all the Right Schools

One woman, grappling with the growing array of public and private schools in Dallas, discovers a common bond and a common confusion among parents today.

IT IS TWO O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING, AND I, A NOTORIOUSLY BLISSFUL SLEEPER, AM staring at a speck on my bedroom ceiling. I am turning fragments of thoughts and experiences and conversations from the past school year over and over in my mind. I am trying to see the essence of my two sons, 10 and 13. Am I providing them with the framework that will allow them to develop to their full potential? Are they being challenged and stimulated? Will they develop a love for learning? Will they have an appreciation for other cultures? A respect for fairness? Will they be disciplined? Will they be able to write a decent cover letter?

The occasion for my sleeplessness is an occupational hazard of being a parent in the ’90s: I am grappling with the choice of my sons’ schools.

If parent apathy is a major force in the decline of American education, it is not evident in the people I know. In fact, I would argue that worrying over where to send our children to school has become the defining issue of my generation. The parents I know are not apathetic about education-they are apoplectic about it. I ran into an old friend from high school recently who confided that she had been considering adopting a baby. But then, she said wistfully, “There are all those choices to make. With everything you read about the schools and all. . .”

Another of my friends was braver. She has kids-three of them. But that doesn’t mean that she and her husband haven’t spent the better part of the last 12 years worrying about their offsprings’ education, staying informed, checking and rechecking options, making one adroit move after another. “It never ends.” she tells me. “You think when your kids are small that you have made your decision when you choose Montessori or Catholic or public school or whatever. What you don’t realize is that the issue will rear its head again and again-in the fourth grade when some of the private elementary schools end. Then again in the fifth or sixth grade when you’re facing middle school. Then again when you choose a high school.”

it wasn’t that way when we were in school. Our parents bought a house, often in one of those new post-World War II subdivisions, and sent us to the school down the street.

When my brother and I were young, attending George B. Dealey Elementary School, private schools like Hockaday and St. Mark’s were seen as bastions for the privileged. A few very rich or very bad kids were sent away to boarding school. Most of the rest of us went to public school.

My parents would blanch at the array of educational alternatives available to my family. Now, in a large city like Dallas, even public school offers a dizzying variety of educational choices-from special-interest schools like DISD’s magnet schools to Montessori schools, to special programs for the educationally gifted or the physically or mentally challenged. And the private arena has expanded way beyond the college prep track. New-wave Christian schools, alternative education schools-some with no curriculum, or a one-to-one student-teacher ratio-even boarding schools are experiencing renewed interest and growth.

But despite these options, serious questions persist about quality-across the board. For more than a decade now, locally and nationally, we have been bombarded with tales of an eroding educational system. Johnny can’t spot Argentina on a map. Jennie can’t get the teacher’s attention because of institutional bias toward boys. Jesus can’t learn history because he was never properly taught to read. Jimmy brought a gun to school and now all the kids have to enter through a metal detector. Even the good news is never quite good enough: The appallingly large number of high school dropouts becomes not so appallingly large. Progress? Yes. Cause for celebration? Rarely.

What am I forced to admit is that the more I think and read and talk about the future of education both for my family and. in this country as a whole, the more confused I get. I worry that even the best public school is not competitive enough for tomorrow’s work place. I worry that the best private education money can buy won’t teach my child valuable lessons about the world. I worry that my decision to stay with the system and work to make it better could boomerang and hurt my kids. I worry that my dream of a community knit together by the common experience of the neighborhood school is an increasingly fleeting one.

Yet I am encouraged by the quality of the current dialogue about schools. From the DISD Commission for Educational Excellence to, on the national stage, the radical plans of media mogul Chris Whittle to build a chain of for-profit schools, vigorous thinkers are looking at the wheel and pondering its reinvention.

But that lakes time. And unfortunately, my 13-year-old can’t wait for 21st century tech-nodazzle. When it comes to education, there are no second chances. And as parents, the choices are ultimately ours to make. What does it all boil down to? “Your kid,” says Mike Shepperd, a consultant who helps Dallas families find the right educational environment for their children. “The problem is, there isn’t a perfect school for every child.”

