You won’t find a desk in Pete Chapasko’s office. Instead, you’ll simply find a conference table.
“I’m not a corporate type of leader — I’m a paper and pencil kind of person,” says the Preston Hollow Elementary School principal.
It’s a reflection of the overall importance Chapasko places on constantly engaging his staff and student body. He begins each day by meeting with the students who are in charge of the morning announcements, a duty that rotates so everyone gets a turn. During the sit-down, he asks the kids what they like learning about and what books they’re reading.
His approach is working. In 2008, the school achieved the highest results on state exams in its 63-year history. And the school hit that high mark again this year.
That’s even more impressive when you consider this: Before Chapasko arrived in 2007, the school was two failing student grades away from being ranked “unacceptable”, the state’s lowest academic ranking. The following year, under Chapasko’s leadership, the school was three students away from being “exemplary”, the highest possible ranking.
But these test scores only scratch the surface of the change that has taken place at Preston Hollow. Chapasko has been key in helping this school move forward after a 2006 segregation lawsuit pitted parent against parent.
Most neighbors still recall those national headlines. A judge ruled that segregation was taking place at the school after an investigation revealed that Hispanic children were being placed in Spanish-based classes, regardless of their fluency in English.
The school’s then-principal was ordered to pay $20,200 in damages to plaintiffs and removed from her post at Preston Hollow Elementary. The school’s community was left torn in the aftermath without a leader.
Enter Pete Chapasko. Most days you’ll find him wearing a tie and a beaming smile. Positive affirmations hang on his office walls and are printed on the margins of his day planner. He’s an animated speaker, and his enthusiasm is contagious.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him not smiling,” says Monica Chapa, community liaison for the school. “He’s the kind of guy you can talk to when you’ve had a crazy day, and you will walk away smiling. He has the power to turn it around like that. It’s impossible not to catch some of his happiness when you’re around him.”
After a rigorous interview process, a board of DISD officials, teachers, parents and community members decided that Chapasko was the man for the job — and he had his work cut out for him.
Hispanic parent Lupe Aviles says although she didn’t hesitate to send her son to the school, she knows other Hispanic parents did.
“I’ve overheard other parents talking about it,” she says. “There were definitely other parents who were very scared to send their kids to the school because of what happened with the segregation.”
Chapasko picked up on these fears.
“When I got here, there was some tension,” he says. “A lot of healing needed to happen. There was distrust within the Hispanic community here that needed to be earned back.”
Regaining the Hispanic parents’ trust was a tall order, considering Chapasko isn’t Hispanic.
“It was actually quite funny because when all the Hispanic parents heard a Mr. Chapasko was coming to our school, they all said ‘Hay, que bueno’ [Oh, how nice], because they all assumed he was a Latino,” Chapa says.
“But instead, in walks this blue-eyed man who doesn’t speak Spanish.
“I can honestly tell you, though, he has proven himself to these Hispanic parents. It doesn’t matter what race he is — he has gone above and beyond to cross any cultural barriers. He’s even taking Spanish lessons now.”
Perhaps Chapasko has been able to handle the prickly situation with such finesse because this isn’t his first go-round with an experience like this.
Fifteen years ago, O’Banion Middle School in Garland made national headlines after the principal tried to prohibit Spanish from being spoken in the hallways or cafeteria. Later that year, tensions rose again after a female student was assaulted on campus. The principal resigned, and Chapasko came in to pick up the pieces.
He says after an initial survey, parents, teachers and students came up with a new vision for O’Banion, and “eventually the school soared.”
Chapasko has been able to accomplish largely the same thing at Preston Hollow.
“The Hispanic parents just wanted to make sure their kids were being treated right, and they wanted to know they were welcome at our school,” Chapasko says. “Parents know when they’re welcome, and they know when they’re not. Parents can see if you like them or not; it has to be genuine. And parents have to trust you — it’s the base of a healthy relationship.”
DISD chief administrative officer Donna Micheaux says this is one of the key lessons the district can glean from what has happened at Preston Hollow.
“I’ve spoken with [Chapasko] about his work at Preston Hollow, and a lot of that dialogue was about how hard he’s working to build parents’ trust. One of the lessons learned from this is to make sure trust is always built — that’s always key.”
