The News Says Parents Are Giving Up on This Dallas School, But Parents Say Otherwise

WeSupportSanger_opt.jpg
A banner made this week in the wake of Sunday's Morning News article.
Mr. Martinez knew it was coming, was bracing for it, was already crafting how he might respond in the office and the halls and the parking lot at morning drop-off. Still, when it hit on Sunday, it had to hurt.

Martinez -- first name Hector, not that it gets used much at school -- is the principal at Alex Sanger Elementary, a Dallas ISD campus tucked among the tony homes of Forest Hills in East Dallas. Like almost every other school in the city, Sanger is made up largely of working-class families, students who qualify for free lunch and don't speak English at home. Like every other school, its success depends in part on a small but dedicated group of parents with the time, energy and will to wade through the bureaucratic currents and help make the school a better place to learn.

There's one difference at Sanger, though, or at least there was until this year: A parent with a connection at The Dallas Morning News, the city's largest and loudest shaper of perceptions about the city's public schools.

The parent: Theresa O'Donnell, assistant city manager and one of the most powerful officials at Dallas City Hall. The connection: Rudy Bush, the News' lead reporter on the city hall beat.

Three years ago, when O'Donnell and her partner were mulling where to send their kids, they opted to brave their local school: Sanger. It was such a tough decision that O'Donnell wrote an op-ed about it for the News, extolling her Jeffersonian ideals and proudly proclaiming that she and her partner were not "private school people."

By all accounts they threw themselves into Sanger head-and-hands first, getting involved with the PTA, volunteering at the school and recruiting others to do the same. But after a principal change last fall, things apparently soured, and by this fall they'd had enough. They pulled their kids and began home-schooling them.

It's not an uncommon narrative of city life: Family tries neighborhood school, gets frustrated, leaves, either for a private school, the suburbs or, increasingly, a charter school. What's less common is having it splayed on the cover of the Sunday paper.

Bush wouldn't comment on the story, writing in an email that "the story should speak for itself." O'Donnell didn't return a phone call or email. But at some point O'Donnell told the story to Bush. He could have passed it to one of the paper's two education reporters, to capitalize on their expertise and to avoid complicating his relationship with a key figure on his beat. But he wrote it himself, and gave it the weight of an Important Trend Story:

DISD needs to attract middle-class families to succeed. What does it say about the system if two committed parents -- a top city of Dallas official and a university professor -- can't keep faith with their neighborhood school?

It's a faulty premise to begin with: Attracting middle class families won't fix what's ailing DISD, which is its inability to educate poor kids.

Imagine the district attracted every possible middle- and upper-class student who lives in the district but doesn't attend its schools, instead trekking north to ESD or Hockaday or enrolling in a charter school. How different would DISD look? A little whiter, a little more monied, slightly more palatable to real estate agents and their clients. But it would still be overwhelmingly poor, mostly black and brown and pretty much off limits for Ebby Halliday's house-hunting army. (It would fall to about 79 percent free-and-reduced-lunch eligible from the current 88 percent, depending on how you crunch these numbers.)

But it wasn't the wobbly logic that made Mr. Martinez's job tougher Monday morning. That's wonk stuff. It was the specifics that hurt, and that parents I spoke with feared would discourage other families from getting involved in a school they think is on the upswing. (Last year's STARR scores are a mixed bag, although third- and fourth-grade reading and math scores were all up from 2012.)

In the story, O'Donnell and other parents claimed that under Martinez, recess and sports and a field trip were all cut in favor of testing. But those stories were disputed by parents I spoke with, and one was even disavowed by Bush's own source. The parents also complained that the school's dual-language program was "getting short-shrift," but several parents told me it's become a model for other schools.

What was perhaps most frustrating, though, was the broad strokes painted by O'Donnell, her partner and the paper. Because while the story focused mostly on one family's experience, it raised (and then failed to answer) big questions about what it all means:

"The bureaucracy just beat us, and that's too bad, because what's going to happen next?" O'Donnell asks in the story, seeming to imply that more and more of those allegedly key middle-class families are going to follow hers out the door.