It is late May, and Colin, my middle-schooler, comes bounding in the door after school. “How was your day?” I inquire. “Awesome!” is the reply. I look up, startled by the crack in the facade of boredom that seems to define the modern teen-ager. “What happened?” I asked, imagining some breakthrough experience in the science lab. or at the least, entrance into the National Junior Honor Society. “Major food fight!” he shouts. “The power went out in the lunchroom during that thunderstorm. And everybody went crazy! There was food dumped everywhere. . .plates flying.. .forks sailing. . .Man, it was awesome!”

My husband and I are not alarmists. We are pragmatists. Some parents, I know, point to incidents like this one as a reason to reject public school. All we wanted to know was. was the inspiration Animal House or the L,A. riots?

A parent I spoke to about this piece ended our conversation by saying, “I’m really glad you’re writing about this. This subject of schools, well, it sort of deals with the whole future of society.” I knew what he meant. Schools are a microcosm of the world. And any honest discourse about education becomes entangled in any number of real-world issues.

Violence is one of them. One of the alarming trends in schools is that some of them have become danger zones. There were several shootings in Dallas high schools this past year, making weapon searches and metal detectors almost de rigueur. Bobbi Bilnoski, a parent from “the M Streets,” who sends her middle schooler to a special program for the talented and gifted at Alex W. Spence in old East Dallas, is thrilled with her son’s school. But she admits wincing when, “I sat in my car for half an hour one morning watching these poor kids stand in line in the rain waiting to be frisked.”

The Bilnoskis have two other children. The younger kids, a sixth- and a first-grader, attend Stonewall Jackson, an elementary school that Bilnoski says has always enjoyed a good reputation in the neighborhood. The family is committed to public education, even with its occasionally scary flaws. Jackson appeals to her because of the fact that it is a DISD center for special education. Sign language is taught to all the kids, and even the profoundly handicapped are main-streamed in regular classrooms. “My kids are growing up with compassion,” she says.

Bilnoski is by nature an activist. She led the fight in her neighborhood to add road humps between Central and Greenville, redefining city policy in the process. She believes that when you choose to live near the urban core, you “automatically sacrifice comfort and leisure” and you cannot afford not to be involved. The same goes with public school, she says. “I’m not going to drive an hour to take my kids to school,” she says. “Nor can I afford expensive private schools. So it’s a choice. You’re choosing to make something happen rather than let it happen.”

Other DISD parents echo that theme. Tom and Cheryl Wattley. who live in Oak Cliff, have four children, two of whom are in DISD schools. Their older daughter, Marissa, 13, just “graduated” from the L.L. Hotchkiss Montessori school in northeast Dallas. She has chosen to continue her schooling at Skyline Career Development Center-an innovative group of special-interest clusters that regularly turns out high achievers. Tom Wattley says that, for now, he is pleased with what he is getting in DISD. But he also affirms the need for parents to stay on top of their child’s education. “You have to continually seek out the best programs and the best teachers and then you have to push them to make sure they come through.”

the power to make a difference is, I believe, one of the strongest draws of public school. One night in early summer I sat with a group of parents who want greater involvement in their DISD middle school. They spoke of creating a parents group to support the athletic programs. Of developing a speaker series to draw parents of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds together to explore provocative topics. Of banding together to back the hiring of a Hispanic assistant principal. Despite the candid airing of concerns, there was confidence that just about any problem could be overcome.

I don’t have the experience to judge whether that level of parental influence is either necessary or encouraged in the private school sector. I suspect that it varies a great deal with the school and its leadership. I do know that some of my friends gave up on public school when their schedules or their energy levels made activism inconvenient. Says one, “Every year it’s a new boundary fight or a pilot program or a new way of grouping the kids or a new way of not grouping the kids. After awhile the idea of paying your money, dropping your child off and knowing that is or her needs are going to be attended to just becomes really attractive.”

