What's Wrong With Wheatley?

It has history, it has heritage. But does Wheatley High School have a real future?

And while state and district educators continually mask the real dropout rate of students through a statistical game, Orum was candid. The state and the district figure their dropout rates by comparing those who drop out to the school population as a whole. In their calculations, the overall state dropout rate is less than 2 percent, while the rate of African-Americans and Hispanics is under 5 percent, numbers so low as to create the illusion that the problem is under control.

But Orum determined his dropout rate by comparing the number of seniors graduating in the 1989-90 school year -- 120 -- to the number who had entered as freshmen -- 490. That calculated out to a dropout rate of 75 percent, which was worth worrying about. The numbers for those who complete high school throughout HISD are better, but they're nothing to be complacent about. Last year, for example, HISD had 19,466 ninth-graders, but only 8,506 seniors, for a completion rate of less than 50 percent. Some of these students may eventually go on to get GEDs, or they may have moved out rather than dropped out and finished school in other states or countries, but the numbers are still far from good: There's a huge falloff of students from the ninth to the tenth grade, when students who have been held back a grade or two turn 16 and can legally leave school.

By the time Orum came to Wheatley, Hispanics were on their way to becoming the majority ethnic group in HISD. By 1990, Hispanics comprised 43 percent of the district's students, compared to 40 percent African-American and 15 percent Anglo. Fifteen years earlier, the district had been 39 percent Anglo and just 19 percent Hispanic. Hispanic leaders were protesting that they lacked representation on the board and that their students' needs were ignored. The most vocal of the Hispanic leaders, W.R. Morris, was calling for Raymond's resignation.

When Orum took over at Wheatley, 40 percent of the school's student population was Hispanic. Orum had been the first black to attend an all-white high school in Nacogdoches, and he thought he had learned from that experience how a dominant group should welcome those from another group. Wheatley had changed, and it was time for people to recognize that fact.

"I was probably somewhat naive," says Orum today. "When I was selected as principal, alumni flew in from California to give their stamp of approval. I saw the history of the school and its heritage as unbelievable. My attitude was that you didn't have to relate it to race. Everyone thought [the history] was African-American. I saw it as Wheatley history."

Orum recruited student leaders from both ethnic groups and turned decisions over to them. He was particularly proud, he says, of the way his student leaders reduced conflicts between Hispanic and black kids who would gather in the morning at the railroad tracks that divided their neighborhoods and throw rocks at each other.

Orum says he talked to Hispanic students who said they didn't have a problem with going to Wheatley, that they had always gone to school with African-Americans. But black acceptance of the Hispanic kids was a little harder to come by.

"We started out with Hispanic and black student leaders with the idea of building a new culture," says Orum. "It was important to make everyone feel that Wheatley was their school. I think that some may have felt I was losing some of Wheatley's heritage by bringing in a Mexican-American perspective. But I thought it could be a model of the city."

His philosophy was that you have to believe in students and trust them. He helped the two sides identify cultural and racial conflicts and intellectualize them by talking about them. He used multicultural classes and bilingual signs in the halls and classrooms. He formed a student advisory panel to help him moderate student conflicts. "They will test you," he says, "but students want to belong and want to be heard. You have to put them in control."

Once again, reporters were writing optimistic stories about Wheatley. Maybe, the reports said, the district had found someone who could turn the school around. Orum had recruited drama and band teachers and tried to rebuild the school's lagging extracurricular activities. He says he tried to get a magnet program in management training and thought he had it nailed down with major corporate funding, but "it was bogged down administratively over who was going to get credit." Orum wasn't going to last long either.

In 1992, two Wheatley coaches were accused of sexual misconduct. One was convicted of engaging in lewd conduct with a female student; the other was accused of groping a male football player, but exonerated. Orum was caught between angry parents and alumni. In a show of support for their principal, 50 students walked out of class one day. But Orum supporter Joan Raymond had left in 1991, and the new superintendent, Frank Petruzielo, was already having problems with the board. Orum saw the handwriting on the wall and took a job in Austin, where he now works as an educational consultant.

Once Orum left, the school drifted under the leadership of his replacement, Harold Crawford, who lasted only 18 months. Crawford has been described by parents and teachers as a nice man but ineffectual. Orum's work came unraveled.

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