanics have grown to become the majority. Blacks make up less than a third of the district; whites about 6 percent.

Preston Hollow’s unwritten policy of clustering whites together was known for years among parents and teachers, according to testimony. In fact, Mrs. Parker’s subordinates—including teachers and her assistant principal—raised concerns about it multiple times. One even wrote a letter to Superintendent Michael Hinojosa about it. Those complaints fell on deaf ears, the judge wrote.

“I began to see something very strange,” Ms. Santamaría said in Spanish. “The difference was that the Anglo students would go to lunch together while the Latinos went with the Asians and the African-Americans.” That, she said, raised a question in her mind “because the children don’t know what segregation is.”

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Principal uncooperative

The judge also took exception to Mrs. Parker’s apparent unwillingness to cooperate with the court. At one point during the trial, the judge noted, Mrs. Parker testified that she didn’t know whether Preston Hollow is a predominantly white neighborhood.

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The school’s attendance zone is mostly north of Northwest Highway, east of Preston Road, south of Royal Lane, and just east of North Central Expressway. It includes affluent, mostly white single-family homes, as well as middle-class homes and apartments that are predominantly minority.

The judge also had sharp words for the district’s attorneys, who argued that segregation would cause no harm to the minority students because their teachers used the same curriculum as those teaching white students.

“The court is baffled that in this day and age, that [DISD relied] on what is, essentially, a ‘separate but equal’ argument,” the judge wrote.

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PTA chief criticized

Judge Lindsay also criticized Meg Bittner, the school’s PTA president, who wanted to lure more affluent white families out of private schools and back to Preston Hollow.

More white families would result in a healthier PTA, she testified, bigger fundraisers and, ultimately, more money for the school. The best way to lure back white families, teachers and others testified, was to put white children together in the same classrooms.

Teacher Janet Leon told the court that “neighborhood classes” were predominantly made up of white students because “the people who live in the Preston Hollow neighborhood, who are the majority being white, would want their children grouped together.”

To aid in the recruitment of more affluent whites, the school’s PTA created a brochure for parents that featured almost all white students. Hispanic parents had shown up at the school the day photos were being taken for the brochure, but the principal blocked their entry into the classroom where the photos were being taken, the judge’s ruling states.

Additionally, the PTA, in conjunction with the school, held separate open houses and kindergarten recruitments for white parents. And when PTA members gave prospective parents tours of the school, they were never taken down the “Hispanic halls” where the minority classes were housed, teachers testified.

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Parents at Preston Hollow Elementary School say they’re dumbstruck by a recent court ruling that declared their principal segregated students to stem white flight from the North Dallas school.

In fact, just the opposite happened, said Kaky Wakefield, vice president of the school’s PTA. White parents choose Preston Hollow because they want a diverse learning environment for their children, she said.

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Mrs. Wakefield’s statements were echoed by three other Preston Hollow parents, all of whom said they never saw all-white classes at the school. In fact, they said, the school has made extra efforts to foster good will among the school’s whites, blacks and Hispanics.

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But that’s not the image portrayed in a ruling last week by federal Judge Sam Lindsay. He ruled that principal Teresa Parker and the Preston Hollow PTA attempted to curb white flight from the school by “operating, at taxpayers’ expense, a private school for Anglo children within a public school that was predominantly minority.”

Judge Lindsay’s ruling came after a Hispanic mother and an organization of Hispanic families sued the school in April. They alleged that Mrs. Parker used the district’s bilingual and limited English proficiency classes to segregate students, keeping whites together in a separate wing of the building.

All minority children were funneled into those special learning classes, even if they spoke English, according to the judge’s ruling. Conversely, all white students were placed into “neighborhood” classes that have little or no interaction with the rest of the school, the judge ruled.

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Parents say nothing is further from the truth, although they do acknowledge trying to bring more neighborhood families to the school.

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Mr. Bittner and others say they shouldn’t have to apologize, or be sued, for wanting more of their neighbors to join them.

“It’s no secret that this is an affluent neighborhood,” he said. “And it’s great that people have chosen to commit their personal resources to the school, and we should. But everything we do there is for the benefit of all the kids,” not just white students.

He said the PTA has raised more than $50,000 for the school over the last two years. Most of that money has gone to playground equipment, new fencing and library books, he said.

Parents also bristle at the fact that they often have to defend to neighbors their decision to send their children to a DISD school.

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