Public defenders

A surprising number of parents are shunning the 'burbs, pulling their kids out of private schools, and embracing DISD

Indeed, while the transplants praise their public schools with astounding effusiveness, almost all of them report that friends and neighbors are aghast. "When you tell your friends your child goes to a public school, they almost look down their noses on you," says Kathy Wine, whose daughter is a sophomore at Hillcrest High. "All my friends at Christ the King thought we were absolutely crazy when they heard we were leaving."

Such defections arrive as ire among white families over the tumultuous desegregation battles of the '60s and '70s fade into memory (busing students to achieve racial quotas ended years ago). Plus, DISD has reopened at least five North Dallas schools over 15 years, including Withers, Nathan Adams, Kramer, Dealey, and DeGolyer elementaries, to accommodate surging enrollment. (The district has also opened one brand-new North Dallas school, Anne Frank Elementary.)

To fill these schools are legions of young homeowners who have gradually replaced elderly residents. Families with more modest incomes that moved into previously singles-only apartment complexes (pried open by the 1984 Federal Housing Law) have also played a role in the revitalization.

Ray and Donna Flowers took their children--John, 14, and Katz, 12--out of a private religious school and placed them in public schools. "We were one of those misguided couples," Ray says.
Ray and Donna Flowers took their children--John, 14, and Katz, 12--out of a private religious school and placed them in public schools. "We were one of those misguided couples," Ray says.
Kathy and Bill Wine had found it difficult to explain their decision to private-school parents when 10-year-old Annabelle, left, and Hayley, 15, went public.
Kathy and Bill Wine had found it difficult to explain their decision to private-school parents when 10-year-old Annabelle, left, and Hayley, 15, went public.

Nationally, interest in public education is also rising, notwithstanding relentless criticism of public education and clamor for tax-funded private-school tuition vouchers and other alternatives to public schools. Nine out of 10 school-age children--more than 46 million students--attend public schools, a share experts say is slowly rising.

In spite of all this, it's difficult to say private-to-public migrations are increasing, since hard statistics are rare and strong demand for Dallas private schools, many of which have legendary waiting lists, continues unabated.

But the public-school arrivals are significant since they signify that people are willing to buck the DISD-flight trend; their actions, in fact, could help begin to repair DISD's sorry public image and lure skeptical residents back to Dallas public schools. They could also aid in shredding one of education's most imposing dogmas. That is, as Johnlyn Mitchell, principal of Franklin Middle School, puts it, "If you pay for it, it's supposed to be better."


Hosannas from the happily converted, however, also prompt nagging questions that go to the heart of criticism toward the school system: How can the DISD that the Looneys applaud be the same system denounced for its abysmally high dropout rate? Or the same one where fewer than 40 percent of the students are up to grade level, where reading scores refuse to budge after years of pedagogical interventions? How much of this shoddy record is the fault of DISD, and how much is the fault of AWOL parents?

Such questions stir a thick gumbo of frustration and recriminations that aren't likely to be settled soon. Are any schools getting unfair advantages come budget time? Administrators at schools that attract private-school defectors staunchly insist they make do with the same lean budgets everyone else gets, although they admit their good reputations help retain top teachers (which means other schools get newer, inexperienced teachers, as well as castaways).

They also benefit from committed legions of parents, who help buy extras not available from stingy public-school budgets. Such activism surely acts as a powerful stimulus on student performance.

And that's probably the rub in a district where in some cases less than 1 percent of registered voters have cast ballots in trustee elections. "In these big bureaucracies and highly centralized systems," says Linda McNeil, an education professor at Rice University in Houston, "the key to strong public schools is having parents and faculty work together on behalf of children."

For now, the contradiction attracts withering scrutiny. It was a recent Dallas Business Journal editorial, published shortly after the school board's messy ouster on July 5 of short-serving Superintendent Bill Rojas, that set a new standard for anti-DISD invective.

Its headline bluntly exclaimed: "Solution for DISD: Abandon It." Urging families to boycott DISD, the editorial called on business and church leaders to fund private schools rather than aid the district. "Why hand more gasoline to the arsonists?" quipped Journal publisher Huntley Paton, who worried that DISD's bad image was causing Dallas to lose corporate relocations. "DISD doesn't need more attention or money...It needs to be stopped."

Public-school defenders cringe at such condemnations, members of the Looney household included. With fervor equal to DISD's strongest critics, they praise Woodrow for its high standards and strong community grounding, and they say critics like Paton are painting an erroneous picture. "I don't see that [Sloan has] digressed in the quality of the education," says Mike Looney, a Woodrow alumnus of the school's class of 1967.

Even so, Looney admits he, too, formerly held local public schools in low esteem. A few years ago, he says, he simply couldn't imagine his offspring following in his footsteps to his alma mater. "There seemed to be such turmoil," he says. "I thought, 'Woodrow's not the same, DISD's not the same.' You see the stuff on TV and all the fighting and screaming, and I didn't want my daughter to be a part of that."

Now, he's been converted back and argues that families interested in public education should fear not, because well-publicized shenanigans at DISD headquarters have little effect on daily business at Woodrow.

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