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A School That Really Works

THE PROBLEM with public schools in Dallas is not blacks or bilinguals. It’s DISD. When a group of East Dallas parents decided they’d had enough, they started their own school. Now their children are getting an education.
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Rosa Hernandez was worried for her two sons. She was especially worried for little Juan Carlos. Soon it would be time to enroll him in school. Alonzo, his brother, who had come with the family to Dallas from Mexico, was already attending public school, but could understand little of what his teacher said. Now, Alonzo would have to repeat his grade and try again to learn English well enough to advance. For Juan Carlos, Rosa wanted a better chance, a better start.

Phuong Ho Luong feared for her daughter, Minh-feared that if she went to a Dallas public school, she would not learn English quickly enough to keep up with her six-year-old classmates. Phuong’s fears went beyond the natural anxiety of being a stranger in a strange land. She had been a primary schoolteacher in South Vietnam, where a good education is held in the highest esteem. When she and Thanh, her husband, arrived in Dallas last year, neither of them could speak English. While they struggled to learn it, Minh (who had no playmates except her baby sister) managed to pick up a few English phrases by watching children’s television programs. But a few phrases would not be enough, Phuong knew, to help Minh thrive in the Dallas Independent School District.

Paul Nichols, an East Dallas carpenter, and his wife, Veena, share an antipathy for public schools. Their eldest daughter, they say, could not cope with her classes and finally quit high school in the first semester. The Nichols’ wanted “an alternative” for their eight-year-old daughter, six-year-old son, and three-year-old grandson. They also wanted their young offspring to have the chance to learn Spanish, the dominant tongue of many East Dallas neighborhoods.

“And even in the [public] grade schools, there are drugs and violence,” Nichols says. “You’ve got all these kids with all that energy packed into a classroom, and it’s like packing gunpowder in a pipe. You’ve made a bomb, and I believe that’s why you’ve got so much trouble in the schools. We need smaller schools.”

But there is just one legal alternative to public schools. And sending children to expensive private academies is an option few East Dallasites can afford. The area’s median income is 25 per cent lower than that of any other quadrant of the city.

However, by hearing praises made by friends or by reading small community newspapers, Rosa Hernandez, Phuong Ho Luong, Paul and Veena Nichols, and other East Dallasites eventually learned of a private educational facility they can afford, one they now say has eased their worries about getting their youngsters ready to cope with DISD: the East Dallas Community School.

FOUNDED IN 1978 by two members of the Bois d’Arc Patriots, Terry Ford and John Fullinwider, and a coalition of concerned East Dallasites, the East Dallas Community School is a 30-student neighborhood cooperative that allows parents to participate in their childrens’ learning and to swap skills and labor for tuition if they cannot afford to pay the modest $20-a-week tuition fee.

Both Ford, the director of EDCS, and Fullinwider, a member of its board, are DISD dropouts. She taught bilingual first grade at East Dallas’ Mount Auburn Elementary School for four years; he is a former high school teacher who became editor of the Bois d’Arc Patriots’ newspaper, People’s Voice.

Ford says she felt good about the work she was doing at the time she quit Mount Auburn and the DISD in 1978. “But my students were leaving my class doing grade-level work, and a year or two later, they were falling behind. I was frustrated and ready for a change.”

The change began with an unlikely source: her next-door neighbor, Debbie Ashman. “She asked me for some advice on helping her son prepare to start public school,” Ford explains. “I shared some of my books and materials with her, and later she asked if I would mind talking with some of the other parents in the neighborhood. Soon, we were meeting with several families from the East Dallas community.”

The first gatherings produced a sharing ol concerns, ranging from drug problems in the classrooms to the public schools’ failure to educate. Then the notion evolved to organize a summer program for their children.

“We decided to bring the children together one day a week for a planned activity,” Ford says. “Generally, it would be a field trip of some kind -to museums, the zoo, the aquarium. The early part of the day was spent preparing the children for the experience, so they could learn as much as possible. We wanted to make learning fun and help them develop a positive orientation to academics.”

