EDUCATION Do Private School Parents Have Rights?

THOUGH THE CERTIFIED LETTER FROM Greenhill School arrived at their home on May 10, Linda and Truett Majors decided not to tell their 8-year-old daughter the bad news until the school year ended. But Julia’s third-grade classmates got to her first. “Your mother’s trying to kick out a .teacher,” they taunted her. “Your mother wants more homework.”

Troubled, Julia raised the issue at the dinner table. “Am I going back to Greenhill next year?” she asked her parents. Linda and Truett looked at each other. Linda explained that, no, Julia wasn’t going back to Greenhill for the fourth grade. The headmaster, Peter Briggs, had kicked her out.

Linda stressed to her daughter that it was not because of- anything Julia had done. It was because Linda had been asking other third-grade parents if they had concerns about the school. “Do you believe it wasn’t because of you?” Truett asked Julia. The blue-eyed, blonde-haired pixie looked at her parents and wagged her flattened palm- maybe, maybe not.

Linda and Truett were dismayed. What had begun as a search for information, a desire to find out what kind of education Julia was getting in return for their $7,500 tuition, had ended in their daughter being tossed out of what they had been assured was the best private school in Texas. Instead of answers, they were left with more questions, chief among them: What rights do parents of private school kids have to question what was going on at the school? The answer, it appeared, was none.

Obviously, private schools operate in a realm different from that of public schools. Teachers and principals in public schools are accountable to their school board, which is ultimately accountable to parents. This year, the Texas legislature voted to include a “parems list of rights” in the Texas Education Code, which lays out exactly what rights public school parents have, such as the right to request the addition of a specific academic class if there is sufficient interest, and the right to review teaching materials and have full information about events at school.

No such agency does that for private schools. In theory, administrators of private schools answer to a board of directors, but often the members of such boards are chosen for their fund-raising ability and leave most other matters to the headmasters. And though’ they are paying anywhere from $6,000 to $ 12,000 a year for the privilege of sending their offspring to these prestigious schools, parents who have endured rigorous admissions tests and lengthy waiting lists may be reluctant to rock the boat.

“Public school parents act a lot more enti-tled than those in private schools,” says Dr. Berat McMillan, a Dallas psychiatrist. “In private school, even people who have reasonable requests might be reluctant to speak up. They can kick you out. In public school, they have to take you.”

McMillan’s three children all attended private schools until about a year ago, when the oldest hit die teen years. She moved them to public school in Richardson to save money and to expose them to real-life situations that might not be available at the small private school they attended. But an earlier experience at another elite school had shown McMillan just where she fell in the pecking order. When her oldest child was 3, he came home one day complaining that his “wee-wee” hurt. She looked; his penis was blue.

She took her son to a child psychiatrist, who used play therapy to get the boy to tell what had happened. He told her a bigger boy had slammed a toilet lid on his penis.

McMillan talked to the child’s teacher, who admitted they had had a problem with older children picking on littler ones. She made an appointment to talk with the school’s headmistress. When the administrator came out of her office, McMillan explained why she had come. “That couldn’t possibly have happened here,” the headmistress said, She spun on her heel, darted back into her office, and slammed the door.

The McMillans wrote a letter to the school’s board, but got no response. They took their two children out of the school and sent them to another private school. Then they got a response: Bills demanding payment for the rest of the school year. They refused to pay.

Dawn Collins (not her real name) had a very different problem when her son was in the third grade at a local private school. Other parents had warned her about a certain third-grade teacher. Unfortunately, her son Charlie (not his real name) ended up in her class.

“She was a good teacher academically, but she was very demeaning and belittling to Charlie,” Collins says. “Of course, you’re relying on the child’s report. But if even 10 percent of what he said was true, it was inappropriate.”

Charlie began to hate school and often came home in tears. When Collins talked to other parents whose children were in the class, she learned that they had problems too, but no one was willing to speak up. She went to the teacher, but the demeaning behavior continued. The teacher insisted that Charlie had attention deficit disorder-a problem none of his other teachers had ever mentioned.

