Thursday, April 18, 2024 Apr 18, 2024
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The return of Dallas’ premier public high school

It’s Friday morning, and it’s football season, and this is a Hillcrest pep rally. A thundering rhythm shudders through the packed auditorium. On stage, cheerleaders clad in the traditional red and white leap about, wildly motioning to the crowd. “Y’all YELLLLLL!” one girl screeches into a microphone. “Let’s get that SPIRIT! Let ’em HEAR y’all! C’mon …YELL!”

Eventually, the roar subsides into assorted mumbling. A stocky man in a vested pin-striped suit, close-cropped gray hair framing his boyish face, appears at the podium. As he opens his mouth to greet his students, Robert Stokes, Hillcrest’s principal, is hit in the face with a flying lemon-cream pie.

To this admittedly biased reporter-a ’67 HHS grad-that vignette alone is assurance that the Hill-crest High I knew is reasserting itself after a decade of deep distress.

I was away during the stormy era of the early Seventies, when 300 angry black kids were torn away from their school and bused to a place where they didn’t want to be. I missed the City Crime Commission report that singled out Hillcrest as having the worst drug problem in Dallas. I wasn’t present for the students’ struggle over the right to wear armbands or the resignation of an assistant principal who admitted his homosexuality. What I did hear, on virtually every visit home, was that no parent in his right mind would send his kids to Hillcrest.

That is hardly the case today. And it probably wasn’t entirely the case even during the Seventies. But perceptions, especially those based on fear, have a way of lingering. So for those of you who haven’t heard the good news: Hillcrest is back.

For the first time in years, enrollment is up. The seemingly irreversible exodus to private and suburban schools-which has plagued Hillcrest since the 1971 court order to desegregate-may have been stemmed. On the first day of school this year, more than 200 new students showed up on the front steps. At least 60 of them have been identified as transfers from private schools.

And that’s not the only bellwether figure that’s on the incline. Hillcrest’s test scores have shown a marked improvement each year of principal Stokes’ regime. While Hillcrest is above the national average in percentage of students mastering the standardized exams, the school doesn’t always match the achievemerits of Highland Park, Piano or Richardson schools. Its defenders say that’s because you’re comparing apples and oranges. Insists one Hillcrest parent, “There are no poor pockets in Richardson or Highland Park to drag the scores down. You have to realize that those test scores represent the middle ground. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t kids at Hillcrest achieving in the 90th percentiles. We even have mainstreamed special-ed kids whose scores are factored into our average.”

Perhaps a truer comparison is the voluntary tests by which the National Merit Scholarship finalists are chosen. Last year Hillcrest had more finalists than any other school in the DISD-and more than Highland Park High School.

IN THE FIFTIES and Sixties, Hillcrest was Dallas’ golden school. Its high academic standards and congenial, spirited, “all-American” atmosphere made it as attractive to parents as to kids. Every year, Hillcrest turned out a fine crop of high achievers, many of whom have gone on to make their marks in Dallas as adults.

Two factors during the early Seventies drastically changed Hillcrest. One was the 1971 court order that resulted in the mandatory busing of 300 students from the J.W. Ray Elementary School Zone, near Central Expressway and Lemmon Avenue. The disparity between these kids and the white offspring of Hillcrest’s affluent neighborhoods led to a period of conflict and severe disorientation. Teaching was all but impossible. For some five or six years, the Hillcrest faculty struggled just to keep peace in the halls.

The second contributor to Hillcrest’s calamity was the vague haze of doom that hung over all students of the early Seventies.

Dallas, like America, was caught up in the rebellion of the baby boomers, now teen-age and hostile to the old ways. Drugs were rampant at Hillcrest -especially among the neighborhood kids who had the money to buy them. Many local parents, alarmed at the apparent moral debacle around them, opted for the more structured, protected arena of private schools-leaving Hillcrest to a few stalwart souls who fought to keep it alive.

Busing did more than bring black kids to a previously lily-white school. It created an atmosphere of uncertainty fueled by a poisonous rumor mill. Luan Hardy Ter-rill, a Hillcrest graduate who still lives near the school, remembers that “No one knew from year to year what the situation at Hillcrest would be. They were scared that their kids might be bused to another part of town. So they just bought their way out.”

By the time another court order came down in 1976, racial tension at Hillcrest had begun to cool. The new mandate eliminated forced busing in high schools. (It’s amazing how many people in Dallas don’t know that.) Today, there are still a lot of minorities at Hillcrest. But every student is there because he or she wants to be. In some cases, getting to school is a real hardship. But kids come because they want to get a leg up academically, or want to participate in the school’s athletic program. In the words of Betty Vondracek, city council PTA president, “The kids who are bused to Hillcrest want to go to college. They know it’s where the scouts look for athletic scholarships or where they can get an education that will prepare them for the work later on.”

