By ROBYN H. JIMENEZThe Dallas Examiner
South Oak Cliff High School has emerged as a newly renovated, state of the art facility after several years of students fighting for major repairs or a new facility.
Just five years ago, David Johnson, along with Teah Mitchell, Landon Finley, Lizzett Godinez – known as the Fab Four – led protests of students during school hours in hopes of being heard by the mayor and the Dallas ISD Board of Trustees.
“The purpose of our assembling is to expose to our school board and city of Dallas, the horrible conditions of South Oak Cliff, where we attend,” he wrote in a letter to students urging them to join the protest.
Johnson, along with several other students, cited a grocery list of complaints and concerns regarding the safety and condition of the school. Gas leaks, leaking roofs, broken drinking fountains, classrooms that are extremely hot or extremely cold, pest infestations and bad food topped the list of complaints. Many of the youth expressed feeling that the school board and city officials did not care about them or their education.
Johnson also noted in 2015 that – as many of the school district’s schools received new buildings – the condition of SOC grew worse, after minor repairs that began during the previous school year, continued during the school year.
“This past year has been the worst,” he said. “In the hallways, there is no ceiling and they have been working on that since the end of last year. When we came back to school this fall, it looked the same as we left last year for summer break. It makes me question, ‘What have you been doing all summer?’ When it rains, it rains so bad that it leaks and it leaks so bad that the tiles from the [ceiling] fall.”
SOC students, parents and alumni became relentless in their demand for a new school building. Instead, the board allocated $13 million of an approved $1.6 billion bond for the school district to go toward renovations at SOC.
At the same time, Dallas ISD spokesperson Andre Riley stated he believed the school did not pose a health threat and was a safe environment – insisting that the issues were only cosmetic, rather than structural.
But just after returning from the Thanksgiving holiday, students reported that the school had a gas leak.
“They didn’t tell our parents and didn’t even evacuate the school. We stayed in there and we were supposed to leave,” then freshman Angelica Scuriy said in 2015. “I want to go to a school where I can learn. It’s just not about bare ceilings – it’s about the environment. And in order to learn you have to have a good environment to learn in. That’s why there was a protest, because we feel like we are not being treated right.”
Students participated in another walkout in December, again demanding major repairs or a new school, as well as better learning conditions.
Treveon Washington, a sophomore at the time, described the school as feeling like a prison where no one cared about them or their education.
“How can they help out Lake Highlands and other high schools but when it comes to our neighborhoods, nothing is being done?” he questioned.
Washington also stated that some teachers missed several days of schools, while some classes have permanent substitute teachers.
Johnson also noted issues with the staff, saying that he’s had four principals in the four years that he’s attended the school.
“How can you create change when you are inconsistent with your leaders?” Johnson questioned. “Also, I disagree with the statement from DISD that our school is a safe place to attend. Those people are on the outside looking in. They don’t experience what we experience. We are considered a low-performing school but we also have low-performing conditions that we are in. We are going to continue to do whatever it takes and whatever we can to get what we need. We deserve better.”
Another student recalled a time when representatives from various colleges were on campus for a college fair that was disrupted by leaks so large that tiles fell from the ceiling and janitorial trash cans were used to catch the falling water.
After continued protests and students voicing their concerns and demands during trustee meetings, the concerns were met with actions.
The school building at 3601 S. Marsalis Ave. closed at the beginning of the winter break in 2018 and remained closed until renovations could be completed. The students temporarily attended classes at the old Village Fair Shopping Center, located at 4949 Village Fair Drive.
The renovation project, after some unexpected repairs and other changes were noted and it evolved into a $52 million restoration that included improvements to the roof, windows and exterior upgrades; band, chorus, dance and theater arts spaces; cafeteria and administrative area expansion; new competition and auxiliary gymnasium; football practice field and locker room enhancements; renovation of classrooms, courtyard and infrastructure for technology upgrades.
After an unforeseen delay – the improved SOC was expected to open its doors in August of 2019, so students could begin the school year on their home campus – the building was completed a few months later and opened its doors on Jan. 9, 2020 for students to begin the current semester.
For Oak Cliff, a community organization, hosted a community block party Jan. 8 at Village Fair to recruit volunteers to help teachers prepare their new classrooms, as well as boost morale and community togetherness.
An official celebration – complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a performance by the SOC choir – was held Jan. 11 at SOC to welcome to the students to their home campus. Speakers included Dr. Michael Hinojosa, Dallas ISD superintendent; Dr. Willie Fred Johnson Jr., SOC’s principal since 2017; District 5 trustee Maxie Johnson, elected in 2019; and SOC alumni.
Though the students and faculty seemed to be filled with excitement and promise, there was still some who remained concerned about the problems that the renovation could not change, such as the previous staffing issues.
“I’m happy about the building,” one parent stated. “But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if everything else has really changed. If not, we’ll face that then.”
After a short film revealing the student protests and painstaking renovations, the Fab Four took the stage. Each student spoke briefly about the previous condition of the school, the sacrifices that were made by students and staff and what they hoped to achieve through their protests – noting that they knew they would graduate before any substantial changes could be made. However, they’re grateful for the work that has been done for the current students and many students to come, proud of their efforts, and happy to know that they were finally heard.
“We are so grateful for having the courage to be SOC’s voice. This shows that no matter who you are, you can make a change,” Mitchell stated. “And I just want to say this, because one of my favorite teachers told me this, ‘If you believe in yourself, you can go out and build pyramids.’”
In return, many of the students and parents in attendance showed their gratefulness to the Fab Four and 100 plus students, parents, staff and alumni who fought for a better building.
Mayor Eric Johnson, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Sen. Royce West, Rep. Carl Sherman Sr., Rep. Toni Rose, Commissioner John Wiley Price and Council member Carolyn King Arnold presented proclamations. Dominique Alexander, president of Next Generation Action Network, made a special presentation. Dr. Frederick D. Hanes III of Friendship-West Baptist Church was the keynote speaker.
The event concluded with a reception and campus tours.