A story of parents who cared

This is not so much a story of two schools that were threatened with closing and how one beat the other and was saved.

It isn’t even about how the Dallas Independent School District jerked two of our best elementaries up by the neck and left them to dangle for the better part of a month.

And it is not even another dead horse story about crisis in the DISD.

Mostly, it’s just a story about some parents.

The first the parents at a little brick school out on the west end of Lovers Lane knew that the DISD was even thinking about closing another small elementary was when they picked up the newspaper one bright morning last October. . .and they were it.

It was an ugly surprise.

During the past two years the district had spent a lot of money on a well-publicized, community-oriented study to prepare for the closing of six specific K-3 (kindergarten through grade 3) schools, all selected because of declining enrollment.

Their school, Sudie L. Williams, a center that went from kindergarten through grade 6, had never even been mentioned as a candidate.

“I was shocked,” says Becky Beach, mother of four children, two of whom are students at Sudie. “Somebody called me and said, ’Have you seen the paper? The school’s closed.’ “

When a school is threatened, it is the parents who rise to its defense. The principal and his faculty may advise and sympathize, but they must tread a careful line between the district and the neighborhood. Any parent who has ever been to a PTA meeting understands this.

Telephones rang in home after home along the winding, wooded streets around Sudie. Many parents telephoned the red brick school building where its staff was only then getting official word from the district.

The administration would that day recommend to the school board that as of next fall Sudie be closed, its faculty reassigned and its students relocated at Henry W. Longfellow, another K-6 center about a mile back up Lovers near In wood Road.

Many callers asked, as did Becky Beach, “What can we do?” It seemed that something had to be done quickly, if anything could be done at all.

The answer sent them all back to their telephones.

“We called an emergency PTA meeting for 3 p.m.,” says Mrs. Beach. “They told us that they would hear us if we would run down to the board that evening, so we had to get something together and get down there.”

Ninety minutes later, Mrs. Beach and the rest of the Sudie delegation stood before the board at DISD headquarters on Ross Avenue. Mrs. Beach had been selected to speak for the group. Her message was brief.

Sudie L. Williams was an excellent school, she said. It was naturally integrated, well located, superbly staffed and enjoyed ample community support. She presented two more arguments and then made a simple plea that offered both relief and an alternative. If you have to close a school in our part of town, she told the board, close Henry W. Longfellow, don’t close us.

Within an hour the trustees had made a deci-ion. The district would consider whether Longfellow might be closed instead.

Nobody connected with Henry W. Longfellow School was down on Ross Avenue that day, and the news at the play park adjacent to Longfellow was still that the board would close Sudie Williams, where-ever that was.

The play park is as good a symbol for Longfellow as anything. It is a “creative playground” full of gravel and large timbers and it sits right out there beside In-wood Road. It is a source of pride for parents who lobbied various agencies for years before landing the $65,000 grant that built it. The park is used by kids from all over, but Longfellow mothers in particular enjoy taking their preschoolers there in the afternoons while they wait for their older children to get out of school.

The news of Sudie’s closing was discussed in terms of shock there, too, for they knew that Sudie was not far away.

“We were sorry that Sudie was being closed,” says one Longfellow parent, “but we were glad that it wasn’t us. And we thought that it was probably the right choice anyway.”

They had put so much into Longfellow, they felt. The school had so much going for it. It was naturally integrated, one of the first in the city. It enjoyed an attractive building at a highly visible location with wonderful teachers and programs and community support to an uncommon degree.

Most of all, they felt, Longfellow deserved to live because it symbolized successful public education in Dallas. Surely the administration in its recommendation had recognized that.

Longfellow’s mothers went home that afternoon relieved that “it was them and not us,” just at the time that Sudie’s mothers were trying to figure out how best to tell the board, “don’t take us, take them.”

Longfellow’s mothers fixed dinner and put the children to bed in the belief that everything would be all right. They did not even know that they had been wounded until they read about it the next morning in the papers.