But other parents and educators counter that the “pay your money and get what you pay for” argument is a myth. Even one of the most prominent private educators in the Dallas area, Father Bernard Marton, a monk who has been at the Cistercian Preparatory School for boys for 25 years, believes that “you can’t just drop your child off, write a check, and say “Educate my child.’” Though Marton admits that some private schools-those with large staffs and small ratios-can offer more surrogate parenting, he maintains that the most successful students are those with both parents involved. “You cannot dismiss yourself of your responsibilities,” he says. “That doesn’t work at private school either.”

Only one of the Wattleys’ children attends a private school-their son Scott, 12, goes to the Shelton School, a private institution devoted to children with “learning challenges.” Wattley says that he has tried to balance the sheltered environment his son has known at Shelton with community activities so that when he does enter a “regular” school, he will be accustomed, to people with different backgrounds.

Most parents with children in public school want their kids to taste “the real world’-as long as they can do so safely, of course. Decoded, what most parents mean by “the real world” is a healthy mix of black, brown and white kids, emphasis on the healthy. Since the early ’70s. Dallas schools have been under federal order to desegregate, though we all know that with the court orders came a massive migration of whites. Less publicized is the fact that as African-Americans have prospered, they too have fled the inner-city schools. I took this subject up with Dallas Housing Authority executive director Alphonso Jackson, whose daughter Lesley attends Hockaday. When I described my older son’s impassioned commitment to public school. Jackson had a quick retort, “Ruth, you’re white. I can’t afford that risk.”

The subjects of ethnic harmony or disharmony, of race and class, are never far from any debate about public vs. private education, Since their inception in the mid-1800s, America’s “common schools” were seen as the path to parity-“the balance wheel of the social machinery.” to quote the 19th-century father of public education, Horace Mann. But with the flowering of the civil rights movement, schools moved from a position as “balance wheel” to become the outright engine of social reform.

School desegregation has been in the works now for more than 30 years, yet few would claim that the process has revamped society into a tolerant, color-free meld. In fact, there is evidence mat we are entering a period of even greater separateness. In a recent federal report titled “Resegregation of Public Schools.” the authors contend that physical segregation has been replaced by segregation within the schools. This “second generation” according to a summary in the education journal Phi Delta Kappan. stems from problems such as “unequal access to classrooms and programs and the disproportionately high rates of suspension and dropping out among minority students.”

I have witnessed resegregation with my own eyes: At the middle-school lunchroom, there is little intermingling of blacks, Hispanics and whites. But I have also witnessed the development of a conscience in my kids. They are more impassioned and vocal about racism than most of the adults I know. One recent June afternoon, Colin raced in the door from a friend’s house and ran for the TV. “Mom, you can’t believe what’s on Maury Povich,” he said, grabbing the remote control. “White Supremacist Mothers Who Teach Their Children to Hate Blacks.” As punk-looking young women with too much makeup and orange hair sneered into the camera espousing their degenerate theories about life, he sat. transfixed and horrified.

“I think we’re raising a little William Kunstler,” I told my husband later that night. “That’s great,” he replied, “as long as he can write and deliver a persuasive closing argument.”

And that is the heart of our conflict.

Like many words that enter the political lexicon, the word “choice” has already attracted a sheath of meanings that go far beyond the simple act of choosing. Educational Choice, with a capital “c”, refers to the idea that if parents could freely choose their children’s schools the market would force competition and jolt public education out of its complacency. The idea has become the centerpiece of the Bush administration’s plan to improve education. But it has attracted an odd assortment of liberal backers as well-activists like Milwaukee legislator Polly Williams, who recently won a battle in the Supreme Court to fund the exodus of inner-city minority kids to private schools.

Whether or not we move ahead with full-fledged Choice (the Senate dealt the administration’s plan a crippling blow earlier this year), we already have more choice (small “c”) in education that ever before. Parents in DISD have had choice since the beginning of desegregation here, when the court ordered the creation of magnet schools-schools in predominantly minority areas designed to unite kids of all backgrounds in a common interest. Choice exists also in minority-to-majority transfers that allow any child to move to any school, as long as he or she will be in the minority there.

