|ROLE MODELS: Duncanville’s Alexander uses a unique guided reading program that other schools in the district are observing.|
Our list of the best elementary schools in Dallas-Fort Worth looks like a Benetton ad filled with a pastiche of wealthy, poor, white, Hispanic, African-American, urban, and suburban kids. Visit these schools, though, and you’ll find that they have some things in common: high expectations, early intervention based on testing data, involved parents, teachers who go above and beyond, and entire staffs that consider themselves part of the educational process—from the principal to the custodian.
And you’ll hear an oft-repeated phrase at each of the schools: “We’ll do whatever it takes.” Whatever it takes to make sure these kids are reading on level by the third grade. Whatever it takes to make sure they get the best foundation in kindergarten. Whatever it takes—before-school tutoring, after-school tutoring, picking them up at home if they miss the bus, or maybe a phone call at night just to check in—to help these kids succeed.
Sure, you’ll hear talk of kids stressed by TAKS and how “one size fits all” legislation isn’t really the best system for teaching children with varying abilities and interests. But the leaders at these schools are wringing every advantage they can from the system. “You can spend a whole lot of time looking at data,” says Chris Brunner, principal at Valley Creek Elementary in McKinney. “But it doesn’t do any good unless you know your kids. If you know your kids, that data is a whole lot of help.”
The data we used is publicly available and came from Just for the Kids, an Austin-based nonprofit educational resource founded in 1995 by Dallas civic leader Tom Luce. Just for the Kids uses TAKS scores to evaluate schools. (For a detailed explanation of how the nonprofit does it, see the web site, www.just4kids.org; to see how we used its scores, turn to p. 68.) But it’s important to know that the schools on this list aren’t compared directly to one another. A school in DISD with a high percentage of Spanish-speaking kids coming from low-income homes shouldn’t be compared to a wealthy school in Coppell. Instead, these schools are evaluated by how well they perform when compared to their economic peers across the state.
That’s why we broke down our list into three tiers: upper-, middle-, and lower-income schools. We wanted to do on a local level what Just for the Kids does statewide: compare apples to apples. In our survey area, there are 742 elementary schools in 24 districts. We selected the top 250 schools—already above average. We have profiled the best school in each of 14 districts. (Those districts we excluded did not produce a school that scored high enough to make the cut.)
As Principal Brunner says, it all begins with knowing your kids. But the data can be a whole lot of help.
Brentfield, a mostly Caucasian school in an upper-class neighborhood, has a nickname: Bratfield, a reference to its elite reputation as a public school with a private feel. This, of course, is jealousy talking.
Myra Moskowitz transferred her son from a private school to Brentfield when he started the first grade. “I didn’t need to pay $15,000 when we have this really wonderful neighborhood school,” she says.
Becky and Richard Clay pulled their child from a private school and moved 4.8 miles to be within the Brentfield district. “We’d always heard Brentfield was the closest thing to a private-school experience you could get in the public schools,” Becky says.
Much of the credit goes to Principal Fran Gratt, who once did a hula-hoop performance with the Clays’ son when he was too nervous to perform solo in a talent show. Gratt often cooks meals for families going through difficult times and attends special events for former students.
While the sixth-graders work on an Excel spreadsheet project about the Holocaust, a fourth-grade art class creates Indian blankets out of yarn. Down the hall, a fifth-grade class learns about the Bill of Rights by writing their own: “to drive at any age” and “only have school from 3 to 7 o’clock” are two the students come up with.
DANIEL “CHAPPIE” JAMES LEARNING CENTER
Who would guess that the No. 1 elementary school in DISD—in fact, the No. 1 school on our list of 250—would be next to Fair Park? Anyone who has ever visited the Daniel “Chappie” James Learning Center would guess it. This is the little school that could.
The Learning Center is the only school in the lower-income tier that tops its district. Ninety-five percent of its kids come from low-income homes, and 100 percent are minorities.
The school has a high percentage of male teachers to make up for absent male role models in many of the students’ lives. Teachers come early and stay late. They bring socks, deodorant, and ponytail holders for students who need them. In addition to the state-mandated curriculum, these students have chess club, choir, karate, piano, orchestra, and a long list of other extracurricular activities.