“Somebody called me…,” says Dee Ann Dain, president of Longfellow’s PTA. “I couldn’t believe it. I really thought it was a mistake because when I first heard the news, it was in our favor, and then it changed so rapidly. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Suddenly, shock was a shared experience. And suddenly two groups of parents, each barely aware of the other’s existence only hours earlier, were pitted against each other for the survival of their children’s schools. The irony of it was that no matter who won, the two schools were going to be merged. Those mothers and fathers who so suddenly had become adversaries would just as suddenly have to begin working together as friends.

It might have all ended in a few days and the upset been put to rest, but it did not. The decision-making process dragged on until the trustees finally voted on October 29, and even that wasn’t the end of it. The “final resolution,” if indeed it was that, did not come until December 7, and by that time the end was in no way as painful as getting there had been.

The turmoil of that time was such that after weeks of letters, petitions, telephone calls, meetings and speeches (speeches-them and speeches-us), one as deeply involved as Mrs. Dain could still say, “.. and no one understood why any of it happened in the first place.”

Even those who had kept up and were well acquainted with the details still could not understand how it could possibly have happened to them, and they were hurt and angry that it had. That is important.

Becky Beach believes neighborhood schools are a blessing. In spite of herself she sometimes wonders if there is not some sort of plot afoot to collect all the children into large buildings downtown and indoctrinate them in, well, God knows what.

“We had our children in private school, but we got bored with it,” she says. “There were all the same children from the same background and there was so much academic pressure, I mean each school trying to outdo the others.

“Our kids did real well, but here we were dragging the babies out of bed every morning and climbing into the car… Now we can keep the kids in the neighborhood. We can keep an eye on them, get down there and get involved. We can see what’s going on in the schools.”

Sudie L. Williams and Henry W. Longfellow elementaries both have strong community support. Of the two, Longfellow is the best known. It has always been that way, and its story is easiest to tell.

Longfellow was built in 1947 to serve the families who lived in the neighborhoods around the Inwood-Lovers intersection. These were stable middle- to upper-class neighborhoods in a very visible part of town. Greenway Parks is in the area. So is a strip of Highland Park that is not in the HP school district. John Stem-mons and Earle Cabell sent their children to Longfellow. So did Henry S. Miller.

The school, fed by the postwar baby boom, was often more than full, peaking at 1,020 students in 1951. But toward the end of that decade, enrollment began to slip. It has been slipping, and sometimes sliding, ever since.

There are always reasons for fluctuations in elementary school enrollment. Fewer children might be born; the number of elderly might increase. Even stable neighborhoods grow old. But often other factors are at work.

Many growing families were heading for the newer, larger houses of the suburbs. And then, in the late Fifties, black families who had lived in the Lemmon-Mockingbird area for years were for the first time moving north and east toward Inwood Road.

In 1961, Longfellow was one of eight Dallas schools ordered to accept black students, and enrollment plummeted further. There was no busing yet. All of Longfellow’s students lived within a few blocks of the school. But white families were fleeing the attendance zone at a rapid rate. Many east of Inwood did not bother to leave the neighborhood. They just put their children into private schools.

The parents who were left at Longfellow began to understand that if the school was going to survive, they would have to help it.

“When we moved into the district in 1962, it was at the height of the young couples moving to Richardson so they could have a split-level home,” says Jane Greer, a past president of PTA, who has sent three children through Longfellow. “When my first child started in 1968, I’d guess Longfellow was at its zenith. It had, oh, I’d guess between 500 and 600 students [447, according to DISD files], but as fewer and fewer young families moved into the area, we had less and less children every year.”

From an enrollment of 847 white stu-dents as late as 1958, Longfellow fell to 447 in 1968, only 186 of them white.

“We got so uptight about the number and the ethnic mix that we’d go down to the principal’s office after the start of every year to find out how we did,” she says. “We were in favor of integration, but we knew that the more whites who didn’t come, the greater the mix of blacks, and when the mix of blacks increased, then more whites didn’t come.”

Longfellow was now less than half full. While there was no immediate danger of closing, maintaining staff and programs was a continual struggle.

“We would tell them, ’You can’t take our teachers away. We are a special school. We are one of the few naturally integrated schools in the district. We deserve to be protected,’ ” says Mrs. Greer. “We usually got what we wanted, but we never knew why.”