Which some have and more may. But most won't. I talked to five Sanger moms this week, and all of them sounded crushed by the article. They get frustrated themselves, and sometimes worry about the focus on testing. But that's a fact of public-school life, they said, and Sanger's teachers find ways to bring the lessons alive. (The PTA president at Kramer Elementary, a predominantly working-class school in North Dallas, and Stonewall Jackson, a more diverse school in East Dallas, seconded those sentiments in interviews this week.)

"I am not in agreement that the school is only teaching to the test," said Patty Bates Ballard, whose children attend the school and who has volunteered there herself. "There was a lot of what I considered to be engaging -- participation, singing, writing, videos. There was a lot of engaging learning going on."

Another parent added: "They do science experiments; they do gardening; they learn in ways that aren't just for the tests. I don't think it's shoved down their throat like that."

But it'd be easy for an East Dallas parent -- someone whose baby is zooming toward kindergarten, who's wondering what to make of this bumbling school district they're always reading about -- to walk away from that story thinking, no way my kid's going there. Then, magically, toward the end of the story, they're presented with a potential option, when Bush explains that O'Donnell and her partner are planning to open a charter school:

They dream of a school that will serve children from all backgrounds. It will offer services to families needing extra support, and it will provide the sort of education that their children weren't getting in DISD, they said.

"I'm not sure if the intent of the article was to promote their new school, but if it was it was a great business move," Martinez said this week, echoing the suspicion of some Sanger parents. "We're always worried about charter schools drawing our students. But charter schools have the same challenges we have."

As for Sanger, he said he tried to absorb the hit as well as he could and move on. "We know who we are," he said he told his staff this week. "We know how hard we're working."

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43 comments
reckerfamily
reckerfamily

Regarding the article published in DMN on Alex Sanger Elementary, Mr. Bush needs to get both sides of an argument and his facts straight.  I cannot imagine where Sanger would be today if it were not for Theresa O'Donnell fighting for the change and getting the job done, as well as a new administration.  We have more extracurricular activities, and numerous other clubs than ever.  Mr. Martinez has brought new life to Sanger in the forms of teachers, cleanliness, and unification of ALL Sanger parents.  Before the school was cold, uninviting, and reserved with the exception of some faculty members.  Now, the school is warm and inviting. My husband and I made the decision of enrolling our oldest daughter in private school this year.  After discussing the  opportunity with our daughter and Mr. Martinez, we came to the conclusion that this was the best option for her at this time.  Our other daughter is a 3rd grader at Sanger and is happy and content. As an active volunteer at Sanger for the past 5 years, I have seen the turnaround that has and is transforming it into a wonderful community school.  Go Stallions!

D'Aun Wells-Recker 

robertw2
robertw2

I live in Forest Hills (though my wife would dispute our house is "tony") and have had two kids in the Sanger school. Our experience has been positive, though not without hiccups. We transferred out (to Hexter) one year to avoid the mandatory "dual two-way language" program that definitely was not benefiting my kids. We came back when they made it optional. Other than that the school has been quite satisfactory. The teachers have been encouraging and approachable. The new principal is an improvement over the previous principal. My oldest daughter just got into the Irma Lerma Leadership Academy on a Sanger education, so it can't be all that bad (a recent trip back to school had her bump into her kindergarten teacher, a fabulous educator, who remembered her, hugged her and asked her how her new school was. She was genuinely excited to see her again.)

That's what it is all about. The teachers.

This school has a lot of challenges and they work hard there.

oakclifftownie
oakclifftownie

Were these  Parents just oblivious ? Were they that unaware of how the  schools districts have become servants to the TEST ?

I get the idea of making it a better experience for the KIDS... 

But the principal has to answer for the TEST SCORES ...

marmy
marmy

Wife & i live in Forest Hills and we considered sending our youngest to Sanger in 2012. We had heard that there were some activist parents close by that were making some inroads to improvements at Sanger. I made an attempt to meet with a principle at Sanger a couple weeks before the beginning of fall session. My goal was to get a feel for the curriculum, teaching staff and enrichment programs my Kindergartner would be exposed to. It was mid week a little after lunch. I identified myself and told her what i was seeking and that i had spoken to someone on the phone the previous week and was instructed to come up and obtain the enrollment packet and someone in the principals office would be happy to show me around and answer my questions. The woman in the principals office identified herself only as the Asst. Principal. She was not very nice, not even really polite. Our meeting was very brief. I left feeling discouraged without getting the enrollment packet and thinking my child was not going to be exposed to someone like her on a daily basis.

