Thursday, March 26, 2009

Beyond the cage

Looking back on it all, it's not much of a surprise that any school run by Donald Moten would descend into virtual chaos.

In about five years under Moten, South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas faced allegations of grade changing, cheating on standardized tests and, most notably, pitting troubled students against each other in caged fights.

And it all makes sense when you take a look at his work history:

Moten was nearly 50 when he applied to DISD, but he listed a mere six years of work history on the application, even though the form instructs applicants to "Account for every year from high school graduation to present."

What did Moten omit from his work history? Well, his stint on the Dallas police force, for starters. It was a job that lasted only a few years, but was long enough for Moten to be involved in a fatal shooting of an elderly block captain and to later fake his own kidnapping.

... Now let's look a bit closer at the work history Moten did provide: A two-year stint at a Houston elementary school as a fifth-grade math/science teacher, and a four-year post teaching the same subjects at a Sherman middle school. That's it. A grand total of six years teaching experience. Why, exactly, did somebody at DISD look at that and see the skills necessary to be a principal of a large urban high school?

Good question.

When Moten was finally removed as principal of SOC in Sept. 2006, the school was rated "academically unacceptable" by the Texas Education Agency.

Among the reasons for the rating: only 25 percent of students passed both math and reading sections on Texas' standardized test for primary and secondary schools - 42 percent behind the state average; the average SAT score for students was 229 points lower than the state average; and only 7 percent of students were deemed prepared for higher education studies in English and language arts.

Sure, Moten wasn't responsible for all of these problems. But the school certainly didn't make many - if any - strides under his leadership. Well, except for basketball.

If anything, Moten's hiring at South Oak Cliff is more an indictment of the Dallas school district than Moten himself.

Again, how does an underqualified candidate like Moten wind up at a school where 68 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, 79.4 percent are deemed "at-risk," and the student-teacher ratio was well above the state average? Wouldn't a school like SOC need an especially bright, dynamic and experienced principal to have hope of improving such a dismal situation?

Kent Fischer of The Dallas Morning News brings it home:

Some folks will probably wonder why we should even bother asking these questions. Moten is gone from the district. The cage fights are a thing of the past. SOC's new principal has the school on the upswing.

All true. But the fact that DISD is still, today, cleaning up Moten's messes is reason enough to ask how it was that he landed here in the first place.

Having lived in Dallas for three years and the Dallas-Fort Worth area for eight, I'm pretty familiar with the area and SOC. And reading about all of this - from Moten's work history all the way up to the cage fights - makes me plenty mad.

Many of those kids in that neighborhood - a pretty rough section of Dallas - are already behind the eight-ball before they ever step foot on the SOC campus. And they don't need people, particularly school administrators who are supposed to know better, making things even more difficult.

It goes without saying that those kids, their parents and the community deserved much better leadership than they received.

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