To fill Longfellow, DISD for a time added four levels of special education for retarded children. They attended special classes but worked into general activities with the other students. Still the attrition continued.

By 1975, Longfellow had an enrollment of only 253, with 79 of them white. Sudie Williams had about the same enrollment with a similar percentage-loss among whites. Then came busing.

In 1976, about 400 students in grades 4 through 6 were bused from Withers, Kramer and Gooch in North Dallas and Earhart and Navarro in West Dallas to Longfellow and Williams.

“We fought and asked them not to do it,” says Mrs. Greer. “Our ratio was about 60 percent black and 40 percent white at the time, and we felt busing would only make it worse. We didn’t really have a lot of hope of preventing it.”

Despite that, many parents made it their business to help make busing work. The problem in North Dallas was to convince parents to send their children to Longfellow in the first place. In the west, the problem was to overcome economic and social differences. They were not very successful at either.

“We had PTA coffees. We knocked on doors in the Kramer and Withers neighborhoods asking people to give Longfellow a chance,” says Mrs. Greer. “There were people in those neighborhoods who were dedicated to public education, but we lost most of the families there.

“Then, when we started to go in together, we wanted to include parents from Earhart and Navarro. We would ride around the neighborhoods and talk with them. The district sent a bus to bring them to meetings, but we could never get more! than one or two. The attitude was that all the white people up there were very rich and the blacks wouldn’t feel comfortable there.”

These attitudes were very clearly reflected once school opened that year and in subsequent years. Fewer and fewer white children took the buses south. The black students, whose parents usually had no economic choice, faced their own problems. And the strengths offered to students in the old system were no longer there to help them.

“The first day they were bused into Longfellow we were out there to greet them and welcome them to their new school, to tell them that we loved them and that they would love Longfellow,” Mrs. Greer says. “Then, after everybody had gone in I saw a little black boy crying behind the bushes. I went over and said, ’Come on in. We’re so happy to have you here.’ And he said, ’I can’t go to this school. All the kids got new blue jeans, new notebooks, new shoes. I can’t go to this school.’

“There was such a stretch of economics and there was no neighborhood any longer. They didn’t have the advantage of being in the neighborhood together and finding out that Johnny was better in math and baseball or that Billy had an unhappy family life.”

Despite great difficulty and a white enrollment that fell by a steady 8 percent per year, Longfellow parents believed they were “making small strides, holding our own.” They clung to the idea that one day things would turn around and the school would be saved.

There was one encouraging sign. Though the flight continued, there always seemed to be a few white parents around who were interested in sending their children to a good public school.

By last fall, a few new families, most of them from out of town, had moved into the neighborhood. Some of them had attitudes toward public schools that were different from those of their neighbors.

Max and Donna Buja, who live in Highland Park west of the tollway, moved in at about the same time the first busing order was handed down.

“They told us, ’You can’t use the public schools. You’ll have to use private schools.’ But we knew we would be able to get more house for our money [in that area], and we decided to worry about the other thing later,” says Mrs. Buja, who now has two children in Longfellow.

Bob and Mary Tigelaar moved to Dallas from the Pacific Northwest about two years ago. Tigelaar, like Buja, is a physician on the faculty of Southwestern Medical School.

“The realty companies initially showed us North Dallas and Richardson, but we said we couldn’t afford that and didn’t want it anyway,” Tigelaar says. “We said this was the only area we would consider and we wanted Longfellow because it is a school that’s part of the DISD that works.”

Sending, or planning to send, children to Longfellow meant getting involved there. Mary Tigelaar found herself volunteering for the RIF (Reading Is FUNda-mental) program each week even though her children were in preschool elsewhere.

In addition to the usual support that PTAs give to their schools, a lot of effort at Longfellow was always spent trying to reach out into the community and get more families back into public education. Parents tried to convince other parents to gamble that they, themselves, can make a difference in the kind of education their children receive.

