By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Sitting in the principal's office at nearby Preston Hollow Elementary (Franklin was temporarily closed this summer after a suspicious fire damaged a science lab), Johnlyn Mitchell takes pains to deny she has a specific "pitch" for parents. Rather, the school sells itself. "If they take the time," she says, "they are going to be really pleased at what they find in many of our public schools. Parents who keep their children in the public schools are going to be sure their kids are competitive."
She points to the 17 eighth-graders who last year took Geometry I (following Algebra I, offered in the seventh grade); the school's strong showing in math, science, and spelling competitions; and the 15 to 20 applications the school receives for every open teaching slot. On top of that, the school boasts an expansive arts program, with orchestra, chorale, band, dance, visual arts, and theater clubs.
Who says the arts are neglected in schools? "We haven't had to make those kinds of choices, fortunately," Mitchell says.
But Mitchell is aware that the school lags behind other schools, particularly suburban public schools, in one all-important area: test scores. The Texas Education Agency's coveted "exemplary" and "recognized" ratings remain elusive for Franklin, which holds a less stellar "acceptable" rating. "That's where we always have a challenge" convincing people fixated on test scores, she says, "because they have no idea what circumstances our children come from."
Such ratings, Mitchell posits, don't fully represent a school that serves a diverse population, especially many low-income apartment kids. "People want to look at averages first, but you need to look at their own child's score," she says. "If I can ever get parents to look at their own child, and their child's interests, it's a totally different thing."
On the other hand, Mitchell realizes that complaining about the unfairness of it all eventually comes across as "making excuses," which she isn't willing to do. "The inspiring thing to me," she says, "is that we don't choose which kids come to our school, yet we are incredibly successful with the children we have."
Meanwhile, Mitchell continues to receive "very attractive" offers from better-funded suburban districts who want to lure away DISD's prize principals, but like other dedicated veterans committed to urban education, she has declined them. "I feel so strongly about maintaining the integrity of the Dallas Public Schools," she says.
At Nathan Adams Elementary, parents placed an ad in the private-school supplement of Northside People, a community newspaper. At Kramer Elementary, parents blanket the neighborhood with eye-catching signs bearing slogans such as "Kramer Rocks" and "Kramer: Check it Out" to build interest. The signs have become collectors' items and quickly disappear.
Such efforts seek to surmount the biggest obstacle of convincing families to attend public schools: getting them in the front door. "Once the person comes to the school, it will sell itself," says Kyle Richardson, principal of Kramer Elementary, heralded as "the shining star" of Dallas by Gov. George W. Bush in a 1997 visit.
Other parents have started their own information networks to get their message out. Parents in the W.T. White "cluster"--composed of W.T. White High School and the 11 elementary and middle schools that feed into it--have published a guide championing their constellation of North Dallas schools to school-shoppers. "Welcome to Longhorn Country: A Parent's Guide to the Educational Opportunities in Your Neighborhood," the guide's cover reads, connecting neighborhood schools more to the University of Texas in Austin (with which W.T. White High shares a nickname) than to DISD.
Local parents also maintain a loose e-mail ring to keep one another informed about school affairs. After they learned that the Dallas Observer was doing an article, several parents sent unsolicited e-mails touting their local schools. "During my years in the DISD, I had wonderful teachers and coaches. They had a very positive influence on my life and...I see the same qualities in my children's teachers today," wrote Buddy Smith, a 1975 graduate of W.T. White High whose two children attend Withers Elementary.
Louisa Meyers, a Nathan Adams parent and former analyst for oil giant ARCO who uses her number-crunching skills to defend local schools, says that misconceptions about public schools are often comical. "They say, 'Oh, you mean Nathan Adams has a library?' Yes," she shoots back, "we have a library with 9,000 books."
Her analyst skills came in handy last year, she says, when she received calls from panicked parents worried about a shortage of about 200 teachers in DISD. She explained that effects of the shortage would be minimal, since it would be spread over 218 schools. In addition, she deduced that had one more child in a particular ethnic category passed the state's TAAS exam in 1997, the school would have received a "recognized" rather than an "acceptable" rating. (Texas officials base school ratings on the performance of children from each ethnic category.)