Making the Grade A guide to the “best” schools

A sensible family, blessed with more issue than income but casting an attentive eye toward upward mobility, will find the smartest, and ultimately cheapest, thing to do is buy a house in Highland Park. Even one of those vastly overpriced 1929 tapestry brick monstrosities with leadpipe plumbing and a stucco arch between the dining room and whatever that awkward space is called where some hobby horse carpenter enclosed the side porch. Because once you’ve made the Park Cities real estate plunge you can relax about school. From kindergarten through twelfth grade you can send your child off to the neighborhood public school without a social (or corporal) qualm.

There is, of course, “good” and good. Whether Highland Park schools are as good as they’re “good” has been debated for years – although residents can’t imagine why. Certainly they’re better than most public schools. A big percentage of graduates go on to the best colleges in the country. The system is free from many of the sociological problems (as it’s put!) that plague most public schools, and there’s no need to bring up that you’re saving that $900 to $3,000 annual tuition it costs to put a son or daughter in St. Mark’s or Hockaday.

Highland Park devotees tend to ignore the crowding in certain Highland Park grade schools and the alarming number of teachers who are kept (to put it kindly) beyond their prime. Advocates gloss over the astonishing lack of science curriculum in the grade schools (not a single laboratory) and an embarrassingly small and poor audio-visual supply. And even the staunchest supporters can’t call the system imaginative – but to many, this is a plus. One gets the feeling the clocks have been turned back 20 years to an untroubled time when educational and social matters were handled in simple, more direct ways.

And look how often “new, exciting programs” turn into classroom disasters. Well, Highland Park escapes this possibility. Your child may miss out on some Twentieth Century trends, but he won’t be a guinea pig. And if he misbehaves, he’ll be spanked or sent home without a lot of psychological double-talk. Stability reigns. If you don’t like some teacher, grit your teeth and grin. If you go to the principal you’ll find the teacher is always right. Not to mention how your offspring will be infused with patriotism and religion – every program begins with prayer and ends with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” You walk down the halls and sense order, a quiet feeling of status quo, of “we’re all the same kind of people.” Lots of parents find it reassuring.

All this and heaven too! You can do volunteer work in the cafeteria (very chic) next to the president of the Junior League. And Sam Wyly might coach your son’s football team. Wait until Parents’ Night. . .it’s like a Junior League party. Pretty soon you know everybody. And everybody knows you. Pure joy!

The worst thing you can do, if you’re aiming to be true-blue, is to live in Highland Park and send your kids off to private school. Betrayal of the code; rejection of community mores. Even though lots of people do it. Best people. (Margaret McDermott did it.) Some mothers of girls do it because they claim the atmosphere at Hockaday is less high pressure social than in the Highland Park schools. Which may come across as a strange comment about Hockaday, that mothership of Dallas high society. But Hockaday, as an academic institution, has grown out of the grasp of Miss Ela’s memory. Despite the fact that Dallas finds it hard to completely trust an educated female, Hockaday has its pick of bright girls, and where once a word from the right social lion or a well connected aunt worked wonders, if a girl can’t score well on the entrance exam today, she usually can’t get in.

Reversing the gender, the same is true at St. Mark’s where this fall there were over 400 applicants for only 100 places. The boards of both schools are straight society, and society in Dallas does make its little exceptions. For example, new chairmen of Neiman-Mar-cus, if they have reasonably bright children, don’t have to torture themselves over getting them accepted at Hocka-day or St. Mark’s. Historically speaking, room will be found.

If you think that sending your child to Hockaday or St. Mark’s is an open road to society’s apex, you are in for a slow-to-swift awakening and your child is going to pay a price for your misconception: they’ll work his (or her) tail off. Both schools are guilty of confusing quantity of work with quality of work. Teachers get peer-marks for massive homework assignments, even if it means doing the same problem 40 times instead of once. And your first Parents’ Night will shock you if you’ve been expecting to see Lear jets landing on the parking lot, or maybe hearing the George Charltons inviting the whole crowd over for drinks and tennis. Hock-aday and St. Mark’s parents seem to run to CLU’s, CPA’s and MD’s, with the usual proportions of DDS’s and junior executives mixed in. Somehow, all those Beautiful People who show up ev- ery Sunday and Monday on the society pages don’t show up in the halls. So maybe you think that by joining Hock-aday Associates ($1,000 per annum) you, too, will be pictured in the alumnae magazine. If that’s your game (hateful phrase) don’t waste your money. Pictures and social fame are spoken for well in advance – about two generations in advance. A pair of beautiful but boring dinners is all you’ll get out of it. And for one grand, the Headmaster isn’t even guaranteed to know you on sight.