Chapasko also turned a good deal of attention to his staff.
“I met with each teacher individually, and several told me they thought as a school, we needed to work on treating everyone equally.”
“Before I got here, there was a rift between teachers who taught bilingual classes and those who didn’t. There was this mentality of ‘you teach your kids, and I’ll teach mine.’”
Today, all teachers sit down together by grade level and review curriculum, regardless of whether they teach Spanish speakers or English speakers.
Micheaux says this speaks volumes about the type of leader Chapasko is.
“It is important to have that coherence among staff, and he understands that, and he’s been able to make it happen. He’s done a great job of bringing the campus together to establish a common goal, which is to educate every child there.
“The test scores have improved there because of his leadership. We [DISD administrators] are extremely pleased with his work and completely confident that he will continue to lead the school to an ‘exemplary’ status.”
Aside from charting a new academic course for the school, Chapasko also established new guidelines for the PTA. For example, meetings used to be held at parents’ homes from time to time. The problem, Chapasko says, is that home meetings might be intimidating to some parents, especially if they don’t speak the same language as the homeowners.
“I was very clear from day one: All PTA meetings are to take place at the school, no exceptions.”
Before Chapasko took the helm, parents also could pay a PTA fee to have their child’s birthday advertised on a marquee outside the school. The new principal quickly ended this practice.
“Every child’s birthday is equally important, and we don’t want to send any messages that might suggest otherwise. So if we can’t list all of the birthdays, then we’re not going to list any of them.”
Chapa says Chapasko has the right idea.
“A lot of our families are Hispanic immigrants so they don’t speak English, and they feel embarrassed by that. A lot of them don’t even know what a PTA is, because they might not have them in their homeland. This parent-involvement aspect is a totally new cultural concept to a lot of them.
“But we’re making progress,” Chapa says. “We’re reaching more Hispanic families, and making them feel comfortable enough to get involved here.”
And Chapa points out that it’s her job to reach out to all parents, not just Hispanic parents.
“A lot of the white parents who live in this neighborhood don’t come to this school; they go to private schools. I’d love for more of them to come here, and I’m hoping that when they see our test scores have improved, that might help change their minds.”
She says while it certainly seemed like a good portion of white parents left the school when the segregation lawsuit happened, it’s hard to be certain because that’s the same year the school’s sixth-graders were moved up to middle school, so the entire student body shrunk.
Preston Hollow PTA president Richard Christian is one of the white parents still sending his child to the nearby public school. He didn’t live in Dallas during the segregation lawsuit, so he knows very little about what things were like on campus back then.
“When we initially toured the school, we mistakenly thought this was a ‘neighborhood school’. But after we moved here, we quickly realized that most of our neighbors weren’t sending their kids here.
“I’d like to see more neighborhood families at the school because it’s a good school. I can’t really say what kind of school it used to be because I wasn’t here then, but I can attest that today, it’s a very good school.”
Most of the parents who stuck with Preston Hollow through the lawsuit, both white and Hispanic, shy away from publicly discussing it; many parents who were contacted for this story declined to be interviewed, saying the lawsuit is a topic they don’t like to dwell on.
Christian says in his role as PTA president, he will stay focused on what lies ahead for Preston Hollow, a future he hopes includes more parent involvement.
“I very much want this to be a school where every family feels connected,” he says. “We have some cultural barriers, but we’ll be finding ways to work around that. We’re all in this together, and we want everyone involved because that’s what’s best for our kids.”
Ultimately, Chapasko says, creating that community feel on campus boils down to the Golden Rule.
“The bottom line is you treat people the way you want to be treated,” he says. “You respect everyone. We treat every kid here the way we would treat President Bush’s kids, if they still attended this school.”
And as for any of that 2006 segregation stigma, Chapasko says it’s in the rearview mirror.
“I wasn’t here then, so I don’t know a whole lot about what things were like then — and I try and keep it that way. I’m focused on where we’re going.
“And I can tell you that we’re heading for some great things, and we have the test scores now to prove it. We’re moving forward, big time.”