METROPOLIS THE “APARTMENT KIDS” AND A BEAVER CLEAVER SCHOOL

nce upon a time there was a perfect elementary school nestled in a picturesque valley of trees and rolling hills near White Rock Lake. It was surrounded by $200,000-plus homes, filled with adorable, freshly scrubbed children, shepherded by an earnest coalition of neatly pressed Republican homemakers.

This was White Rock Elementary School-the Norman Rockwell of neighborhood schools, according to those who worked there. “This has always been like a storybook school,” says a woman who has taught there many years, “The kids could all read. The moms didn’t work. The parents were really concerned about rearing their children properly. It was a real Beaver Cleaver school.”

And one safely removed from the fast disintegrating, chronically dismal Dallas public school system. No, this precious school, though located in the city of Dallas, was in the southernmost tip of the Richardson Independent School District-the jewel of public education, the mecca of urban white flight, a trump card for suffering Dallas real estate agents.

Today, though, reality has touched the valley. The little Laura Ashley school is looking a bit like bad plaid. School buses, which were never needed in the past, rumble gracelessly up to the front door. Something…is wrong.

Just what is it that this school is up against? A court-ordered desegregation plan in Richardson? Sudden, drastic budget cuts? Forced busing? A child molestation ring? No, none of the above. What has local parents panicked, perplexed, and, in some cases, packing is “apartment kids” aged five to twelve. They show up on the doorstep of the school each fall, a free lunch voucher in hand, a single parent or an older sibling in tow, with or without appropriate clothes, playthings, or school supplies.

Apartment kids are just that-kids who live in $350-a-month, two-bedroom apartments instead of highly leveraged, split-level houses. The apartments line the eastern edge of the school district along Skillman Street, from Church Road south to the new Simon David at Abrams. Ten years ago, those apartments were strictly adults-only, and it was the upper-middle-class homes to the east of there that fed the school on Chiswell Road. But the recession hit, and landlords opened the apartments to families, enticing them with a month’s free rent or free cable TV. By the end of the decade, adults-only apartment complexes had been declared illegal. The flood gates were open.

White Rock would be the last of nine RISD schools in that area to feel the effects of the North Dallas apartment revolution. Suddenly, dozens of children were enrolling at White Rock three weeks into the school year and withdrawing two months later when the free rent inducement had expired, the eviction notice had been served, and the next apartment incentive was a half-mile, and another school district, away.

“I suppose it was last year that the climate of our school really began to change,” says Bob Parks, who retired in 1989 after serving as White Rock’s principal for five years. “Until then we had seen very few minorities and very few apartment children, but last year it increased from about 25 to 130 [of 500 total students]. And it couldn’t help but change the climate of the school- I think the culture’s different than a lot of neighborhood people’s families.”

And many of those neighborhood people, frightened of the changes. have done everything they can to shield their children from anybody else’s culture. From not letting their children go to their classmates’ birthday parties; to teaching their five-year-olds to say “those apartment kids”; to trooping in more often to see the teacher when their child comes home uttering a four-letter word, the parents have made their unhappiness clear.

“It’s a scary thing ” says one second-grade teacher. “These parents don’t want this change. Nobody wants change.”

If there is any glue holding White Rock together, it is the teachers. After all, it is the nature of teachers to believe that all children are equally lovable, no matter what their parents’ income.

Last year, for example, a student came to school in tears because his mother had run away from home the night before, leaving her two children home alone. She had left the apartment after dark, with a pistol in her purse, saying she was going to the store to get some milk for breakfast, but she had never returned. The little boy set the alarm clock, got himself and his six-year-old brother dressed for school the next morning, and arrived on the bus with no breakfast in his stomach, no lunch money in his pocket, and no idea where his mother had gone. His teacher contacted the boy’s relatives, then gave the boy her home phone number so he could keep in touch. The boy’s mother returned home five days later, saying only that she’d had a fight with her boyfriend.

But it goes beyond giving out a phone number-way beyond. Sixth-grade teacher Dee Dee Blessing is a good case in point. She brings her own children’s hand-me-downs to school and slips them to a student who badly needs them. She buys a pair of scissors or a box of crayons for a child who repeatedly comes to school empty-handed. She has asked the PTA for money for field trips because not all her students could afford them.

Which brings us full circle to the heart of the problem. The FTA. The parents.

When requests like Dee Dee Blessing’s come to the PTA-the guiding hand of the school-there is no small shudder. Open discussion of “the problem” is not welcome; in fact, it’s discouraged. As Laura Farmer explains, if a teacher or administrator or PTA member hears about a needy child or family and wants to help on a one-on-one basis, that’s fine. But the PTA wants no part of it.

“Anything that we do is handled on an individual basis, in a quiet way,” says Farmer, a longtime PTA member and past president, “because if you go through PTA and do something, you’re going to be upsetting people out there who don’t want to do it. It’s a sensitive issue.”

Especially at Christmas. Because at Christmas, the PTA shows its true colors, and more and more each year, teachers and some of the more sensitive parents are quietly bristling.

Each December, the PTA sponsors something called Santa’s Secret Shop. The PTA buys about $2,000 worth of small gift items, displays them in a mock store they set up at the school, and sells the items to students who want to give something to their parents and siblings for Christmas. “This is a big thing with the PTA.” says one teacher who is not happy with the event. “The mothers just love to work in it. They love to make change and wrap all the presents. They really do it for themselves, not the children.”

Which would be fine except that many of the apartment kids can’t afford to buy at Santa’s Secret Shop-and. to make matters worse, the event traditionally has been held during the school day. during which the children are paraded past all the tantalizing gifts.

This has provided no small amount of tension. Neighborhood children have stuffed present after present into their lockers while the apartment children looked on empty-handed. Neighborhood children have come to school armed with blank checks from their parents while apartment kids come with no money or a handful of pennies. Money has disappeared. Presents have been taken. One neighborhood child lost a blank check, only to have an apartment child find it, fill it out, and go shopping. His gifts were later taken away from him.

Two years ago a brave teacher wrote a letter to the PTA. She recommended the PTA forgo Santa’s Secret Shop and replace it with a Giving Tree-an event that would match needy children around Dallas County with White Rock children who could make gifts in class or donate used clothing or food or small gift items.

The PTA executive committee rejected the idea out of hand, never bothering to present it to a full meeting of the PTA or, for that matter, respond to the teacher. The committee found the idea quite shocking, say two who were there, and quite extreme. “We’re not a welfare agency,” people said.

“I think what the people on our PTA have felt was that we don’t mind helping, but we’d rather stay in our own neighborhood and work out our neighborhood’s needs.” says Farmer, who attended that meeting. “But again, even in our own neighborhood we’ve been hesitant because we wouldn’t want it to trickle down to everyone that something different is happening in this school.”

But something different is happening in this school. And no matter how much the PTA parents deny it, it won’t go away. This Christmas, the Republican homemakers in their Christmas aprons arranged to line up as usual behind the array of shiny trinkets in Santa’s Secret Shop. This time, they felt sure, they had done things right: they had moved Santa’s Secret Shop to a Saturday so that “those apartment kids” wouldn’t have to see what they were missing. And the neighborhood moms could continue, at least for one day. to live out an old fairy tale.

Comments