“I think that’s why these children are passing, because they have so many other things to offer,” says Dedra Adams, a single mother and PTA president at the Learning Center. “That gives the kids a reason to go to school.”
|PLAYING TO STRENGTHS: One parent moved to Highland Park because Armstrong Elementary was better than the private school she was paying for.|
FRANCES E. NORTON ELEMENTARY
Because the kids can’t talk in the halls at Norton Elementary, Principal Sandra Cheek and the students give one another the “I love you” sign. Most of Norton’s students come from high-income families. Teachers here give a lot of homework, go over their students’ data, and make sure every child knows what he needs to know.
“Teamwork is a huge issue,” says Trisha Lehman, a second-grade teacher. “Parents are very involved. It takes a village. Teachers can’t do it alone.”
Here, they don’t have to. Since Norton opened in 1997, parents have supported the school with their time and money. They were instrumental in raising $13,000 that went toward the school’s new math lab. The math materials go up to eighth-grade pre-algebra. To get the lab going, teachers gave up their conference time to staff it.
Jayne Grimes and her family moved from a school in DISD to Allen. Facing the choice of moving or enrolling her three kids in private schools, she chose the suburbs. “We wanted to have that sort of Mayberry feeling where your neighbor knows your kids and there’s high accountability,” she says.
About 85 percent of the kids at Glenhope come from an upper-income neighborhood full of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. The other 15 percent are bused in from a low-income apartment complex. Principal Wynette Griffin has been known to drive to those apartments to pick up kids who missed the bus. And because the school has more economically disadvantaged students than others in the district, it receives Title 1 money from the state.
“For teachers to teach kids who are economically disadvantaged, they have to be really good,” Griffin says. “You can’t do what you’ve always done. On the other hand, we assume if a child is from our neighborhood, learning will come easy. That’s not necessarily true.”
As with the baby chicks incubating in a warmer, Griffin gives her teachers an environment in which they can thrive. At their faculty meetings, there is no discussion about calendars or announcements. They focus on learning. After teachers go to conferences, they are given the time to implement what they’ve learned.
J.T. STEVENS ELEMENTARY
Fort Worth ISD
Six years ago, 10 percent of the students at J.T. Stevens Elementary were on the free- or reduced-lunch program. This year, the number has reached 43 percent, although it isn’t quite enough to bring extra funds for reading specialists and other assistance through the state’s Title 1 program.
“My passion is low-income kids,” said Vicki Dollahite, the beloved principal who recently lost her battle with cancer. While Dollahite didn’t have the money to help or reward her teachers, she did have an open-door policy in her office and a candy drawer just for them. She had raffles for things like electric pencil sharpeners and colored pencils. She had a request bucket that allowed teachers to ask for things they needed, from Post-It notes to basketballs.
The teachers go to similar lengths for their students. “They’ll do anything for the kids,” says Melissa Adamopoulos, whose daughter is in the fourth grade. “Even if I had the money to send my kids to a private school, I wouldn’t. It’s just too good here.”
JOHN S. ARMSTRONG ELEMENTARY
Highland Park ISD
Don’t think the parents in Highland Park are sitting around at Starbucks all day, planning their next manicure. You’re just as likely to find them serving mac and cheese—or maybe a salad with feta, kalamata olives, and their choice of red, green, or yellow peppers—in the lunchroom at Armstrong Elementary.
Armstrong relies heavily on parents to fill in the gaps left by an ever-shrinking budget. Every day, six to eight parents help the school’s cafeteria manager, Jeanette Volpe, and two cooks feed the masses.
Terrie Jenevein, a cafeteria volunteer, has two daughters at Armstrong and a son who will start next year. She moved to Highland Park after she decided the district’s schools were better than the private school she was paying for.
After lunch, a kindergarten student creates his own book on a computer, writing, editing with his teacher, illustrating, and printing out the four-page work of art called Cowboy Grey. Another writes about how she visited the “Almow” in San Antonio over spring break.
“There’s not a child in this school who isn’t looked at as an individual,” says Principal Mary Richey. “We know them as children, and we know them as learners.”