In the private sector, new schools are popping up every year. Teacher Lynn Magid, who taught for the past several years at the tony preschool Meadowbrook, compiled a 464-page book called A Guide To Dallas Private Schools last year. She is already at work on a second edition.

Magid counsels parents to narrow the choice of schools to a minimum of three and investigate each thoroughly. “When you visit schools,” she says, “it becomes obvious that each of them has its own ’red star.’” That means some schools may slant toward fine arts and creativity-The Lamplighter School for example-while others may feature self-directed learning, as do Montessori programs such as the one at St. Alcuin’s. “You have to assess your child,” agrees Father Marton. “Is he outgoing? Introverted? Athletic? Precocious? Self-sufficient? Then you have to do some searching yourself, and ask yourself, What are my goals for my child? What do I want him or her to be?”

That soul-searching may be the hardest part. To develop the criteria by which you as a parent measure a school is to articulate what values are most important to you. Finding a school that will take those values and flesh them out through education is an arduous-if not impossible-process.

To compound the problem, most of us come armed with little more than a vision of The Way Things Were. We remember our own educational experiences, and we seek to recreate them. Never mind that our classes usually had 30-plus kids in them. And on top of that, the things that a school will show parents are not necessarily useful in evaluating how your child will fit in. What can you learn from somebody else”s test scores?

We recently visited St. Mark’s, a private school that our younger son, Brendan, had expressed an interest in. The lure of a campus endowed with every conceivable educational tool from a robotics laboratory to a radio station was powerful-especially in contrast with the public middle school, in which science “labs” are tables at the back of the room. The curriculum seemed designed either to ease or exacerbate my fears, depending on whether or not we chose (or were chosen) to attend. Japanese is required from third through sixth grade.

But we were more interested in the “hidden curriculum.” the school’s unwritten agenda. “Every school has a culture,” says Tory Agnich, a parent with two boys at St. Mark’s and one at Greenhill. “Sometimes the head of the school can even try to change the school’s direction, and he or she may not be successful. A school is 90 percent people. The trick is to get a sense of the common personality.”

The culture at St. Mark’s seems to hang on self-reliance. The message of student responsibility subtly invades every policy, every program, every paragraph in the school literature: We will guide your son to be responsible for his own behavior, to soar or to fall on his own efforts, to learn that life is what you make of it. (Brendan, of course doesn’t know that yet.) I find myself more drawn to the school’s philosophy than I had anticipated. The idea of taking responsibility for ourselves is not always evident in public school where a subtle message tells teachers and students alike that if a child fails, it is not his or her fault, but the system’s.

Private schools, especially those that charge large sums of money, really must articulate their cultures in order to win clients. A public school is under no such requirement (although the better ones do it anyway). No question, it is easier to pull off a common idea within a private enrollment that is by definition self-selective. But as we weigh the St. Mark’s decision, I feel a familiar mental tug-is homogeneity the school’s strength- or its weakness? I am reminded again of Father Marton’s words: “No school offers everything that you would want ideally for your child. You just have to keep choosing what are the most important things.”

JOHN AND DOTTIE DE LA GARZA ARE making the switch from public to parochial school this fall, having supported public education for the past decade and a half. The De La Garzas’ fourth child, Katharine, will enter seventh grade at Christ the King. “Public schools are a marvelous idea.” says John. “I’m a product of one. But I think the complex problems of the modern urban society have put demands on public schools that they can’t possibly live up to. What appeals to us most about parochial school? Two words: values and discipline.” Chris Baldridge, a parent with two girls at St. Rita’s, agrees that discipline is the key attraction-and she likes the uniforms, too. “Don’t laugh,” she says. “Uniforms bring out a child’s individuality rather than burying him beneath layers of fads.” According to Shaun Underhill, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, schools like Christ the King and St. Rita’s have experienced phenomenal growth in the last few years. “The return to Catholic school is in line with the push for family values,” says Magid. “Again, it’s a return to the way we remember being brought up.”

Developing a sustainable moral culture is more difficult in a public setting. A recent cover story in Newsweek, seeking to weigh in on the family values debate, asked ’Whose family?.. .Whose values?” I would add to that, “Whose school?”