Omar Brewer, a black senior from Oak Cliff, has been at Hillcrest since his freshman year. He chose to be bused to Hillcrest because he heard the teachers were good and because that’s where his friends were going. An amiable kid, Omar hopes to go to junior college on a baseball scholarship. He’s one of the school leaders – chosen this year as captain of the football team. Any complaints about Hillcrest? Hmm, Omar ponders, then finally comes up with it: “Principal Stokes took the candy machines out of the front hall.”

From 1976 on, altercations among minority and white students ceased to be a major problem. Myth number one -that you will be placing your child in physical jeopardy if you choose to send him or her to Hillcrest – was dispelled.

But will your children get a good education? The answer depends on your perspective, your involvement as a parent and your child’s personality.

Robert Stokes, Hillcrest’s principal since 1980, inherited a faculty that, despite the decade of decline, was still among the best in the DISD. Seventy-five percent of the teachers have advanced degrees. Several of them are known nationally as professionals with exemplary skill. Among these is Julia Jeffress, beloved by generations of Hillcrest grads as a journalism teacher par excellence. Jeffress’ Hillcrest Hurricane has won every major national journalism award including, last year’s prestigious Gallup Award for outstanding high school newspapers -a kudo it shared with only 42 schools in the country.

Assisting the teaching staff is a dean of instruction considered by many to be the finest in the city. Georganna McQuigg, whom Stokes “stole” from Thomas Jefferson High School last year, is directly responsible for the quality of teaching at Hillcrest. Stokes believes that she possesses extraordinary skill at assessing a program’s or an individual teacher’s strengths and weaknesses. Rosie Strom-berg, a DISD writer and coordinator and mother of Hillcrest’s 1982 valedictorian, remarks, “I heard St. Mark’s was offering an advanced social studies course. I passed the word to Georganna McQuigg, and she’s checking it out. She’ll make sure that we have something comparable. She’s fabulous.” Jeffress agrees: “We’re turning in the most insightful, elaborate lesson plans in years.”

Principal Stokes has vowed “to make Hillcrest the most academically desirable comprehensive high school in Dallas by 1983, as indicated by standardized test scores.” Stokes himself is a throwback to the ideals of earlier days, when discipline was prized and the emphasis in school was on the quality of classroom instruction. In his two years at Hillcrest, Stokes has come down hard on some of the school’s more permissive policies. Typical of his approach is the way he dealt with students leaving after third, fourth or fifth periods to work at part-time jobs. The legion of kids who were taking advantage of this program, which required only a parent’s consent, was creating problems in the school. Not only were the empty halls bad for school morale, but in some instances funding for extra teachers or additions to the curriculum couldn’t be justified because of the low enrollment in the afternoons. Stokes’ reaction? Do nothing the first year. Restrict the program to seniors the second year. Eliminate it entirely the third year.

Another bandwagon Stokes hopped on was the quest to clear the halls during classes. Over the years, Stokes believed, teachers had gotten too lenient about granting permission to students wanting to go to the restroom, get a drink of water or visit the office during periods of instruction. Years of lax discipline had made it difficult to say no -and enforce it -to a student body accustomed to roaming the halls at its whim. Today the corridors are practically deserted between the bells. Those who do leave are required to have written permission. If they’re caught without it, they’re stuck in a study hall – and forced to suffer the consequences of missing the remainder of class.

Stokes has a “back to basics” mentality about education. And to him, that has meant returning the responsibility for teaching to the teachers. Unless there are obvious failings, Hillcrest teachers create their own course agendas, with a minimum of interference. “There’s not a teacher in this school that I consider too hard,” Stokes says. “I expect them to set standards, to require homework and to make the kids work.”

Another factor that has consistently contributed to Hillcrest’s strength is its parent group. “Never in my life have 1 seen a school with more supportive parents,” says Stokes, who has served at Sunset High, W.W. Samuels and in several DISD staff jobs. “This fall, in order to register all these unexpected kids, we had to get the parents to help. 1 had people working here eight hours a day for five straight days.”

In the past few years, the parents at Hill-crest have been in the forefront of many major policy decisions affecting the DISD. A number of HHS parents are active in the district bureaucracy either as volunteers or in paid positions. Each month, PTA presidents meet with Superintendent Linus Wright to air their problems; they’ve pushed through several crucial changes. For starters, the group was instrumental in abolishing social promotions-that counterproductive procedure by which failing students were allowed to progress to the next grade. Then the group got the grade credit quota that was required to graduate upped from 19 to 21 – a move that, coincidentally, was promptly adopted in Richardson schools.