For the past few years, there has been no room in the budget for new books at Pinkerton Elementary, so the PTO donated the $5,000 or so they made this year at their biannual book fair to the library. Pinkerton also can’t afford an office aide, so parents staff the office every day. The PTO raised $17,000 (matched by the district) to buy laptops for three classrooms.
Principal Joy Smartt’s budget is almost half of what it was when she arrived at Pinkerton seven years ago. Thanks to Robin Hood, wealthy districts like Coppell ISD give to lower-income districts. Coppell gives so much that the school almost had to close its doors last year. But it stayed open because more people keep moving into the area.
While Smartt smoothes over budget issues, a Pinkerton alumnus reads to his daughter’s first-grade class while second-graders down the hall watch a Veggie Tales episode on honesty. In the science lab, Rhydonia Clem pours a bubble concoction on each table in her room, challenging her students to use their straws to blow a bubble that’s bigger than 42 centimeters.
Leigh Ann Clifford, the co-chair of the book fair, moved from nearby Irving to be within Pinkerton’s boundaries. She found a school where everybody pitches in. “Everybody knows that’s what makes the school so special,” she says.
The sixth-grade classes at Pope Elementary have on display in the hall reports about the Exxon Valdez. Some are handwritten. Others are typed on a computer in black ink. Others have design elements with colored ink and fancy borders. The reports exemplify the school’s diversity, which is more economic than ethnic. Within its boundaries are kids who live in the high-end community of Interlochen (the famed Christmas-lights neighborhood), as well as children from transient families who live in nearby hotels.
Gigi Westerman’s son attended Pope. His fifth-grade orchestra teacher helped foster his love of music. “She changed his life,” Westerman says.
Another parent, Seanne Ross, credits the teachers at Pope for helping her two young sons, who both have attention-deficit issues, achieve success. At their previous elementary school, one of her sons was making 20s and 30s. At Pope, he makes 90s and has been known to make a 100.
Here’s the secret, according to Principal Celina Kilgore: “If you don’t have a relationship with them, it’s very hard to teach them. We just take it a day at a time and a child at a time.”
|TOP CHOPS: Karate is one of many extracurricular activities at Daniel “Chappie” James Learning Center in Dallas, the No. 1 school on our list.|
Sherrie Beard knows her school better than most principals do. That’s because a few decades ago, she went to school here.
Back then, Range was a mostly middle-class, Caucasian school. These days, it has a bilingual program for kindergarten through second-grade classes. Range is now a Title 1 school. About 60 percent of the school’s students are on the state’s free- or reduced-lunch program. The school, built in 1962, is an open-door campus. It’s the perfect environment for parades and “porch” parties.
Deanna Stidham went to school here with Beard. When it was time for her daughters to start school, the family returned to the neighborhood. “I don’t worry about them going to high school or even college because of the study skills they’re learning from day one,” she says. “It starts in kindergarten.”
Each year, the staff picks a few students from each class who need an extra boost. The “Range Rooters” receive notes of encouragement, lucky pencils, reading time, and visits from members of the staff.
“It shows that we do know you’re failing and we do care and we’ll do whatever it takes,” Beard says. “That’s our theme: ‘whatever it takes.’”
ROBERT H. ROCKENBAUGH ELEMENTARY
As you turn past the sign that says Timarron Country Club on your way to Rockenbaugh Elementary, you get the idea that this is a high-income school. In fact, less than half of 1 percent of Rockenbaugh students are considered low-income.
The flip side of being a wealthy school is that Robin Hood takes some of your money and gives it to poorer schools. That’s where the Rockenbaugh parents come in, making up the difference wherever they can.
“There isn’t an area of our campus that isn’t touched by our parents,” Principal Karen White says. “Our parents are products of higher education. They have high expectations for their kids, and our kids have high expectations for themselves.”
In the front office, which is staffed by volunteers every day, Laura Copeland goes through a huge Rolodex, checking to see which children do not have an emergency number on their cards. Volunteerism is so ingrained here that Copeland has already contacted the school her son will go to next year, volunteering to organize office staff. She’s crossing her fingers that she’ll be chosen.