Whose culture is dominant in a public school? Whose prize are the eyes trained on? Whose view of the world shapes how rigorous the courses are, how much accountability is placed on the students, how the teachers treat the kids, how the kids treat other kids? The breathtaking range of concerns voiced by parents at our middle school has been a case in point. Black parents feel unwelcome and slapped by stereotypes. Brown parents are hurt that little effort has been made to widen cultural understanding. Whites are frustrated by a lack of communication. Some parents complain of too little homework, others that there is too much.

Some politicians and pundits point to the competing strains within public education and say. “Ah, that’s where it all fell down.” In the 19th century, schools were an important part of the melting pot where the various flavors of society went in to be blended as Americans. As Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. writes in his haunting new book, The Disuniting of America, “Our public schools in particular have been the… great means of forming an American identity. What students are taught in schools affects the way they will thereafter see and treat other Americans, the way they will thereafter conceive the purposes of the republic.”

I have clung to the tenet that I want my kids to be exposed to all kinds of people. But I have been haunted by a conversation I had with a young black father who chose elite private schools tor his two children. “Yes, that’s good.” he said. “But such a setting can also reinforce subtle stereotypes. The black boy in my class is a weak student.” he hypothesized, “thus all blacks are weak students. The Mexican boy came to school dirty. Thus all Mexicans are dirty. He might never express it, or even be conscious of it.”

For years when people have asked me, “How can you have your children in DISD?” I have answered. “My children don’t ’go to DISD,’ they go to Preston Hollow.” As a parent in America’s public school system for the past eight years, I have never felt that my family was part of “A Nation at Risk.” Still, I was aware of the problems. And I always worried, if the problems get worse, will there still be programs that cater to my kids? More than once I have said to my husband, “If I were Marvin Edwards I would be concentrating all my energies on the sagging bottom half. The worst thing that can happen to those kids who aren’t being taught is that they will never have the skills to make an honest living. The worst thing that can happen to Colin Fitzgibbons is that he can transfer to Jesuit.”

Today we have a system that is shunned by blacks and whites, decried by rich and poor. Have we traded cultural congruity for a system that is so scattered that it serves no one?

WHEN I READ ABOUT THE EDISON Project, Chris Whittle’s plan to string a chain of newfangled schools across America, I was intrigued. Whittle’s planning group, which includes the recently recruited former president of Yale, “dismisses the notion that the only way to impart knowledge is to place a teacher in front of a small group,” according to Time. The schools will combine kids of multiple ages on campuses with day care built in. Flexible schedules will be aimed at accommodating working parents.

But the most radical ideas concern teachers. Because Whittle hopes both to make a profit and to attract and pay for premier education talent, teachers may comprise only 30 percent of the staff. To compensate for the relatively few teachers, the system would rely heavily on children tutoring other children, and on parent volunteers.

As I read this, I am struck by the realization that these ideas exist in my own public elementary school. “Cooperative learning,” where kids learn from each other by working in groups (i.e. tutoring each other), has been in place at Preston Hollow for several years. Next year the school plans to launch a pilot program that puts kids of several ages in one classroom.

So if these ideas already exist, why do we need to remake education from scratch? I pose this question to Hockaday’s headmistress, Liza Lee, and it is clear that she, too, finds the idea confounding. “I don’t think we do,” she says after considerable thought. “The American system is still an incredible system. You can find wonderful ideas, wonderful vision, in the public sector. Part of the problem is that it’s not collected anywhere. And it’s in the bureaucracies. The bureaucracy needs to be overhauled.”

I believe that the problem goes beyond even that. People have lost faith in the institution. School bureaucracies are perceived as immutable to change. The public school system just doesn’t cut it any more.

And where does that leave us parents? Confused, probably, says psychologist Jean-nie Falkner, whose two children were in Dallas public schools until she and her husband recently jumped off the fast track for the slower pace of Mississippi. Falkner believes that in spite of (or perhaps because of) the high levels of education attained by the current crop of parents, there is more anxiety than ever before about how kids are going to turn out. “Never before,” she says, “have I seen so many parents afraid of the future. They are terrified that their children won’t be able to cope.

