Public defenders

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

Others are even more perturbed by DISD bashing. "Brainwashing" is the term suggested at a table of five PTA presidents, all but one of whom are private-school defectors, to characterize the process in which parents become convinced the public schools are not an option to consider. (Despite such brash talk, the parents are quick to clarify that they aren't out to bash private schools. Rather, they say their choice was the right one for their child and want other school-hunters to broaden their horizons similarly.)

The PTA chiefs are present at a June meeting of the Dallas Council of PTAs, which represents parent-teacher groups at 218 Dallas schools. About 40 PTA chiefs (mostly women) are present at the dinner meeting, held in a meeting center for nonprofits near downtown, to discuss ways for PTAs to raise their voice in DISD affairs. Recently, the group's efforts paid off after district honchos approved a $660,000 contract to fix the dilapidated roof at East Oak Cliff's Roosevelt High School. And council president William Robinson was named to the superintendent search committee.

The women at this table, who embody part of an informal network of private-school defectors, represent Woodrow Wilson High, Hillcrest High, Franklin Middle School, and Nathan Adams Elementary. Two of them only recently made the private-to-public switch, while the other two did so early in their children's education. Linda Bishkin, Nathan Adams' PTA president whose son is a second-grader there (he once attended a Methodist pre-school), crows about converting her real estate agent from private education to Nathan Adams. "We just love it there," she gushes. "We feel our child is getting as good an education as any private school."

Johnlyn Mitchell, principal at Franklin Middle School, says she and other DISD educators are working to dispel the private-school notion that "if you pay for it, it's supposed to be better."
Johnlyn Mitchell, principal at Franklin Middle School, says she and other DISD educators are working to dispel the private-school notion that "if you pay for it, it's supposed to be better."
Hillcrest High principal Vickie Richie, a 24-year DISD veteran, says the top concern of parents, weaned on media reports of DISD chaos, is school discipline.
Hillcrest High principal Vickie Richie, a 24-year DISD veteran, says the top concern of parents, weaned on media reports of DISD chaos, is school discipline.

Picking at taco salad dinners, the moms complain about DISD's facilities crunch. Better wiring is needed for technology, one mother says; others complain of how surging enrollment has left a preponderance of portable classrooms and crowded cafeterias. The PTA chiefs are hopeful that voters will eventually approve a $1.6 billion bond package so DISD can fix and expand its aging physical plant. Convincing the voters, many of whom are still irate over a long-running FBI fraud investigation--as well as recurrent bouts of bad behavior from past superintendents, the school board, and confrontational community activists--is another matter.

The moms also grouse about a May 16 Dallas Morning News article that profiled a North Dallas family who switched from public school to private school. "What about people who have gone the other way?" asks one PTA matriarch, who says she called the newspaper to suggest such a story, to no avail.

It's obvious the mothers are immensely proud of their public-school ties. Sitting at the table's center is Linda Callicutt, last year's PTA president at Hillcrest, whose (now graduated) daughter transferred from private school after first grade (her younger son has always attended public schools). Callicutt faults her daughter's first school for lagging math instruction, a common complaint among private-school defectors. In contrast, she says her son's math foundation at Pershing Elementary "was very strong."

The amount of volunteer muscle the Callicutts and other families have expended at Hillcrest is extraordinary. For instance, her husband and son Chris, a senior and ace baseball player, regularly groom the baseball field at no cost, a service much appreciated by administrators at the cash-strapped school, which logged more than 9,000 volunteer hours last year. And Hillcrest parents chipped in to build a $350,000 state-of-the-art track field. (The city parks department and DISD have pitched in at least $150,000 for the project.)

Callicutt says she doesn't mind the uncompensated toil. Rather, she's grateful for the opportunity to participate, which she claims private schools often don't allow to the same degree. "I really think that's better for the kids," she says. (Alicia Waggoner, Callicutt's fellow defector and PTA mom at Hillcrest, describes the supposed private-school attitude toward parent involvement another way: "We know what we're doing, and if it doesn't work for you, we've got a list of people it will work for.")

Ironically, Callicutt the public-school booster is also a real estate agent with the Ebby Halliday firm, part of a profession blamed for undermining public schools. She admits that some of her colleagues have sold DISD short in the past, but says she's worked to change their outlooks. Callicutt, however, mostly blames the media for DISD's shabby image. "What most people know about the school system," she says, "is what they see on the TV with [Channel 8 reporter] Brett Shipp, or what they read in the Observer on 'who really runs DISD,' or what they read in The Dallas Morning News."

She and other parents suspect that embattled public schools come out worse in the press because private schools don't have to comply with the demands of public disclosure. "Who has gone in to Greenhill and Hockaday [two North Dallas private schools] and put them under the microscope like the media has done with DISD?"

Meanwhile, Callicutt, a 1970 graduate of Dallas' W.T. White High School, thinks her children are getting a better education than she did. She points to what she says is a more rigorous curriculum: As part of Franklin Middle School's acclaimed math program, her son took algebra in seventh grade; at Hillcrest, he took pre-calculus in ninth grade, and calculus as a junior, as well as four other Advanced Placement classes. "I only made it through trig," Callicutt says.

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