James_the_P3
James_the_P3

A more basic point, why is a city employee running to the city's only daily newspaper with the obvious intent of undermining the city's public schools, when I think everybody agrees that a successful public school system is necessary for economic development and growth?

casiepierce
casiepierce

"The bureaucracy just beat us..." Oh the irony coming from Theresa O'Donnell. 

oakclifftownie
oakclifftownie

School Insider Politics at its best .

Not willing to play second fiddle to the NEW guy and No longer allowed to "Run the Show"  they removed themselves and their children from the school .

JohnSmallBerries
JohnSmallBerries

The author is absolutely incorrect. "Imagine the district attracted every possible middle- and upper-class student who lives in the district but doesn't attend its schools, instead trekking north to ESD or Hockaday or enrolling in a charter school. How different would DISD look?"

The DISD would look a lot better and it might even be a reasonable district. This author knows nothing about the relationship in city and urban dynamics and schools. While yes it needs to educate people at lower income tiers, schools play an essential part in development of neighborhoods and cities. Lack of confidence in local schools leads to type of situation that the DISD is experiencing and it just steam rolls on itself. If middle or upper middle class folks put their kids in the local schools, you can darned rootin tootin bet that the non-middle class kids at the same school also would get a better education.

Look at the parts of the RISD that are in Dallas (and that part extends all the way just north of white rock lake.) The problem of middle and upper middle class people sending their kids to private schools in that area is far less severe. It is not simply because the RISD does a better job. It is because enough of those folks haven't lost faith and as such resources from solid middle class areas help raise the boats in areas that are less so. This makes the RISD's job easier...not that it is actually easy.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

Would you please clarify one item for me?  The story keeps referring to Ms. O'Donnel's partner.  Is this a pc term for a homosexual partner or is it the new style for referring to spouses and domestic partners?


The second item that I would like to find out about is: Does anyone in journalism/media outlets do any fact checking any more?

RSFII
RSFII

Sure they can start a charter school - do they not think that will be frustrating?  However, it seems most of the charters are not doing as well as the DISD schools. Some are also having financial problems and indications of corruption. Or they could start yet another mediocre white-flight academy, as was done by First Baptist and at the former Lakewood Baptist Church.

Maybe they should just follow the pattern of most middle and upper-middle income East Dallas parents who are on the east side of the lake: go to Sanger and Hexter then get an International Baccalaureate transfer to J. L. Long Middle and Woodrow Wilson High.

Anon
Anon

Old hippie lesbians think they know best

EricCeleste
EricCeleste

Can't both critiques be good, even though they come at it from different angles? Joe's is really a reported story, and very good. I thought Tim's was a spot-on instant reaction to what he'd just read. Also, Tim made the point later that day in a podcast that he talked to O'Donnell, and she was far from the antagonistic, complaining parent portrayed in the article. She, according to Tim, made reasonable points, and made some points with which I strongly disagree. But none of that nuance is reflected in the DMN article, because Bush is right -- the story does speak for itself, in a none-too-flattering way.

Oh, you can't hear that podcast, because I screwed up and didn't record it properly and I'm an idiot.

TomC
TomC

It would be nice if our news media organizations - this one included - would focus on potential solutions to DISD's issues instead of simply pointing the bad (e.g. DMN) or critiquing the DMN (D.O. and DMagazine).


I must say that Joe Tone did a much better job of critiquing Rudy Bush's article than that all-over-the-place mess that Tim Rogers posted on Monday.

ozonelarryb
ozonelarryb

Leave it to the Snooze to overplay.

Bu why and how did a principal change make their decision for them/break the camel's back? That kinda craps in their avowed faith in the school.

P1Gunter
P1Gunter

I live in Forest Hills and every parent I know from the area with kids there say it is on the upswing. It's a hell of a lot better than it was in the 80s when parents were forced to send their kids to St. Johns because it was so bad at Sanger.

casiepierce
casiepierce

@marmy So... did you ever talk to the principal? The "activist parents". Is your child in a private school?