With that in mind, I am back staring at the ceiling, hoping that the decisions we’ve made will give my kids a jump start on life. I still have more questions than answers. And I am confident that I have happened upon parent- hood’s one truly common bond.

Schools you may not know about

Cistercian Preparatory School One Can almost hear Gregorian chanting at this college prep school for boys in Irving. Cistercian may be the best academic bang for your buck in the Dallas area. Tuition ranges are below those of many of the other top-tier prep schools, and the academic rigor is every bit as demanding. The average Cistercian score on the math SAT is close to 700.

L.L. Hotchkiss Montessori L.L.

Hotchkiss in northeast Dallas may be the hottest ticket in DISD-there’s a three-to four-year waiting list for the lower grades, though that may abate somewhat after a second Montessori campus opens this fall. Students have to meet the national average on standardized tests and be working at grade-level to be admitted.

Bishop Lynch High School Unlike the better-known Catholic high schools of Ursuline and Jesuit, Bishop Lynch, on Ferguson [toad in northeast Dallas, offers a coed setting. Parents are pushed hard to become involved in their kid’s education-workshops are even offered to improve parenting skills. Students take religion courses in the Old and New Testament as well as Catholic doctrine, and they are required to perform a certain amount of community service.

Fairhill School This school for children with learning disabilities is lesser-known than its competitors, the Shelton School and The Winston School, but rates high with parents. The classes are small-for academic subjects, the teacher-student ratio is 1 to 7. One popular extra: a sports program.

Fort Worth Country Day School According to Lynn Magid, author of A Guide to Dallas Private Schools, one of the best college preparatory private schools in the Metroplex is Fort Worth Country Day School. The school offers kindergarten through high school to both boys and girls. The campus wants for little-it has a ballet studio and a challenge course in addition to its extensive academic and athletic facilities.

Alex W. Spence Talented and Gifted AcademySomething good is happening at Alex W. Spence, a DISD middle school near Central and Haskell that has an uncanny knack for producing future National Merit scholars. Only 80 gifted students are accepted in each grade level-often from more than 500 applicants. Admittance is based on standardized test scores and the district’s own screening methods.

Other Dallasites and Their Choices

“Both of my children have been at the East Dallas Community School. Like a lot of families with two working parents, our kids have been in an academic setting since they were 18 months old. With East Dallas, it isn’t so much an issue of private or public but the school’s philosophy, the multicultural environment, the involvement of parents, the student-teacher ratio and the Montessori method. That school is a testament to what can happen when those things are present along with an excellent provider like [headmistress] Terry Ford. -James A. Washington, publisher,

The Dallas Weekly

“We have gone the public school route, and I stand by my choice. Both my husband and I believe that our personalities are largely shaped by our experiences in public school. The teachers I had were very committed to what are really the basic tenets of American life. We wanted the same for our daughter, and so far Lakewood Elementary is providing that. The other thing is I’ve found the teachers at Lakewood are really committed to public school-a lot of them have made a conscious decision to stay there.

-Regina Montoya, attorney,

Godwin & Carlton

“Though we pursued private school at one point in our older daughter’s life, we decided we just could not transform ourselves into private school people. Though our experiences [in DISD] have been happy and unhappy by turns every single year, I think it’s the only way in this country right now. The problems we have in the United States that we’re trying to fix require that we know about people other than ourselves. One of those problems is, in fact, the type of isolationism that is evidenced in private schools.” -Pat Weiss, community volunteer

and working mother

“We basically moved to Dallas so that my son could go to Jesuit, where I went to school. What the Jesuits are able to do, it seems, is instruct the whole man-that means give them morals, give them ethics, give them athletics, along with the academics. The integration of those things-especially now-I believe, is a rare thing for a tribe to pass on. Basically, I think that a kid’s job, so to speak, from ages 14 to 18 is to learn that they can be counted on, to learn what happens when your name is called.”

-Kit Carson, writer/director


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