Education: Hard Lessons

At the West Dallas Community School, poor black students are taught a classical curriculum in a disciplined environment—and these kids are outscoring their peers. Here’s what your elementary school can learn from one of the poorest private schools in the

What the poorest private school in the nation can teach your child’s elementary school.

GALLAGHER STREET, IN WEST DALLAS, has the look of a place that has given up. Porches lay collapsed into the earth. Automobile parts rust on dirt lawns like limbs thrown from a wreck. Men linger with nothing to do, their eyes nearly dead but for suspicion. This is a dismal spot, a sorry stretch of city that knows blood and futility the way a prince knows privilege.

But at the end of the block flies a flag. It is black and red and flaps on a pole high above a lovely brick house, the only brick house in the neighborhood. “Texas Tech,” it reads, like an act of defiance. A second insignia has been stuck to the glass window in the front door, which is enclosed in an iron cage of protective grillwork.

The three Mullins children live here: Miranda, 10; Mahogany, 8; and Preston Jr., 6. Preston wants to be a preacher someday. When they are home in the evenings and on weekends, they have to stay inside or in the backyard. They are not allowed to ride their bikes in the street. There used to be a crack house next door, before the city tore it down.

“But [the drug users] just went one house down,” says Lynette Mullins, the children’s mother. “It is infested here.” Her eldest son, a defensive tackle and business student at Tech, is responsible for the flag.

“Our neighbors on the other side sit in their yard and drink all day and night,” Lynette says. “The guys down the street have music booming, with cuss-word songs on,” her husband Preston adds. “It’s a constant battle keeping the kids from seeing what we don’t want them to see.”

But they aren’t fighting alone. The Mullins children have a secret weapon in a modest concrete building that sits on the edge of the dried-up Trinity River, just five minutes east. The small but thriving outpost is called the West Dallas Community School. The K-8 school serves the people who live in one of the nation’s 10 poorest places—where the average household income is $10,000—but its 100 students consistently score better than 85 percent of the national population in mathematics and better than 75 percent in language arts. Last fall, it sent its first four graduates to some of the best high schools in Dallas.

WDCS achieves all of this not by teaching its students how to take standardized tests but by giving them a classical education nearly unheard of in this sort of setting. And WDCS does it with discipline.

Everything stops when headmaster Tom Neuhoff Jr. walks into the classroom. The teacher pauses mid-lesson; the class jumps up and faces the door.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Neuhoff,” the children say in unison and with gusto.

“Good afternoon, Class 3,” replies Neuhoff, who, if not pleased with the effort, may request a second greeting before the group sits. One gets the impression, though, that the first go generally gets the job done.

Neuhoff is a graduate of St. Mark’s and Stanford. He got his law degree from SMU. He began by volunteering at the school, teaching first-graders how to read, but eventually left his career in law to become to the school’s headmaster two years ago.

“We shepherd them,” Neuhoff says. “I watched a first-grader tell his teacher, ’I’m giving you this apple because you are the first teacher who has ever loved me.’”

The teachers actually pray for each student by name, one-fifth of the enrollment each morning. Their philosophy is to get to the kids early, drum into them the morals, manners, and habits they will need to thrive in the world, challenge them with rigorous academics, and imbue in their young souls a spirituality that is hoped will ground them for life. Mainly, the school gives these kids the security and hope they don’t get elsewhere.

Once they feel secure, Neuhoff says, the education comes. The curriculum is classical, meaning the kids study Latin, read original texts, and memorize and recite poetry. Students are generally one year ahead of their grade level.

The vision for this unique education comes from a man who himself is a product of West Dallas’ public schools and housing projects. Arrvel Wilson Jr. remembers telling his wife Eletha, after reading about the deteriorating projects, that somebody should do something about it. “Her response was,” Wilson says, “’Why don’t we go and do something?’”

So, in 1978, after thinking he would never return to the old neighborhood, he started the West Dallas Evangelistic Outreach, and in 1981, he founded the West Dallas Community Church. By 1995, with support from North Dallas’ Providence Christian School of Texas and some generous citizens, the school was established. Today, the names of the advisors and directors sitting on the school’s boards attest to the clarity of Wilson’s vision and the conviction with which he recruits: John Carpenter III, Norm Sonju, Robert Murchison, Dr. James Beckett III, Sarah Perot.

Wilson says the community is a bit more economically stable now than it was when he grew up in it. Across the street from the school, Habitat for Humanity, in a partnership with KB Homes, is building 300 new homes where the projects in Greenleaf once stood. But the problems are the same, he says, and endemic. “The rooftops may be changing, but the home life isn’t,” he says. “The hearts are still hard, the value systems are still the same, the high-school dropout rate is still more than 60 percent.”

So to reach the kids, teachers don’t just have to engage their minds. They have to overcome their environment. “The teachers have to do some parenting—and some counter-parenting,” says Sara Capps, dean of instruction. In most communities, parents impart character and a passion for learning in their kids. Here, it often works the other way around.

“We have kids who have impact on their parents,” Wilson says. “The kids bring them to counseling, they bring them to church.”

The teachers expect commitment from the parents. Because nearly all tuition is paid by corporate and private donations, that commitment has to come with their time. Parents have to read to their children and to help with homework, as the Mullinses do each night after they get home from work. Some understand the importance of this involvement; some don’t. Some parents recognize what their kids are gaining by attending the school; others see it as a safe place to drop them for the day.

Expectations are also made clear to the students. They know what is required. They know the consequences if they are not prepared. “They want to stay on pace with the class, and they don’t want us to think that they are not doing their work,” Preston says.

While students from wealthier districts might perceive tough standards as simply that, these kids clearly interpret them as something more. Many are nurtured at school in ways they’ve never experienced at home. On a short walk from his office to the gymnasium, Neuhoff gets three hugs.

Finally, students come to have expectations of each other. Miranda, Mahogany, and Preston Jr. attended a local public school before starting at WDCS two years ago. While the education was clearly inferior, the Mullinses were more fearful about what their kids could learn from their classmates than what they weren’t learning from their teachers. The social pressures were enormous, they say, and destructive.

“There were many kids who grew up with drugs in their homes, who used vulgar language, who fought,” Lynette says. “Worse, the teachers wouldn’t call the parents of these kids because they knew the parents would go off on them. So they let the children be, and my kids would come home and tell me.”

Now, when they come home, they talk about reading history and reciting poetry. They talk about respecting one another and about scriptures. And they talk about football, especially when their big brother wins.

The Mullins family is thinking about moving out of the neighborhood, a little farther west, maybe, in a year or two. It will take a bit longer to get to school. For now, though, their flag flies proudly over Gallagher Street.

Pamela Gwyn Kripke lives in Dallas. She writes a syndicated column, and her work has appeared in the New York Times, among other publications.

Photo by Jason Schlichenmaier

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