Friday, January 28, 2022 Jan 28, 2022
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Back To The Neighborhood School

Many Dallas parents are trying a revolutionary idea-sending their children to public school. Their reasons are many, but most agree: something good is happening at the school down the street.
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IN SUSIE SAMPLE’S SMALL NORTH DALLAS neighborhood, nine couples in the last year have taken their children oui of private school and done something that, for them, would have been unthinkable five years ago: they enrolled their kids in the neighborhood public school. As head of Positive Parents for the Dallas Independent School District, Sample cheered them on. And her interest was more than professional. Sample took her son out of private school a year ago to attend a public middle school; he’ll be a freshman at Hillcrest High School this year.

In South Dallas, Louise Smith, principal of the Charles Rice Learning Center, says parents are turning out in record numbers for school functions such as violin and choir recitals. The end of most mandatory busing in the Dallas Independent School District in 1985 brought the kids back to their neighborhood schools, and Smith says her students and parents love it. The school’s parent-teacher organization-often the weak link in poorer neighborhoods where both parents must work, sometimes at two jobs-is growing stronger each year.

In the Richardson Independent School District, school board president Jim Rawles says he is seeing a resurgence of interest in neighborhood schools. “It becomes doubly evident when we consider changing boundary lines for elementary or middle schools,” Rawles says. ’”We see a strong turnout.” Parents are sending a message: they care about their neighborhood school.

Literally rising from the cold ashes left in many districts by court-ordered busing and a widespread perception that public schools were only for those who had no choice, the neighborhood school is making a dramatic renaissance. Parents are bringing their children back, not in a trickle and not in a flood, but in a small but steady stream i hat in some ways is astonishing-and completely unpredictable even five years ago, considering the harsh criticism that has been aimed at public schools.

It’s difficult to determine just how many parents have made the private-to-public switch in the last few years; no state or national organization keeps track of that information. But the anecdotal evidence is strong. All over Dallas County, but especially in DISD, parents are taking their children out of private schools and enrolling them in their neighborhood public school. Top private schools still can pick and choose students; waiting lists haven’t disappeared, But parents now are trading stories about taking their children out of St. Mark’s, Hockaday, Jesuit, and others and sending them to the public school down the street.

The new enthusiasm for public schools is not limited to those who can afford to go elsewhere. Principals at predominantly black and Hispanic schools say they are seeing new pride and support for their schools from parents now that their children, who were formerly bused, miles to attend classes, are attending the schools nearest their homes. Parents are proud not only because it is their school; they’re proud because it is a good school. And that, no matter what the color of your skin, says Rice principal Smith, is the bottom line for all parents.

What is fueling the return to the neighborhood school? Many of the reasons are as individual as the children themselves: a teenager facing intense social pressure in a private school, a third-grader with a learning disability or handicap who can be better served in a bigger school district with more trained, personnel, a sixth-grader who dislikes the uniforms and regimentation of his private school. But three major reasons stand out: a renewed, search for a sense of community, the economic crunch, and perhaps most important, a changing perception of what’s really happening in public school education.

AFTER YEARS OF MOVING FROM area to area in their hops up the career ladder, many young parents say they want that feeling of community, of sinking roots into a cohesive, old-fashioned neighborhood where moms trade potty-training tips and dads trade power tools. Baby boomers now facing their own children’s school years remember riding their bikes to the school a few blocks over. They have memories of knowing all the kids and parents on their block, of forming relationships that endured, from elementary to junior high to high school and beyond. They remember Friday night football games, and being on the drill team, or sitting in the bleachers with friends and cheering.

They want that sense of stability, of belonging to a large network of families, for their own children. One couple in North Dallas bought a home two houses from the one the husband grew up in, in large part so that their children could attend the same public elementary, middle, and high schools he attended..

And many of the baby boomer parents seem to be in search of something else that is hard to come by in most private schools: cultural and ethnic diversity. Unencumbered. by the baggage of prejudice that sent many whites fleeing from DISD after desegregation began in 1971, many are searching for a “real world” school experience for their children, where black, white, Hispanic, and Asian students attend school together.

“We explored private schools,” says Dr. Robert Haley, an epidemiologist whose three children attend DISD schools. “They’re excellent. But it just wasn’t what we wanted, for our kids. I see the segregated all-white world as the world of the Fifties. It’s not real.”

Parents at Preston Hollow Elementary, Haley’s neighborhood school, are so committed to die idea of ethnic diversity that they began recruiting minority students when mandatory busing in elementary schools ended, in 1985. When a black private school in the State-Thomas area closed this spring, Preston Hollow parents stood outside the school handing out information on how the students could choose to be bused to their school under the Dallas Independent School District’s voluntary Majority-to-Minority Transfer Program.

Economics is probably the most prevalent, but least talked about, reason for parents choosing to return their children to neighborhood schools. These are tough times for many in Dallas, and private or parochial schools are expensive, with costs ranging to $5,000 per child per semester and much more at many of the schools.

