Yesterday, on the front page of its Sunday edition, below the fold, reporter Rudy Bush and the Dallas Morning News did grievous damage to a DISD school — and to the district as a whole. The school is Alex Sanger Elementary, in a neighborhood called Forest Hills. Online, the headline reads “How East Dallas Family Reluctantly Gave Up on DISD Elementary School.” On paper, it went “Gung-ho Parents Give Up,” with the subhead “Frustrated, They Pull Kids, Energy From East Dallas School.” The parents at the center of the story are a former college professor, Christa Downer, and her partner, Assistant City Manager Theresa O’Donnell. Given the women’s bona fides and the way their tale was told, driving home their condemnations of the school and the district, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say this story will keep families from enrolling their kids at Sanger and at other DISD schools. And it very well may lead parents to pull their kids from Sanger when the school year ends. As I said, grievous.
A careful reading of the story, however, shows that it’s a he-said-she-said tiff involving only a handful of disgruntled parents. How that makes its way onto the front page on a Sunday is a mystery to me. I mean, unless there’s an institutional bias at the Morning News against DISD. But that can’t be. Can it?
Here is Bush’s thesis, presented in the fourth paragraph of the story:
These days, conflicts between school board members and Superintendent Mike Miles seem to define DISD — or, at least, its public face. But the struggles that O’Donnell and Downer encountered at Sanger may say more about the school system’s troubles. 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?
Well, I don’t know what it says. It might say that Sanger is a perfect lens through which to view the entire district. It might say that DISD is failing miserably. Or it might say that just Sanger is failing. OR it might say that O’Donnell and Downer are crazy parents who wouldn’t be happy at any school, which is why, when they quit Sanger Elementary, Downer left her professorship to start a home school. I don’t know the answer to the question. Neither does Bush. He never answers it — not explicitly, anyway. It’s a leading question, packed with implication, aimed at suburban readers and private-school parents, all of whom can nod knowing nods.
Side note: both my children attend private schools. This fact doesn’t figure into what we’re talking about here. I’m Catholic. My kids are in Catholic schools. That’s called a God force field. We don’t need to talk about my family, because this isn’t about me. It’s not even about O’Donnell and Downer. I’ve met O’Donnell. I don’t think she’s crazy. I only raised the question of her mental state as a theoretical consideration, by way of pointing out one shortcoming of the News story. That’s what this is about: journalism and whether it’s being practiced responsibly.
After Bush poses his question, he follows it with O’Donnell’s beefs with the school:
“The bureaucracy just beat us, and that’s too bad, because what’s going to happen next?” asked O’Donnell, an assistant city manager and no stranger to bureaucracy. The problems ran a gamut, O’Donnell said, from the couple’s belief that Sanger’s dual-language program was getting short shrift, to a decision by the principal to cut out sports and recess in the name of improved test scores.
Now, playtime is important, and we’re learning that cutting it in favor of more classroom time can hinder learning, not improve it. But for these shortcomings — presented from one side, as “O’Donnell said” and “the couple’s belief” — a school and a district get hammered on the front page?
O’Donnell and other parents also had problems with how much time at Sanger was given to testing and preparing to test. After reporting that one parent, Kelly Kemp, claimed an overgrown baseball field wasn’t repaired and that she couldn’t hold a fundraising chili cookoff because the school couldn’t afford to hire custodial staff — horrors! — Bush writes:
Always, parents said, the focus was on raising test scores, at the expense of everything else.
“Why are we working so hard for these test scores? No one could tell us the benefit,” Kemp said.
She decided the school simply wasn’t interested in serving middle-class families, she said. O’Donnell came to the same conclusion.
“DISD has given up on the middle class, and the middle class has given up on DISD,” O’Donnell said.
This is a bold claim. As a reporter, if you let someone say that, you’d best marshal some data to show me if that claim has any merit or if it’s merely the opinion of two women. Give me some perspective. In this story, that never happens. The only four data points in the 1,800-word story are these: more than 80 percent of Sanger students are economically disadvantaged, and 60 have limited command of English. Enrollment has grown from 490 kids in 2011 to 563 in 2013. There’s nothing about how test scores have improved or worsened. There’s nothing about how many middle-class kids attend Sanger — or other schools in the district. Nothing about whether that number has increased or decreased in recent years — or historically.
Some math: if 80 percent of the 563 kids at Sanger are economically disadvantaged, let’s say that means there are 112 middle-class kids. (I know. It’s rough. Just go with me.) One hundred and twelve kids might mean, what, 100 families? A handful, a small percentage, are disgruntled? That’s a front-page story? And what about test scores? Do we have any data on those?
O’Donnell said standardized tests and the way they’re scored have changed, making it difficult to track progress over many years. In any case, it’s clear that Sanger is not up to par with DISD’s best elementary schools, she said.
She said it’s clear that Sanger is not up to par? Then how about some data comparing Sanger to other elementary schools? That would be nice. Nowhere in the 1,800 words do those data show up. Instead, interestingly, Bush follows the preceding sentence with this one:
This year, the school met state academic standards and earned distinction for student progress when compared with similar schools.
Whoah. The school earned distinction for progress? That doesn’t sound clear to me at all. So why let O’Donnell say it? Much of the story is filled with such contradictions. I’m so angry that I’m now typing with my fists, so let’s lay out a few of these he-said-she-said moments.
Others who once joined [O’Donnell and Downer’s] movement for Sanger have turned to private schools. Some remained believers in Sanger and DISD. The problem wasn’t with Sanger, they suggest. It was with O’Donnell and Downer.
So “others” disagreed with “some.” Interesting. Curious. I wonder what “many” think. Oh, right here:
[M]any Sanger parents believe the school does reach out to the middle class. Kelly Clayton’s son has just started kindergarten at Sanger, and the family loves the school. “There’s a wonderful sense of community with people in the neighborhood,” she said.
Hang on. Just hang the eff on, here. “Many” parents believe the school reaches out to the middle class, and yet Bush lets two ladies who disagree drive the entire narrative?
I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s not good journalism. Bush covers Dallas City Hall, where O’Donnell works. I’ve always thought he was a good reporter. So this story makes me scratch my head. Because it looks to me like he just jumped on O’Donnell’s side, strapped on a pair of blinders, and wrote a story whose plot he’d become married to long before he conducted a single interview. I hope that’s not the way he covers his usual beat.
As for the newspaper as a whole and the editors there who should have asked for more reporting and, no matter what, given this small story less prominent play, like I said, surely the News doesn’t have an anti-DISD institutional bias.
I’m being sarcastic. I think it does.
Update: Here’s how you can show some love for Sanger.