Public defenders

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

Across the meeting room is Liz Zornes, a vice president of the Dallas Council of PTAs and wife of Ken Zornes, a Dallas school trustee who works full time as an administrator of a southern Dallas Episcopal school.

Despite their Episcopal ties, Liz Zornes says they've both "always been public-school supporters." Three of their five children graduated from DISD, and the youngest two, who started in private schools, are in Dallas high schools. Academics fueled that choice, she says. "The math they were doing at Withers [Elementary] was basically ahead of [their private school]." We said, 'Why are we paying all this money?'"

Like other refugees, Zornes says diversity is a major reason why her family supports public education. "I know it sounds trite," she says, "but we really want our kids to go to a school that reflects the diversity of the nation." Conversely, she believes that many private-school parents duck DISD not because of academics or discipline, but for the age-old reason of prejudice. "Quite frankly, a lot of it is a minority issue," she says. "They won't tell you that, but I've heard it often enough that I know it's true."

Kes Gilhome
What are they smoking? The weed of truth, say private-to-public families like the Looneys. Sandra and Mike Looney took two of their daughters--15-year-old Kate, far left, and 17-year-old Sloan, far right--out of private school and put them in DISD. (The youngest, Cece, 11, is still in private school.) "I'm not saying it's right for every kid," says mom Sandra, "but it's right for mine."
What are they smoking? The weed of truth, say private-to-public families like the Looneys. Sandra and Mike Looney took two of their daughters--15-year-old Kate, far left, and 17-year-old Sloan, far right--out of private school and put them in DISD. (The youngest, Cece, 11, is still in private school.) "I'm not saying it's right for every kid," says mom Sandra, "but it's right for mine."

Race, however, is still a concern of (mostly white) private-school defectors. Principals talk about how 40 different languages are spoken at their schools, but many North Dallas schools essentially fit into the "one-third, one-third, one-third" mold, a balancing act that signifies they are a third white, a third Hispanic, and a third African-American.

In Dallas' not too distant past, white families would flee in droves whenever black enrollment at a school exceeded the 50 percent mark (Hispanics weren't really part of the equation yet). Today, similar considerations remain. Accelerated classes often enroll a disproportionate number of white children (mostly from higher-income families), constituting what some term a "school within a school."

And some parents admit they moved from within the boundaries of Dan D. Rogers Elementary in East Dallas, citing the school's dearth of white children, its high number of apartment families, who move often and are less likely to be active in school affairs, and unpopular year-round schedule.

Still, the white parents say they're trying to make a difference through outreach to make PTAs more diverse, scholarship drives, and efforts to assist minority children in getting into higher-level classes. And they're conscious they will be integral in a campaign to pass a $1.6 billion bond package, especially since many older white homeowners admit in confidence they aren't thrilled about supporting a mostly "minority" district (DISD is about 9 percent white, down from about 50 percent in 1971).

Meanwhile, Liz Zornes believes that the "white flight" phenomenon continues even today as families depart the district once their children reach school age. The entire ritual disappoints her. "I think one reason why so many people move out to the suburbs is they don't want to be part of an urban district," she says. "Instead of staying and working together, they've given up on it, and I think that's unfortunate."


Ray and Donna Flowers remember the frank words of Johnlyn Mitchell, principal of North Dallas' Franklin Middle School (and former principal of Kramer Elementary) that mind-altering day two years ago when they first toured the school. "I feel sorry for you," they remember Mitchell saying. "You've been fed a line of bad press. You've been fed parent talk and rumor. In reality, we have a superior school. Our only competition in math is St. Mark's [Episcopal School]."

Like other parents, the Flowers were impressed by the politeness of the school's students, the variety of course selections (several pre-AP classes are offered), and by the dedication of the school's principal. "We visited her," Ray says, "and were pretty much blown away." Adds Donna: "She knew when we went to see her that we were misinformed on very narrow information. She cleaned up the air very quickly."

Why did the Flowers move their two kids from a private, religious setting to Franklin? To them, the school's strong diversity--only about 20 percent of the students are white--was an asset, as was its largeness, considering their son's social nature. "The smallness of private schools ultimately became a liability," Ray says. "Can you imagine only being 13 and having 20 people in your class?"

Today, the family is fully immersed in public-school culture. Donna Flowers is president of the school's PTA, their son starts this fall as a freshman at Hillcrest High (which sits on the same block as Franklin), and their daughter starts this year at Franklin. According to Donna and Ray, the children's private-school tutelage didn't give them an advantage at Franklin. "They had to work extra hard to catch up," Donna says.

And both parents say they relish the gratification that active participation at Franklin provides. Ray is part of the school's "Dad's Club," a handyman group that helps fix up classrooms and common areas. He'll never forget his role at the school's eighth-grade graduation, where he cooked more than 600 hot dogs. Mom is amazed at her own efforts as well. "For me to go from not being involved to being PTA president of a school with 900 students is pretty dramatic," she says.

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