Hillcrest mother Betty Vondracek was one of the founders of the citywide Positive Parents group, begun last winter. Its purpose is to curb the flow of negative press by spreading story ideas to the local media on “what really goes on in the classrooms of the DISD.” A public relations blitz buoyed by full-page ads and thousands of fliers was conducted this fall to proclaim the favorable aspects of public school to the cynics. In the future, Positive Parents plans to locate representatives among the ranks of every PTA in town. They hope newcomers will talk to Positive Parents to get the good word before neighbors who left DISD have a chance to spread the bad.

Obviously, a top-rate faculty and involved parents are critical to the success of a school. But the bottom line is the kids -and the current crop of students is making the real difference at Hillcrest. The days of student unrest appear to be gone. While there may be little true social integration, black and white students have learned to coexist. And while still some Hillcrest kids use drugs (mostly marijuana), the majority do not. “The kids who smoke dope [known as ’the heads’] are around, and everybody knows who they are,” explains one ninth grader. “But it’s not a big deal to most kids.”

Last year, eight students were caught with grass -each with less than a quarter of a bag. Any time a student is found with an illegal narcotic, the police are notified, and the student is suspended pending a hearing at the DISD administration building. The student must appear -with his parents, and a lawyer if he chooses -before a three-person panel that metes out the appropriate punishment. The panel can choose to return the student to his home school, transfer him elsewhere or expel him from school for the remainder of the term. Says Stokes, “We don’t have many kids who get caught on a second offense.”

According to last year’s valedictorian, Daniel Stromberg, high school students today are rather conservative -about everything from liquor to sex. “These students are right out of the Fifties,” Jeffress says. “They’re bright, they’re highly motivated and they’re looking ahead. They want to get into a good college, and they want a good career. Kids are ambitious again.”

Freshman Chris Terrill, whose parents Luan and Steve both graduated from Hill-crest, is typical of that new breed. A transfer from the Talented and Gifted program (TAG) at Spence Middle School, Chris is excited about everything at Hillcrest – from the football team to the classes (which he finds just as challenging as those in TAG) to the school spirit. He thinks it’s good that the school makes it hard on kids, encouraging them to learn things for themselves. “They don’t pamper you, that’s for sure,” he says.

Discipline at Hillcrest is tough -at least a lot tougher than it used to be. Three tar-dies, unexcused absences and a variety of other policy misdemeanors can land you in the dreaded “Panther Cage” -a sequestered room where you sit and study in solitude for several days.

According to Cathy Sweet, an honors student and student congress vice president, there has been an improvement in Hillcrest students’ attitude about the school every year since she was a freshman. “When you have a winning football team like we do this year, it gives the kids something to care about.”

But we still haven’t really answered the question of whether your child will get a good education at Hillcrest. And that’s where your perspective comes in. A good education relative to the other schools in the DISD? Definitely. A good education relative to Highland Park, Richardson and Piano high schools? Probably. A good education relative to St. Mark’s, Hockaday and Greenhill? That depends.

Only if your child is bright, strongly motivated and a high achiever would you even be considering the top academic private schools. If that’s the case and you believe (or want to believe) that Hillcrest is a likely alternative, consider this: With the resources available in the TAG and magnet programs, the high quality of teaching in the honors program at Hillcrest and with your continuous effort to stay on top of your child’s progress at school, you’d probably be neck and neck with private schooling. Maxyne Cammack, a 28-year veteran of Hillcrest’s math department who defected to St. Mark’s last year, believes that an honors student at Hillcrest can get a comparable education to a student at St. Mark’s.

But it will take effort. It will become your duty to see that Hillcrest receives enough support to keep the facilities current, the teaching staff top-notch and the curriculum competitive.

To the growing number of parents who are hellbent on Hillcrest, the effort is well worth it. Many parents believe that the diversity of backgrounds you find in a public school is better preparation for life than the more homogenous experience of private school. Bob and Beverly Blumen-thal, parents of three outstanding Hillcrest students, say, “Hillcrest offers a chance to learn about not only facts and theories, but also about people and what makes society work… real-world “out there” society, not an elitist, wealth-oriented, clique-controlled facsimile.”

I put the question to a number of my fellow HHS alums: Would you send your child to Hillcrest? A number of them were nebulous. And not because their own high school experiences had been negative, but because of what they had heard about Hillcrest -that police routinely check the lockers for guns and knives; that students roam the halls with teachers powerless to stop them; that the best teachers of our day have gone elsewhere because Hillcrest was going down the tubes.

Such myths as these are probably Hill-crest’s biggest enemies. Says John Scovell, a civic leader and active supporter of the DISD, “I was never tempted to send mysons to private school [the oldest is inPreston Hollow Elementary School] because I was always aware of the facts. Iknow there are excellent teachers at Hill-crest-some of them even taught me. It’sthe misinformed that won’t give the schoola chance.”

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