In August, 1975, two weeks before school was scheduled to start, Phyllis Owen, a white woman, and J.O. Griffin, a black man, were named principals of Hamilton Park Elementary School in Richardson - a school with no students, no teachers, no staff, no equipment, no supplies. About all the school did have was a large building complete with gymnasium, band room, and auditorium, but, as Mrs. Owen recalls, "When I walked in, the doors were off, the paint buckets were on the floor, the siding was not on, the ceiling was not in, and the floor was not in."
A frenetic two weeks later, Mrs. Owen and Mr. Griffin had a school, complete with 480 students - 50 percent black neighborhood students, 50 percent white volunteer students; a faculty composed of some of the best teachers in Richardson, 83 percent of whom had master’s degrees; certified teacher’s aides for almost every teacher; and a large, freshly refurbished building. They also had Harry Reasoner, reporters from the Today show, educators from around the country, and a great many other people watching with interest what the Richardson Independent School District called its "Pacesetter" program, a positive alternative to busing as a method of integrating schools.
Located within a middle-class black neighborhood inside the Dallas city limits (just south of Texas Instruments), the Hamilton Park school was set up to attract anglo pupils voluntarily to previously all-black Hamilton Park by offering an enriched educational program. Although some of the white volunteers have to ride as much as 25 minutes on a school bus each way, some unique inducements make the ride worthwhile:
●A school day that runs from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. with supervised work and play and an optional breakfast furnished at cost.
●An expanded staff, including a teacher’s aide for almost every teacher, that works out to one adult for every eight students (compared to a ratio closer to one to 21 in other RISD schools), and teachers chosen from all over the District on the basis of their abilities, their specialties, and their desire to work in the Pacesetter program.
●Afterschool activities including gymnastics, drama classes, planetarium studies, arts and crafts, and team sports like soccer and tennis.
●Physical education and music instruction beginning at grade one (instead of grade four) and band beginning at grade four (instead of grade six).
●Instruction in art and foreign language by teachers who specialize in those areas.
●Weekly field trips, a weekly forum on the arts bringing in specialists from the community, computer-assisted reading and math instruction, and other innovative approaches to learning.
After nearly a year and a half of operation, Hamilton Park appears to be fulfilling the hopes and expectations of school officials and parents. All but 32 of last year’s 567 students returned this year, and half of those who did not return were students who moved out of the district. Waiting lists through the year 1982 apparently will keep enrollment at capacity.
"It took the first year to get organized, to survive, and then to produce," says Mrs. Owen, a dark-haired, vibrant woman with long experience in the RISD. "We had to prove we were a building full of master teachers capable of producing a quality program. We had to have an end-product worthy of parents’ confidence so they would sign up and come back - or that would have been the end of Pacesetter.
"Frankly, we hated to see the summer come last year because we were just starting to function effectively. But now that we’ve made it through the first year, we’re able to polish what we started last year."
Can the success of Hamilton Park be duplicated elsewhere? In West Dallas, for instance? Mrs. Owen answers with a qualified yes. "Given the same support, plus the same motivation, Judge Taylor breathing down our neck," she says with a laugh, "we’re not doing anything that can’t be done in other schools."
Mrs. Owen admits, however, that in some ways, Hamilton Park is "a unique situation." A relatively small number of students are involved (out of 35,208 students in the District, only about 1,000 - or less than 3 percent - are black), the school is located in a stable, middle-class black neighborhood that doesn’t frighten white parents, and the RISD is spending a great deal of money - approximately 30 to 40 percent more than the average per-pupil operating cost elsewhere in the District.
But the money is not the most important factor, Mrs. Owen believes. "The fact that it was voluntary, I think that’s the key. The parents had options, the teachers had options, everybody who is here is here because he wants to be. Quality is the other key. We put our focus on where it ought to be - on what is best for the child."