BY MIDSUMMER 1978, the program “Tuesday School,” was so popular with the youngsters that the parents and organizers decided to create a family-style, bilingual community school -one designed to give children from East Dallas’ multiethnic, low-income families a strong grounding in language skills and math before they encountered DISD. The group incorporated as Neighbors United for a Quality Education and obtained a license to operate a nonprofit, tax-exempt primary school for children aged three to eight.

“The parents asked me to be the teacher,” Ford recalls. “I advised them to wait a year. We didn’t have any money; more importantly, there was no space. Then, Rev. Hilliard Griffin, who was involved in our summer program, offered us space at his school, the Griffin Christian Academy, for a year.”

The parents raised money with bake sales and garage sales. Donations were secured from businesses, churches, individuals, and philanthropic groups. Scholarships were arranged for children whose parents could not afford the initial tuition of S20 a week. On September 25, 1978, less than six months after the first neighbors’ meeting, the East Dallas Community School held its inaugural classes for preschoolers and first-graders.

Following its fledgling year at Griffin Christian Academy, EDCS set up shop for two years at Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church at 5144 Dolphin. Then the Neighbors United for a Quality Education found and purchased (for $15,000) a rundown, vandalized house on Wayne Street that had once been a day-care center. Once again, money for the school was raised through bake sales, garage sales, and private donations, plus a benefit dinner at a Mexican restaurant. This summer, EDCS’s teachers and many parents refurbished the house, erected a playground, and cleaned debris and brush from beneath the pecan trees that shade the schoolyard. By the time classes began again in September, the East Dallas Community School was a showcase of neighborhood pride.

A PRIMARY AIM of EDCS, Ford says, is to encourage youngsters’ natural curiosity, because it “will become the foundation for their future learning.” To keep students’ interest from flagging, EDCS’s school days are split in half. Mornings are devoted to math and the bilingual basics -learning to read, write, and speak in Spanish (the dominant language of the surrounding neighborhood), as well as in English. Terry Ford and two teaching aides conduct the self-paced literacy lessons along Montessori lines. A child moves on to the next level of learning only after he or she has mastered the present one. The goal is “individualized education where the teacher becomes the guide for children rather than the taskmaster,” Ford says. All the children share the same classroom, so the younger students can also learn from the older ones.

To teach reading and writing, EDCS follows the methods of Sylvia Ashton-Warner, a New Zealand educator who pioneered a “key vocabulary” approach to building literacy. The key vocabulary system allows children to decide which “favorite words” they want to learn. The idea is that a child may prefer to decipher a street sign first rather than the words “was” or “the” on a sheet of paper. One three-year-old enrolled at EDCS, Ford says, has recently learned to recognize and write 30 useful and familiar words.

The school’s afternoon sessions, conducted by two other teachers (Julie Mey-erson and Joe Taylor) and a teacher’s aide, are devoted to the “outside world” -geography, science, the arts, social studies, history, and health. Field trips are taken once a week. Also, parents of some students come to class and introduce the children to such subjects as stained-glass art and carpentry.

The school tries to maintain a student/ teacher ratio of 10 to one. “In the public schools, with 25 kids to a classroom, there are eminent teaching obstacles,” says Clarita Rivera, whose four-year-old daughter, Cristal, is in her second year at EDCS. “There’s no way they [the public schools] can accomplish what’s done here. Cristal loves the school,” says Rivera, a bilingual instructor in the DISD. “She used to be very shy, but now she’s starting to share more and follow rules better. My home is Spanish speaking, and before Cristal came to the school, she hadn’t really been exposed to much English. But since she’s been there, she’s just picked it up incredibly. She can go anywhere now and carry on a conversation in English.”

Developing a child’s social skills is integral to the school’s philosophy. The students learn to get along with each other through negotiation and discussion rather than through discipline and threats. Aggressive behavior is “talked out,” not punished. And the extra number of adults present in the classroom helps the instructor handle disputes and misbehavior more effectively than most public school teachers can.