Social climbing, vicariously put, can be frustrating, too. Although the girls and boys at Hockaday and St. Mark’s are, as a rule, remarkably unsnooty, their mothers aren’t always. Social stra-tification goes right on, and just because your daughter goes to Hockaday and makes good grades doesn’t mean she’s going to get invited to Junior Assembly – the super-select dance club that’s by invitation only.

Boys are a happier case. For them it’s easier. Why? Society mothers (and society girls) never seem to have enough eligible boys around. It should be pointed out, of course, that such functions as Junior Assembly are not’ school functions and are not sponsored by or chosen through or by Hockaday and St. Mark’s. However, these two schools, plus Highland Park High and Cistercian Prep furnish the overwhelming bulk of dancers. Incidentally, Hockaday and St. Mark’s – and all Dallas private schools, for that matter – have no racial restrictions and have several black students. The Park Cities, with no black residents except for a rare Southern Methodist University professor, have almost no black students in the school system – oh, maybe two or three. And no busing.

As mentioned, Hockaday and St. Mark’s have become strong academic institutions. St. Mark’s students probably score higher on national test scores (the school is strongly scientific), but Hockaday is no place just to polish a personality. But despite their dedication to academic excellence, the powers who run St. Mark’s and Hockaday are very interested in socially prominent people. Socially prominent people have money and private schools need money. St. Mark’s pulls this off better than Hockaday does. St. Mark’s caters to big money (check its board) while retaining a genuine interest in every family represented there. One hears this isn’t always the ambience of Hockaday.

If you can’t afford that house in Highland Park just yet or don’t want to start your kiddies off in the monosexual environment of St. Mark’s or Hockaday, you can still be very much in by station-wagoning them off to Lamplighter. Stories about how you must register them the day they are born are legendary, although some people – usually the wrong people – try to do it. Stories about how you must be in the Junior League or the 500 are also legend. However, the demand for admission is great (the school starts with 3-year-olds, for God’s sake!) and places at all grade levels (it goes through the fourth) are precious. Children’s names, you are told, are put on a waiting list and they (and you) are interviewed in turn and pupils are accepted on the basis of “many things.” Lamplighter likes for you to believe children are accepted in the order in which they were put on the waiting list. Don’t believe it. It always helps to know someone on the in at Lamplighter. It was founded as a school to be filled with congenial children and parents who knew and liked each other. Lamplighter doesn’t want a lot of people around who might not esteem the privilege.

Some qualified observers say Lamplighter is the most exciting school in Dallas, social standing aside. True, the children are free to learn and absorb at their own rate in a happy environment. If they’ve learned their letters and numbers by age 4, fine. By age 6, fine. The school, so sweet socially, can turn out a sugar-coated kind of learning. If pupils “light their lamps” (the phrase is part of the school motto) at too much their own pace, they find rough scholastic sledding in the more demanding atmosphere of a Hockaday, St. Mark’s or Greenhill. And teachers at those schools have been known to murmur when faced with a host of newly transferred, unlit Lamplighters. But Mummy can meet plenty of the right people if she becomes part of “The Lamplighter Family” as it calls itself.

This brings up a point. Lamplighter classes generally move en masse to other private schools, thus friendships are carried over to wherever the children are enrolled. But what about individual newcomers to these other schools? Problems, certainly. Groupi-ness in children sets in quickly and firms up fast. Scholastically, it is easier for a girl to enter Hockaday late than for a boy to enter St. Mark’s. In fact, St. Mark’s advisors try to discourage entrance after the junior high level. Even for a jock. (Jocks have extra-status at St. Mark’s like any other school.) Girls, particularly boarders, can enter Hockaday rather late and survive scholastically, but getting into “the Hockaday way” is tougher. Lots of boarding girls find it becomes a sort of two-school system: the day students who’ve known each other for years and who date all the especially eligible boys, and the dor-mies.

There are other schools with social rap, if you’re nervous about the majors. Roman Catholics are enrolled at all private schools, but their best parochial schools are Ursuline for girls (years ago it was the girls’ school of Dallas) and Cistercian Prep and Jesuit for boys. Cistercian has a little higher social profile. Very tough, European-type program. Jesuit has a jock reputation.

The St. Michael School (at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church)and the new Episcopal School of Dallasare moving rapidly toward peak socialprestige, and age will add to their acceptability if, indeed, they need additional clout. Greenhill School is a socialinexactitude. Good schooling – maybethe best coed, and certainly the mostcompetitive – but, well. . .where arethe leaders? Tradition still hasn’t smiledon Greenhill. Montessori schools had aburst of favor among Dallas’ BlessedFew, but it didn’t last. Montessorischools are out. If that sounds a trifleblunt – so is social climbing.


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