S. GUS ALEXANDER JR. ELEMENTARY
The art room at Alexander is empty, built with hopes of someday having an actual art program. While teachers do projects in the class, the focus on art isn’t enough. So parents started the school’s “Meet the Masters” program, which introduces an artist each month. Rembrandt and Miró are the latest two to be featured. An assembly with students dressing up and acting out parts of the artists’ lives is followed by art projects based on the artists’ styles.
“Without the parents, we wouldn’t have it,” Principal Linda Sorensen says. “This brings out an area for some of the students that we don’t tap into.”
Every elementary school in the Duncanville district is a Title 1 school, bringing them extra funding because of the number of low-income students. Alexander uses a unique guided reading program that other schools in the district are observing. The program gives each student in grades K through 2 one hour a day of working with her individual level of reading, plus an hour a day of reading practice at her grade level.
Sorensen also has lunch with the top readers in the Scholastic Reading Counts! program and challenges them to a game of Connect Four.
|FILM AT 11: Students at Valley Creek in McKinney do more than practice for TAKS. They act in plays and perform in talent shows.|
VALLEY CREEK ELEMENTARY
Scott and Denise Moltzan moved to the neighborhood so their daughter, now in the first grade, could attend Valley Creek Elementary. “It’s just like being in a small town, and the elementary school is the town hall,” Scott says. “You see your neighbors all the time at every function.”
Principal Chris Brunner believes in feeding the whole child, not simply drilling them to prepare for the annual TAKS test. The kids are in plays each year, perform in the talent show, and fill up the art and chess clubs. The fifth-graders make up Valley Creek’s Safety Patrol, helping to greet everyone in the morning and make sure hall traffic runs smoothly. One child told Jane Hancock, the school counselor who heads up Safety Patrol, that he’d been waiting for this his whole life. “By the time they leave here, everybody has had a role in leadership,” Hancock says.
On payday, Brunner personally delivers checks to employees in a basket filled with chocolate bars. And everyone pitches in, including the parents, who crawl all over one another trying to volunteer. The students’ successes are a community effort.
Walnut Glen Academy for Excellence
Walnut Glen Academy for Excellence is one of three talented and gifted magnet schools in Garland ISD. Two-thirds of the students are gifted and come from all over the school’s transportation zone, while the other one-third come from the local, low-income neighborhood, regardless of their aptitude.
“There is the same expectation for every child that walks in this building,” says Mary Jane Thornton, Walnut Glen’s music teacher. “That empowers them with an ‘I can do it’ attitude. ‘I can be a success at school every day at something.’”
The children here are trusted, which says a lot for the relationships within these walls. A child, even a kindergarten student, can walk to the library by himself to get a book. Kids have even been known to finish the book before they get back to their classroom, then turn around and walk right back.
Walnut Glen excels in the fine arts. So while other public schools cut extracurricular activities to make more time for TAKS preparation or because of budget cuts, Walnut Glen continues with Broadway Junior plays, professional art software, and the fifth-grade “Spotlights” choir.
“Our kids love to sing,” Thornton says. “It instills confidence and self-esteem. It bleeds over to every part of their lives.”
Woodrow Wilson Elementary
The success of Woodrow Wilson depends on the cooperation among parents, teachers, and children. “The children do their best,” PTA President Evelyn Pitre says. “The teachers are working very hard to help the children do their best. And the parents support the teachers and the school in all of their attempts at helping the children do their best.”
Rebecca Williams’ fifth-grade science class is learning about sound. One group experiments with water in glasses, listening to the sounds the glasses make as the kids use their wet fingers to trace circles around the rims. They can hear and see the sound waves as the water vibrates in each glass. Another group makes phones out of cups and various types of string or yarn, seeing which works best. “Just as important as learning science is learning the social skills, like how to get a partner in the cup phone experiment,” Williams says.
Three years ago, Woodrow Wilson became a bilingual school so neighborhood kids who spoke Spanish would not have to be bused elsewhere. The school’s pre-K through third-grade classes are broken down between English- and Spanish-speaking students who come together in the fourth grade.
In the fall of 2006, the school will become the first dual-language campus in Denton, with English- and Spanish-speaking students in the same class, learning each other’s languages side by side.