Tom434
Tom434

@casiepierce One would certainly think she would know how to play the game of bureaucracy.  The article appears that when she didn't get her way she picked up her marbles a/k/a children and went home.  You feel sorry for Martinez because he is not going to get credit if 10% of the kids score 90 or better on the tests if the 50% of the kids fail the tests

RoscoeJ.
RoscoeJ.

@JohnSmallBerries The number of white and middle and upper class has fallen precipitously in the Lake Highlands  (RISD) secondary schools.  Some of them are actually moving to Lakewood in DISD.

joe.tone
joe.tone moderator

@JohnSmallBerries John: You're not really arguing my point. I didn't say that schools wouldn't benefit from the presence of more middle- and upper-class students. I said there aren't enough of them living in Dallas to make a difference. Because there aren't, as the demographics I linked to show.

joe.tone
joe.tone moderator

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul 1. She's gay. Since I don't mention her partner's name, I can see how that would be confusing.

2. I don't know that newspapers ever used actual fact-checkers, although someone older may know better. Copy editors sometimes serve as de facto fact-checkers. Theoretically reporters should fact-check their own stuff, but usually they're too busy job-hunting or plotting their next listicle.

TomC
TomC

@EricCeleste It's hard to to take your magazine and your writers' ideas seriously when your primary intent is to criticize the media outlet rather than offer ideas and advance the discussion. 

DMN's intent is an important topic, but it should not be the primary focus when discussing DISD. Please thoughtfully lead the discussion about ideas, don't follow their lead.

joe.tone
joe.tone moderator

@TomC This article doesn't offer any solutions, true, but I'd argue that Schutze has done a good job of at least highlighting the reform efforts that he thinks can make an impact. Fair point all around, though, Tom.

marmy
marmy

@casiepiercerce  I never did speak with the Principal. I did speak with other parents. Among them the couple that pulled their children recently to home school. I was told encouragingly that a new Principal was assigned to Sanger starting that fall and things would be better. However, we still did not particularly feel comfortable with being part of the transition. Class size was an issue as was ESL that was still in place at that time. We found a small a private school that  we are very happy with.

JohnSmallBerries
JohnSmallBerries

@RoscoeJ. I don't doubt that because Lakewood is highly desirable as a neighborhood and the elementary has strong local support among the residents. That example actually makes my point. If Lakewood elementary was not supported, then this would not be happening. Note that Lakewood elementary is so strongly supported that local residents are looking at private funding for its expansion.

Guesty
Guesty

@joe.tone @JohnSmallBerries How do you not understand that the demographics you cite are driven by DISD schools? Middle-class people with children don't live in Dallas precisely because of the schools. The population shift would be dramatic if middle-class families were comfortable sending their kids to DISD schools, which only will happen if enough of them do it at once. I'm not saying that's right, but it is reality.  

JohnSmallBerries
JohnSmallBerries

@joe.tone That lead partially to my comment "This author knows nothing about the relationship in city and urban dynamics and schools." 

Ok that's silly hyperbole. In any case, your analysis is far too simplistic. 

Those demographics would change over time and would in fact be different if there was a history of support for local schools as there is in the RISD. 

School and urban policy issues play out over a long time. There is NO solution that would fix problems quickly and there should be no instant expectations.  

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@joe.tone @ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul  

Thank Joe and oct.

Seeing the photo of O'Donnell, she was one of the faces used to show the LGBT "friendliness" of employment at the City of Dallas.  I did not realize that she is an ACM.

One other item, does anyone else see the irony in a lesbian couple having children?

I wouldn't be surprised that Ms. O'Donnell and her partner removed their children from Sanger because Ms. O'Donnell and her partner couldn't "rule the roost" at Sanger.


PS:  Ms. O'Donnell refers to her proposed charter school offering "extra support".  What sort of "extra support" is she referring to?  I wonder if her children's classmates were asking them where their daddy was?

JohnSmallBerries
JohnSmallBerries

@joe.tone Who is upset? These aren't good mediums to discuss these things so I suggest going off and educating yourself. 

