In Dallas' Neighborhoods, DISD Kindergartners Keep Learning While Adults Keep Forgetting They Exist
In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Stanton Stephens. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here .
The ocean, they can all agree, is big. That's what they learned today, in the kindergarten classes of Stevens Park Elementary, a seam-bursting school in an un-yuppied swath of North Oak Cliff. There's an ocean out there somewhere, and it's big and wild and will knock you on your butt, even if you've already taken swim lessons and gone off the diving board and everything.
They learned this a few days into June. It was the same week one of their school district's top administrators resigned and was indicted for taking kickbacks at his last job. It was also not long removed from a nasty fight among the bureaucrats charged with the kids' educations, a fight the bureaucrats pretended was about students but everyone knew was about jobs and money and power. In fact, if you read the stories -- this paper's included -- you'd think that's all there is in DISD, resigning and squabbling and power-starved adults, and that the kindergartners are sitting around debating the merits of teacher tenure and knocking out biographies on Michelle Rhee, Queen of the Reformers.
But, no, the ocean. They learned about salt and shifting tides in a brick schoolhouse that just a couple years back had wires and ducts hanging from the ceiling and looked, in certain corners anyway, like a good candidate for Hoarders. Then came a new principal, Susan Walker, a district vet who was here before controversial Superintendent Mike Miles arrived and will be here after he gets run out of town. (They all get run out of town.) Walker cleaned up, painted, found friends to donate cool murals of the school's mascot, a bulldog. She started a Papi Club for dads and breakfasts for moms, and soon they could hardly hold all the parents at events that once drew in the 20s. Break-ins at the school, once common, stopped.
Nowadays kids walk, hands clasped behind their back the proper Bulldog way, down pristine halls bursting with handcrafted color. They pass choir trophies and framed, handwritten letters from the school's namesake, John Stevens, which Walker found in a box and got a local framer to mount. They gather in a small-but-classic auditorium, which the school hopes to spruce up with some grant money it recently won, $15,000 just for bringing the most students and parents to a district-wide rally. They play on a playground that could use the money too, but they make it work, broken swing and all.
And they talk about the ocean. Some do it in stronger English than others, which is to be expected at a school of 700 students who are almost all Hispanic. But they do it confidently and with imagination, and they can all agree that, yes sir, it's big, and yes sir, they would really like to swim in it one day.