Both Collins and her husband talked to the headmaster, who reassured them that everything would work out. It didn’t. “Charlie’s self-respect had died,” Collins says. “He became very negative.” They had another meeting, this time with the headmaster, the teacher, and Charlie. “But they still didn’t deal with the issues,” Collins says.

They decided to move Charlie to St. Mark’s School of Texas. Though his academic credentials were fine, he was rejected based on derogatory remarks made by the third-grade teacher. Stymied, they decided to see what happened in the fourth grade. That year went very well. Charlie got glowing remarks from his teacher and was accepted at St. Mark’s, where he now attends fifth grade.

Peter Briggs, headmaster at the Greenhill School, says that the potential for conflict at a private school is substantial because a family’s most precious asset is its children. “We’re talking about well-educated parents,” Briggs says. “They have high expectations for their school and for the education for which they are paying a good amount of money.”

D Magazine learned of the Majors controversy at Greenhill when we received an anonymous package containing a letter Truett Majors had written to Green h ill’s 64-member board of directors, as well as the certified letter Briggs had sent to the Majorses. In his letter, Briggs accused Linda Majors of “systematic attempts to foment distrust and controversy” among parents, trustees, and staff. He returned their deposit check of $1,030 and said Julia could not attend Greenhill the next year.

The Majorses say they did not send the letters to D, but they agreed to talk about what happened at the school. Headmaster Briggs says that their letter accurately portrays what happened, but adds that the Majorses have put their “spin” on events.

Linda insists that she and her husband are not “troublemakers,” as they were portrayed by Briggs. But as Julia’s year in third grade dragged on, they had some very real concerns that were never addressed by school administrators.

Truett, who has a doctorate in experimental physics and does mathematical analysis for a financial securities firm, and his family moved to Dallas from New York in the spring of 1994. They liked the reputation of Greenhill, which has about 1,200 students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. School admissions counselors made a great deal out of Greenhill’s “horizontally and vertically integrated curriculum.” Impressed, the Majorses signed a contract and paid their non-refundable deposit of $1,000. “The critical mistake I made was not asking what they were going to teach,” Truett says.

Since no textbooks are used in grades K-3, a few weeks before school opened, the Majorses asked Carol Morrow, the headmistress of the lower school, for a written third-grade curriculum. Weeks into the school year, they finally received a written curriculum for first through fourth grades. But it was very generic. “You couldn’t identify one grade from another,” Truett says. There was no timeline laying out what the students would be doing and when. Julia was not bringing much work home. ” They told us not to pay attention to their homework anyway,” Truett says. “It’s just supposed to gel them used to doing homework.”

Truett’s scientific, methodical brain wasn’t satisfied. At an October meeting for parents, Truett told Morrow (hat he couldn’t tel! the difference between the third- and fourth-grade curriculum. For example, each said geometry.

“Geometry can range from Euclidean geometry to Rumanian geometry,” Truett said, “Can you be more specific?”

“Why do you want to know?” Morrow asked him.

Truett says he was so shocked by her response that he had trouble formulating an articulate reply. He wanted to know what academic work lay ahead for his child, so that he could reinforce it at home.

According to Truett, Morrow’s reply was blunt: “Well, maybe Greenhill is not the right school for your child.”

Meanwhile, Julia was struggling in some ways. She came home in tears after failing a math test. As Truett talked to his daughter, he realized she didn’t understand the concept behind multiplication. Over one weekend, Truett taught her the concepts and drilled her on the times table. She made a 96 or 100 on her next test. “Sometimes,” Truett says, “you just have to memorize.”

The Majorses’ concerns grew, but in March, they paid their deposit of $1,030 for the next year. About the same time, Linda began talking with other third-grade parents and was surprised to learn they shared some of her questions about the Greenhill way. Linda wanted to get some of the third-grade parents together for a meeting with Morrow. She and Truett decided Linda should first survey the third-grade parents about their concerns, then call a meeting to address the issues mentioned by the most parents.

On May 3, 1995, Linda called about 50 Greenhill parents. She spoke to about 35, leaving messages on answering machines tor the others, explaining that they were having some problems academically with Greenhill, If enough parents had the same concerns, she said, they would all go in to see Morrow-together. “We’ll storm the castle,” she told several parents jokingly. It was a figure of speech she would come to regret.

