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Rod Dreher

'Choose Woodrow,' if you're white

01:36 PM CDT on Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Choose Woodrow"? Sure, if you like, and more power to you. But let's not kid ourselves about what the campaign to persuade East Dallas parents to put their kids in DISD's Woodrow Wilson High School is really saying. And that is: "Come on in, white people, it's really OK."

They can't say that outright, obviously, which is why the campaign is officially a class thing, aimed at middle- and upper-middle-income parents. It's also a community thing. Principal Ruth Vail told The Dallas Morning News' Kent Fischer that Woodrow's student body should look like the neighborhood it serves.

If that were the case, Woodrow would be a lot whiter. As it stands now, 64 percent of the people who live in Woodrow's attendance zone are white, but only 18 percent of the student body is. Woodrow's student population is two-thirds Hispanic, and 12 percent black (and mostly poor). Look at the Texas Education Agency statistics for Woodrow (available at www.tea.state.tx.us/), and you'll see why the school's boosters want more whites.

The school's TAKS math and science numbers are especially grim. The overwhelming majority of Woodrow's white students meet state standards, but only a minority of blacks and Hispanics do. In 2006, the state deemed half of Woodrow's white seniors "college ready" in English and math.

Hispanics? Try 7 percent. Blacks? Four.

According to the most recent data, 58 percent of Woodrow's whites completed advanced courses, while only 15 percent of its black students and 23 percent of its Hispanics did.

That explains how the state could declare Woodrow "academically unacceptable" for two years in a row, even as Newsweek named it one of the nation's best high schools in 2006. Newsweek measured the number of Woodrow students taking advanced courses, divided by the number of graduates (Woodrow's blacks and Hispanics drop out at a much higher rate). Woodrow is indeed one of America's best high schools – if you're white.

The queasy-making truth behind the "Choose Woodrow" campaign is that white Woodrow parents don't have to worry about their kids suffering academically from attending a majority-minority school where black and Hispanic academic performance is a disaster area. Most whites take college-track courses – and aren't held back by underachieving minorities, who are in different classrooms.

All this puts the "Choose Woodrow" folks in the position of arguing that it will do black and Hispanic children good to learn under the same roof – but not necessarily in the same room – as white middle-class kids. True, bringing more neighborhood whites into Woodrow would lift the school's overall scores, but where is the evidence that the rising tide lifts minority boats?

One detects a spirit of self-congratulation and social shaming at work in the pro-Woodrow campaign. Principal Vail informed The News that "parents choose private schools out of fear." Her charge is not entirely true – or fair. She should know; her daughter is a sixth-grader at nearby St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School.

Some parents go private because they prefer a different pedagogical model, believe that religion is important to education or want their kids in a more disciplined environment. Yes, some people are afraid of Dallas public schools, in part because of peer culture. Woodrow teachers and administrators are cracking down on student fashion, DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa told parents last week, out of concern over gang colors.

That's not a problem private school students often face.

To be fair, Woodrow is in a difficult position. It's serving two highly dissimilar populations, separated by a chasm in financial and cultural resources. There's no getting around the fact that Woodrow, however unintentionally, maintains an island of white middle-class achievement amid a sea of impoverished minority mediocrity and failure. Woodrow's relative success in educating white kids (but mostly white kids) symbolizes the far deeper problems facing DISD and this city – one that we are not prepared to address in public.

Maybe making peace with "together but unequal" is necessary to keep the middle class in Dallas. If so, let's not kid ourselves with diversity cant and moralistic truisms about how the school and the community gets stronger if everybody sends their kids to public schools – and with the concomitant demonization of parochial and private education.

"Choose Woodrow: It's Working For Us White Folks," while hardly a slogan that inspires, is at least honest.

Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is rdreher@dallasnews.com.

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