Public defenders

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

And Meyers constantly labors to convince parents that their neighborhood schools are insulated from perpetual turmoil at 3700 Ross Avenue, DISD's headquarters. "It seems every time there's a controversy downtown, my kids get more homework," she says. "It's like, 'How dare you say we're not doing our jobs?'"


Early on a hot summer morning, Linda Callicutt takes me on a tour of Hillcrest High School. Summer school is in session, and the halls teem with motion in between classes. Near the front door, the drill team sells pizza to raise funds so they can compete out of town, quickly dispatching about 20 empty boxes to the rubbish bin. Colorful murals line the walls; one upstairs features pictures of teens engaged in every sport offered at Hillcrest, from baseball to cheerleading.

Callicutt introduces me to principal Vickie Richie, a 24-year DISD veteran and former principal at Franklin Middle School. Richie says the top concern of parents looking at Hillcrest--frightened by tales of violent, gang-infested schools--is discipline, but says that perception is a canard and doesn't think the private schools have one up on her school. "I tell them our students are well disciplined," she says. "They are responsive to requests from adults. It's not disorderly."

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."

Richie takes pride in several National Merit Scholars that Hillcrest graduated this year and in the many kids who earn college credit through the school's many Advanced Placement classes. "We have several kids who leave with 15 or 16 credits, right out the door," she says. But Richie is equally proud of many once "borderline" kids who struggled to earn their diploma but now have gone on to local community colleges.

Later, Callicutt puts me in contact with other private-school defectors from Hillcrest, including Kathy Wine and Peggy Zilbermann. Wine's oldest daughter, Hayley, went to private school after finishing fourth grade at Preston Hollow Elementary. They departed public schools temporarily to follow friends into the private realm, but Peggy now thinks that was a mistake. "She missed Franklin's wonderful math program and kids from other feeder schools [at Franklin]," she says. "She's really struggling to keep up with those Franklin kids."

Meanwhile, Hayley keeps busy by staying involved in junior varsity basketball, cheerleading, concert choir, and Hillcrest's journalism and yearbook staff. Wine praises the school's atmosphere and says she doesn't worry about drugs there. "You don't hear about that at Hillcrest. You really don't," she says. She also cites another reason why she's glad Hayley is going to school in the neighborhood. "You don't have to drive to Plano," she says, echoing fears of many private-school parents who shudder at the thought of their driving-age progeny venturing onto Dallas' busy freeways.

Peggy Zilbermann also counts herself as a proud defector. Her older son graduated from Greenhill School two years ago, but she thinks Hillcrest is a good fit for her younger son, who left St. Mark's after his freshman year. "We've seen both sides of the coin," she says, expressing amazement with the school's smorgasbord of extracurricular activities and well-rounded students. "There doesn't seem to be a label," she says, marveling over the kids. "The jocks don't just do football."

Her son, who has participated in the school's French club, theater, speech, and academic decathlon programs, is also hip on Hillcrest. "The kids are a lot nicer," says Aaron, who is considering Cornell University. "They're more well-rounded. If I hadn't moved to Hillcrest, I don't know if I would be as involved in drama."

If anything, such rich and profuse praise amply proves one thing about DISD in particular, public schools in general. The real picture of public education, even in beleaguered districts like DISD, contains infinitely more nuance than most media and gossip accounts are able to convey.

Meanwhile, unabashed pride in Dallas schools continues among the many pioneering families who have left the private-school fold. But it's not all about who has the toughest classes and most sports.

Peggy Zilbermann admits that she's been won over by her son's new high school for one reason in particular: It helped her become a proud member in full standing of her community. "I'm an extreme public-school advocate," she says. "My heart is more there at Hillcrest, because it is our public school and our community school."

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