The preschool PTA tries to introduce young parents to the neighborhood school before they decide where to send their children. The door-to-door questionnaires, the school-to-community newsletter and the baby-sitting cooperative among parents all served to reintroduce Longfellow to its neighborhoods. Several times the parents were hosts of open houses at the school, inviting Realtors and residents to “come and see what is here.”

With that kind of activity, it’s not surprising that the news of the board’s decision to consider closing Longfellow instead of Sudie Williams prompted a strong response.

“WE CALLED a meeting for Monday morning at the school,” says Donna Buja. “It turned into an all-day meeting. Anyone who could attend came. People were in and out all day.

“At the beginning it was, ’What do we do now?’ “

The DISD had offered them neighborhood meetings at each school, first on Monday and then on Tuesday night. Then each group of parents would have an opportunity the following Thursday to appear before the school board. Longfellow parents spent that first day writing several statements of defense and deciding who would present them at the meeting.

This was also a time when DISD administrators began to explain their sudden desire to close a school in the North Dallas-Love Field area.

According to Assistant Superintendent Carlton Moffett and Associate Superintendent Joe Pitts, the district was only trying to comply with what it believed was a suggestion from U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders. During attempts to come up with an acceptable desegregation plan, Sanders, the presiding judge, had mused that allowing minority students to stay in their neighborhood schools if they wanted to might not be a bad idea. In response, said Pitts and Moffett, the district had come up with the Minority Neighborhood Option Plan (MNOP).

Under the MNOP, minority students who had been bused to Longfellow and Williams would likely go back to Earhart and Navarro. The North Dallas schools that had been named for closing included Withers and Kramer, which meant that their students would now be merged into centers at Gooch and Walnut Hill.

All of that maneuvering would leave Longfellow and Williams with about 130 students apiece rattling around in facilities designed for 1,000. It would be too costly to keep them both open. Something had to be done. Merger, they felt, was the kindest course they could take.

Most parents understood the need for the merger, given the circumstances, and were willing to go through with it if only because they had little choice. But some saw it as a much more serious threat.

Since qualification for many special programs was dependent on the number of students in a school, it was possible that no matter which school survived it would lose some or all of those programs: Talented and Gifted program, art and music classes, its physical education teacher, counselor, librarian and community resource specialist, if not more.

“Longfellow is tops in education,” says Bob Tigelaar. “We have friends whose children are in private school who are jealous of what we have here. The school is so flexible. Students work at their own level. There is so much to offer.

“But what I was concerned about was whether the quality of the program there would remain.”

For Tigelaar, the implications were clear. He had come to Longfellow because it offered “an excellent education . . . combined with successful economic and ethnic integration,” but his children would remain there only as long as the school could provide a quality program. Other parents felt the same.

Yet, when both sides made their pitches directly to the trustees on Thursday night, October 8, neither opposed the merger.

Longfellow’s parents emphasized the quality of their school, its long history and what they perceived to be its unique community support.

“We do not argue with the efforts underway to consolidate these two schools…,” said Julie Weissert, a former teacher and community specialist at Longfellow and now a resident of Greenway Parks, “… but we vehemently oppose the closing of Longfellow School, a school which has proven time and time again its effectiveness as a model school in this city.”

They produced petitions from merchants and residents in all neighborhoods within Longfellow’s attendance zone.

They reminded the board of the money, merchandise and time given by the In-wood Village Merchants Association, the computer system from Henry S. Miller, the churches that supported the RIF program, the Partners In Reading program sponsored by the Junior League, the woodworking shop, the music and art volunteers and the people from the neighborhoods who came into the classrooms to help teach.

But Longfellow, they said, was much more than an excellent school. It embodied a broader significance. It had accomplished every social goal set before it, and it had maintained, even enhanced, its quality programs. It represented nothing less than an ideal, and now with new families coming in and the preschool PTA booming, it was promised a bright future.

They as much as said that Longfellow, standing there in its beige brick near the busy Inwood Village, enjoyed the kind of visibility that even a department store would envy, the kind that generates the positive publicity that is so important to a troubled school district. While Sudie… well, Sudie was practically hidden down near Love Field somewhere. Nobody really knew where Sudie was.

Sudie’s parents presented an elaboration of Mrs. Beach’s remarks to the board on the previous Friday.