By DISD standards, the East Dallas Community School is highly effective. Recently, the Partners in Learning Test (a barometer used to measure DISD student achievement) was given to EDCS’s children of public school age. All the children who had been enrolled at EDCS a year or longer tested out at grade level -or better. As a group, they will enter DISD well ahead of their public school peers.

JUAN CARLOS Hernandez’ application was the first one received by the East Dallas Community School in 1978. “He was kindergarten age when he started,” his mother, Rosa, says. “The next year, he went for four months. But then the scholarship money ran out, so I had to put him in public school. They immediately put him in the high level, and he helped the teacher by translating for the other kids who spoke Spanish. He likes to help a lot. He even comes home and tells me how to make the right sounds in English. They thought in the beginning that it would be hard for him since he wasn’t used to going to the public schools. But the teacher immediately felt good about him. He began in the DISD in the middle of the year and was one of the top ones.

Most of Diane Turner’s eight children have done well in Dallas public schools. One is a member of the National Honor Society; three have participated in DISD programs for talented and gifted students; another toured last spring with a band from the Dallas Arts Magnet High School. But in the spring of 1978, she and Terry Ford met to discuss the need to hold back one of Diane’s sons, Patrick, for another year of first grade in the DISD. That discussion helped lead to the creation of Tuesday School, then the EDCS.

“After we decided to start a school, I remember the first donor and how excited he was,” Mrs. Turner recalls. “He gave us a $ 1000 check. I didn’t have the finances to place Patrick in a private setting, but through the donations of I don’t know how many other people, he was able to go. Going to the community school helped Patrick grow and grasp more. He became more confident in himself. I can’t really describe the excitement of the kids [at EDCS]; when you do something to try to reach their lives, they don’t forget.”

“They get a much greater diversity of education here than they would get in the public schools,” adds David McBee, whose seven-year-old son, Makya, has attended the East Dallas Community School for two years and is now one of its “up-perclassmen.” “Makya,” says his mother, Peggy McBee, “would come home, and I would ask, ’What did you do today?’ And he would say, ’We just played all day.’ And then 1 would see him working on some math, and 1 would ask when he had learned to do it. And he would say, ’Oh, that’s what we played today.’ “

Christene Taylor heads a household composed of her daughter, Sharon, and Sharon’s three-year-old son, Chauncy. “Chauncy will probably mature in a black society,” his grandmother says. “But we wanted him to have an opportunity to get along with a variety of kids. Before he went, he was afraid of other children. Now he’s learned how to relate to them, and he loves the school.

“I finished high school, but I don’t believe 1 received the kind of education I should have. I don’t know if it was because of me or the schools. But the teachers weren’t able to give me patience or time. In this school, everybody’s together. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, blue, or whatever. Everybody’s together, and 1 like that.”

Chauncy’s mother, Sharon, remembers that her own education in the public schools “was pretty good until I got to high school. I got pregnant, and then for many of my classes I didn’t have to do anything. 1 just showed up, and that was it. I want to make sure that Chauncy’s taught what he needs to know.”

“I never had the opportunity to attend a private school,” Christene Taylor says, “and I couldn’t afford to send Sharon to one. But now I am able to send Chauncy to a private school, and I’d like to keep him there.”

Many parents of EDCS students, however, find it tough to come up with $20 a week for tuition, plus an extra $10 a week if they want day-care for their children from 7 to 8 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. The $10 to $30 a week covers only two-thirds of the actual cost of keeping a youngster enrolled in EDCS, Terry Ford says. EDCS has never had enough money to ensure its comfortable survival; but it has stayed alive -and effective -thanks to donations from such diverse sources as the Children’s Foundation of the Episcopal Diocese, Texas Instruments, Realtor Jack Coats, and oilman Malcolm Brachman.

“There’s a definite family sense about this school, which 1 think is special,” David McBee says. “It’s like they’re all brothers and sisters, they get along so well. I think that a parent who’s been involved with this school would definitely get involved in his children’s education in the public schools.”

Adds Peggy McBee: “After this school,it would feel really strange not to be involved.”

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