From those who were home, Linda says, she got an earful: The first six parents she contacted said they were unhappy, and 30 out of the 35 reported serious concerns.

But one parent she didn’t speak to played her message for Peter Briggs. “He went ballistic,” Linda says, “They were describing it as the most scandalous thing that had ever happened at Greenhill.” Another woman called and praised her for taking action, but told her she was going about it all wrong. ” I’ve learned to play the game,” the mother told Linda. “You don’t make a fuss, you don’t upset people.”

On May 5, Linda met with Morrow and the assistant headmaster, Linda started out by apologizing for upsetting anyone. “All I’m trying to do is get a better education for my child,” Linda told the administrators. She went through a list other concerns.

Linda says that Morrow told her: “Well, I think Greenhill is not for your child.”

The administrators told Linda that she had been “subversive” and had angered many people. Peter Briggs was dunking of revoking their contract. Linda was so furious that her body was shaking. In her mind, the suggested punishment in no way fit the crime. Even a child who had bullied Julia and other third graders had not been expelled.

On May 10, the Majorses received the certified letter from Briggs, saying that although he and Morrow had “extended themselves repeatedly” to the Majorses, the two had fomented division and mistrust, so he was ending their contract. Julia would not be accepted for the fourth grade.

“I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach,” Linda says. “I was so humiliated.”

The wife of a friendly board member recommended that Linda write to all 64 members outlining their version of events, and mail copies to all of the third-grade parents. They did, but failed to hear from a single board member-or from any of the third-grade parents who had expressed concerns during Linda’s telephone survey.

True? wrote a letter to the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest in Tulsa, which accredits private schools, but got back only a brief reply saying that officials were sorry to hear of his unhappy experience. Truett says four lawyers assured him that he had an excellent breach of contract case. But, if he won, did he really want Julia to go back to Greenhill?

“It was now a hostile atmosphere,” Truett says. “You don’t want to subject your child to that. As a parent, you’re stuck,” Julia is now going to the Dallas International School, where, except for English, all subjects arc taught in French and use the Mission Laique system.

The contract that parents sign with Greenhill is typical of private school agreements. It addresses financial issues but gives no guidelines as to what happens when a dispute arises. That’s true of the contracts at Hockaday and St. Mark’s as well.

In the upper school at Hockaday, disputes are often resolved through the advisory system. Each girl has an advisor, a teacher, or an administrator who acts as an advocate. “If it can’t be resolved at an advisory level, then they may talk to the chairman of the department,” says Vige Barrie, director of public relations.

At St. Mark’s, headmaster Arnold Holtberg says that few disputes work their way up the system to his level each year, “The person who can best solve the problem is the person involved with the student,” Holtberg says. “If there is an inability to reach a solution, the person next in line of command will be involved. “

Briggs acknowledges that every year, seven or eight conflicts wind up in his Greenhill office, where he must make a ruling. These rarely involve anything that happens in the classroom. Most,often, he says, the disagreements arise from philosophical differences about education or athletics. Though he declined to talk specifically about the Majorses’ case, Briggs said it was the first time in his 20 years as a headmaster that he had terminated a contract because of the parents’ actions.

Perhaps that isn’t so surprising. Dallas private schools enjoy a seller’s market. Greenhill takes only 29 percent of those students who apply for admittance. Most grade levels in most of the schools have a waiting list. Maybe parents worry that if they express too many concerns, they will be forced to find another private school, perhaps one with a less-than -stellar reputation, (Or, heaven forbid, they might have to put their child in a public school.)

But: when conflicts arise, someone has to deal with them. Schools are “fragile” communities, Briggs says. “They have to be held together by a mutual bond of trust. If that relationship is jeopardized by mistrust, suspicion, or open hostility to teachers, which was the case here, I feel I would have to step in-after attempting to communicate with the aggrieved parties. And I believe we made every reasonable effort to communicate.” The Majorses don’t agree, pointing out that Briggs never met with Linda and met with Truett only once before the blow-up occurred.

Truett says all he and Linda wanted was accountability-to know what their child would be taught and when. ” They expect you not to inquire,” Truett says. “They say, ’We’re the top school in Texas. Give us your money and don’t ask questions.’ “

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