“People are reevaluating the tuition and other costs of private schools and wondering if it’s really worth it,” says Pam Meyercord, past president of Franklin Middle School PTA. “I think a lot of parents are dissatisfied with private schools.”

“The economy is such that people do not have the luxury any more of looking to expensive private schools,” says Suzee Oliphint, principal of Preston Hollow. Her school is in a neighborhood that is affluent, but hard hit by the current slump in the economy. “I don’t see that as negative. A lot of people in the past thought you had to pay for a quality education. Now, when they come back out of necessity, they’re finding oui it’s not so bad. In fact, it’s pretty good.”

That leads to the third reason that seems to be pulling parents back into public schools: a growing conviction that something good is happening at the school down the street. The changing perception is in large part a response to recent public school reforms and the increased emphasis on teacher and student testing. “There’s been a real trend for accountability in public education in the last ten years,” says Oliphint. The growing numbers of enrichment programs-such as classes for gifted students and fine arts classes-are another draw.

Neighborhood schools are also looking better for other reasons-including some serious boosterism by public school supporters. Frustrated by the negative school stories that seem to dominate the news, area school districts from DISD to Piano began to tout their achievements. Positive Parents of Dallas was formed in 1982 as a partnership between the business community and the school district to spread the word that quality education was going on in DISD.

“We made a concentrated effort to get out the whole story,” says Susie Sample. “We were taking for granted all the good things and fussing about the bad things.” Positive Parents began touting DISD’s PTA program-one of the world’s largest-as well as the district’s extensive volunteer system and the Adopt-A-School program. They put together a “Realtor’s Notebook” in an effort to provide comprehensive information on schools to real estate agents, who often steered prospective buyers away from DISD on the assumption that the schools were below par. And they began pushing for stories on individual achievement. Two well-publicized stories this year concerned Hillcrest senior Daniel Pak’s perfect SAT score (only nine students in the country were flawless) and the citation of excellence awarded Rice Learning Center by the United States Department of Education. Positive publicity alone may not have caused one parent to enroll a child in a public school, Sample says, but it has encouraged many to take another look.

ublic schools also became more attractive with the end of most busing in DISD. In 1971, desegregation sent many whites fleeing from the district. In the mid-Eighties, as a result of federal Judge Barefoot Sanders’s approval of “super schools’-learning centers with beefed-up staff and extensive enrichment programs-in minority areas such as West Dallas and South Dallas, busing was greatly curtailed. Parents still had the option of sending their children to schools outside their neighborhood under the M-to-M transfer program, Today, white enrollment in DISD is down to 20 percent, but administrators say it is climbing back up. It’s not only the white parents who are happy with keeping the children in the neighborhood; it’s black, Hispanic, and Asian parents as well.

“Mexican-American parents in Oak Cliffare becoming more and more involved in their children’s schools,1’ says DISD school board memher Rene Castilla. “Because it is a neighborhood school, they don’t feel threatened as they did when they had to go out of their area to someone else’s turf. There is more involvement in the PTA, more working with their children on homework. They’re volunteering at a rate unheard often years ago. Lisbon Elementary School has fifty parents volunteering as aides.”

And minority parents are realizing that while their children’s schools often are close to 100 percent minority, as they were before court-ordered, desegregation, things are different this time around. This time, there’s more insistence on quality education. Principal Louise Smith says that parents are thrilled with Rice Learning Center’s fine arts program (which includes violin and piano lessons) and the computer lab. Achievement test scores have risen in each of the last three years. Last summer, only fifty-one out of more than 800 students at Rice had to attend summer school; in years past, usually more than 100 would be required to take summer school or fail the grade. What’s made the difference? “An expectation of excellence,” says Smith, adding that black parents are so pleased with the education their children are getting at Rice that this year she had no M-to-M transfer requests to send black children to schools with higher percentages of whites.

Parents who are sending their children to public schools for social reasons are getting some academic surprises. Linda Reed, a DISD parent, says her sixteen-year-old son Jeff attended private schools through eighth grade because he had a learning disability. She took him out of the school and enrolled him in Hillcrest two years ago. ’I wanted him to he a better-rounded person, to know how to get along with all kinds of people,’1 says Reed. “In private schools they grow up pampered and privileged, and when they get to college, they fall apart.”

But if Reed simply was looking for a happier, more adaptable son, she got more than she bargained for: her son’s grades went up. A so-so student at his private school, Jeff took Latin at Hillcrest and made perfect scores on tests. He began making the honor roll. And lo and behold. his achievement test scores went up, an increase that couldn’t he attributed to the supposedly easier grading in public schools. What happened? “He works up to the level he’s challenged to.” Linda Reed says.

For those students not destined to be academic stars, parents are realizing that public school can allow them to find their niche without the pressure of demoralizing competition; private schools often screen out all but the better students, which ensures fierce fighting for grades and honors.