Guesty
Guesty

@joe.tone @Guesty @JohnSmallBerries Yes, it would be 80 poor, but what about the distribution?  But what would North and East Dallas look like?  You would end up with many schools that would be better off than Plano, et al., and many schools that were still very poor.  But the better-off schools would attract more middle-class families, and the effects would spread.  It doesn't solve everything, but it is simple minded to think that it wouldn't matter at all.  

joe.tone
joe.tone moderator

@JohnSmallBerries @joe.tone First off, let's relax. No reason to get upset about this. We're having the conversation. That's positive. Be the ball. Feel the flow.

I never disputed your research. I agree with that. I agree that if the district was more economically diverse, the poor kids would benefit. I agree I agree I agree I agree. What I'm saying -- not clearly, it seems -- is that simply attracting the middle- and upper-class families already in the district won't be enough, and that to do that they have to educate the kids they have. 

JohnSmallBerries
JohnSmallBerries

@joe.tone Well we will agree to disagree. I am not sure how "research dating all the way back to the 60s showing that lower income students exposed to middle and upper income students do better on average" is not clear to you. You made a pronouncement with no evidence whatsoever. 

When you say things like "because the district is now 10 percentage points less poor, families are going to start moving back into the city" you are just hoisting a straw man.

So you are either being  obtuse intentionally or you simply are ignorant of the amount of research available on the subject. I apologize for my inability to distill decades of research on urban issues into a few paragraphs on the DO blog. I might suggest that you take some time and do some research on your own about the effects of various schools settings on performances and urban development. 

joe.tone
joe.tone moderator

@JohnSmallBerries I'm repeating it because you're not addressing it.

JohnSmallBerries
JohnSmallBerries

@joe.tone Clearly we aren't getting through to you because you are repeating the same argument differently as if it is going to be effective. Your mistake is to presume that education success rests solely on a district doing something to a child and treating it like a set of independent parts. There is research dating all the way back to the 60s showing that lower income students exposed to middle and upper income students do better on average. 

Also someone else noted that this is an economic development issue as mixed income areas tend to be more stable over time but if more wealthy people flee when things like schools are perceived as poor then things spiral down.

There is an entire set of inter-related issues going on here and it is not simply what happens to poor kids at school.

joe.tone
joe.tone moderator

@Guesty @joe.tone @JohnSmallBerries OK, let's play this out: Every middle- and upper-class kid who lives in but doesn't attend DISD suddenly enrolls. The district is now 80 percent poor, 20 percent not poor. It continues to fail to educate all of them, especially the poor and Hispanic ones. But because the district is now 10 percentage points less poor, families are going to start moving back into the city?

I understand the long-game, but my point is that if the district doesn't learn to educate the students it has, attracting the middle-class families in its neighborhoods -- families like O'Donnell's, and mine, incidentally -- isn't going to do squat.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@casiepierce @ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul  

I'm not griping or in disagreement about "gay" families.  As far as I am concerned there is a definite lack of happiness in this world.  If two people can share their lives and experience happiness, I am all for it.

In raising children, teaching them about their sexuality and sexual identity is at best a difficult problem.  My comment about their children being asked about "where their daddy is", while tongue in cheek, is a serious question. For a 6, 7, or 8 year old to ask one of their classmates this question is a very innocent question, when they see their classmates two parents and one is not male.

Seriously casie, how do homosexual partners raise their children when it comes to matters of sexual identity as their children approach adolescense?


As far as the "irony" of a lesbian couple having children there are several things to consider.  One, I think it shows how powerful the maternal instinct can be.  Two, a male definitely needs to be involved, assuming that the children are not adopted.


Finally, one definition of irony that I believe fits this situation is the following:

" ... incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs ... "   American Heritage Dictionary


casiepierce
casiepierce

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul Oh shut up Paul. This isn't a forum to gripe about your "disagreement" with gay families. The only irony here is in O'Donnell complaining about bureaucracy when she is one of the main actors perpetuating it at Dallas City Hall. .

TomC
TomC

@joe.tone @TomC @EricCeleste This was an interesting Q&A among the Board candidates and I appreciated D's and TED's sponsorship. But like the DMN, I don't know D's P.O.V. on how to improve the schools.

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