They argued that the two schools were virtually identical. They both had excellent staffs, similar ethnic ratios, buildings of equal size and condition, strong community support, and they both produced a quality product.

Next they objected to having to send their children across busy Lovers Lane and Inwood Road to school and argued that because of housing patterns, fewer children would have to cross those wide thoroughfares if Sudie were left open.

At this point their arguments were not particularly compelling, but they picked up a lot of force when the subject turned to economics. While the two schools were in most respects identical, their locations were radically different.

Sudie was a true “neighborhood school,” the parents argued, surrounded by small homes and quiet streets, and it should remain that way. Longfellow, on the other hand, with all its high visibility and easy access, was located in a business district and was certainly better suited for secondary use.

Furthermore, should the district ever need to sell some of its property, well, land adjacent to a busy shopping center was certainly more valuable than land buried in an aging, middle-income residential area.

In this way the very strengths that Longfellow parents had prized were first neutralized and then reversed. Yet, in the belief that they still “held all the cards” and that a quick decision was in the interest of all, the Longfellow parents pressed for an immediate vote. The board refused. The board voted instead to conduct a study.

Three weeks later, as very nearly the final official act of its term of office, the board voted 8-1 to close Longfellow School.

Thinking back on that time, Julie Weissert realized that the signs were there all along.

“The last two weeks we started hearing that we had oversold our case,” she says. “I thought we gave a pretty punchy presentation, but we sold ourselves right up the river.

“The more we said about how much support the school had, the more they thought, ’You’re so supportive, you’ll support them too.’ We hung ourselves.”

She believed that the study ordered by the trustees was merely designed to soften the appearance of a decision based solely on naked economics.

“The study was a complete joke,” she says. “Where the K-3 schools had a two-year study, we had a two-week study. What study? A couple of the trustees came out and walked around.

“I think that just as soon as the DISD was reminded what that property was worth, then it was all over.”

She even suspects, though admittedly without foundation, that the district was approached by a developer already active in the area.

Carlton Moffett denies that.

“Our policy is that we don’t have any intention of disposing of any of our properties in these communities,” he says, “because there is a good possibility that they will turn the corner and then we would have to buy them back at tremendous cost.”

Moffett also says the district had no idea how it would use the building, but that its capacity for alternative use was the chief reason the administration recommended its closing.

“What we did was take the criteria set up by the small school study task force,” he says. “We considered the faculty, the state of repair of the facility, the kind of educational programs being offered. We tried to look at all the factors we could to measure each of these schools.

“When we completed the study there was not a thing that we could come up with that would help us to make a decision. There was not an element or a feature that would help us to make a clear-cut decision except in one area.

“We had to look at it from the standpoint of secondary use.”

Moffett says it was regrettable that a school had to be closed, because no one likes to close schools, and regrettable that the Williams-Longfellow issue had come up so suddenly. But the DISD had before it, “about 200 different plans at one time or another,” and recommendations had to be made in order to meet court deadlines for desegregation plans.

“The board was trying to compromise in such a way that every community got something,” Moffett says, “and when you do that obviously everyone also loses something.”

Five weeks later Judge Sanders reversed the school board’s decision, in effect reopening a school that was never quite closed. His rejection of the Minority Neighborhood Option Plan ensured that neither Longfellow nor Sudie would be closed this year.

This reprise may not last long. “The district is a $300 million operation,” says Carlton Moffett. “It is very, very big business. We have to consider all the factors. When inflation outstrips the growth of our tax base, obviously we have to bring operating costs in line with the growth of the tax base. That’s just responsible management.”

If the financial status of the district continues to worsen, the pressures on small neighborhood schools will only increase.

“In the next year or two some other schools are going down the pipe,” says School Board member Robert Medrano.

If that is true, then Williams and Longfellow may be in the pipe again before long.

“I forecast that both those schools will be shut down in the next few years,” he says. “And that within the next three to seven years they will both be up for sale.”

School Supt. Linus Wright does not agree. “Under the present court order,” he says, “I predict that Longfellow and Sudie are going to be there for a good while.”


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