When Diana Holland’s daughter Jennifer switched to public school after seven years in private school, her grades stayed the same, but her personality blossomed. Holland (not her real name) says that Jennifer has a learning disability and always struggled to keep up in her private school. The crunch came in seventh grade, when Jennifer could not pass the private school entrance exam. The Hollands paid $300 to an educational consultant to come up with alternatives, then decided to try public school. Holland is thrilled with the move. “I’ve never seen her so happy,” Holland says. “She’s a cheerleader, on the soccer team. She’s a star and she never knew it.” Jennifer now makes B’s with the help of a tutor.

Holland wishes she had made the public school choice years ago. “At private schools, the pressure on these kids is unbelievable,” she says. Still, Holland admits that if Jennifer had passed her entrance exam, they might have never looked at the alternatives. “We were forced out of the mold. I hear a lot of parents saying, That sounds wonderful, I wish we could do that,’ And more and more, they are.”

But even the most fervent proponents of public schools admit that some neighborhood schools are better than others, and that some children may be better off in private rather than public schools. Even as some parents are putting kids back into public schools, others are taking them out.

For example, children with Attention Deficit Disorder may need to be in very small classes where they can get more personal attention, says Mike Shepperd, an educational consultant. And there’s the child who feels he or she can take part in more activities in a smaller school. “In many smaller private schools, children can participate in a less competitive athletic program,” Shepperd says. “And then if you add the religious connotation, many parents would rather have their child in a private school.” Other parental concerns are the level of discipline in public versus private schools, and the fear that a child might get lost in the cracks in a large system.

“Can you get a quality educational experience in Dallas?” asks Dr. Allen Sullivan, interim assistant superintendent for instructional support services at DISD. “Yes, but you have to shop around. But don’t you have to do that for any bargain?”

HOW CAN PARENTS KNOW WHETH-er their neighborhood school is providing a quality education? The answer isn’t in the curriculum; in 1985, the Texas Legislature passed laws requiring that public schools, whether in Richardson or Wilmer-Hutchins, follow the same state-mandated curriculum for grades K through twelve. The quality of teachers makes the difference, educators say, both in public and private schools. Both the best-and the not-so-good-teachers are in both worlds. It’s up to parents to ferret them out and demand accountability. That means complaining when they find teachers who are not up to par.

Scores on achievement tests like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and California Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), which are standardized tests given to students across the nation, often are used, to proclaim one school better than another. But while scores on the ITBS and CTBS can be valuable tools for understanding individual achievement, and achievement within a school, experts say it is difficult to use them to compare, say, two elementary schools in different parts of town, or a public with a private school.

What test scores often provide is not information on how well the children do with the instruction they get, but a kind of snapshot of what kinds of kids go to that school. Test scores traditionally are higher in upper socioeconomic areas, where parents are more likely to be well educated and are prone to spend time reading to their childern in the preschool years. Scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), usually taken in the junior year of high school, can he even more misleading. Educators point out that only the cream-of-the-crop students going to certain colleges are counseled, to take the SAT. At best, the test is a measure of individual achievement, not school quality.

Perhaps better quantitative measures of how a school stacks up can be provided through the kind of data compiled by Stapp Education Resources, a Dallas research firm. Color graphics comparing two schools cost $100 to $250. Parents buying a new home in the area may be able to obtain a Stapp Report from their builder or realtor at no cost.

Stapp sifts through data on fifty-six school districts in Texas, gleaning information that includes test scores over a three-year period, student/teacher ratio, teacher educational status, and average number of years of teacher experience.

Becky Stapp, co-owner of SER, points out that parents can tell a lot from these figures. For example, state law mandates that an elementary school’s student/teacher ratio should be no higher than 22-to-l. Lower ratios could indicate that children will get more personal attention, Stapp says. High percentages of teachers with graduate degrees are also a good sign, and several years of experience at a particular school may mean that teachers are happy with their environment and administrators, she says.

But parents don’t necessarily have to spend any money to find out if a school can provide a quality education for their children. One of the best indicators of a quality school is the size and vigor of its PTA, says principal Oliphint. “At the successful schools, in every instance, you’re going to have an active parent organization.”

Allen Sullivan says the best way for parents to investigate a school’s porformance is to visit the school while it is in session. Do they get a warm reception from the principal and teachers? Is there discipline in the classrooms? Do the teachers seem creative and interested in the students? Are there ways for parents to he involved if they want to be?

Parents should ask questions, Sullivan says. What fine arts and enrichment programs are available? For example, at the elementary school level DISD has string and piano lessons avaitable to students for a fee; the lessons are free in the “super schools” and learning centers. What about extracurricular activities? Does the school provide field trips and other cultural activities? Do children have regular homework?

After choosing a school, parents who want quality education should be prepared to get involved and stay involved in their children’s educations. “Ask continually what evidence you have that your child is learning,” Sullivan says.

“In a public school, you have a lot more voice than in a private school,” says Positive Parents’ Susie Sample, who has been on both sides of the fence. “You pay for public school whether you use it or not. You might as well get in there and make it better.”