Public defenders
Kes Gilhome

Public defenders

Mike Looney vividly remembers his most nerve-racking day as a parent. It happened in early February of last year, when his oldest daughter, Sloan, made an unlikely life transition, officially leaving the exclusive milieu of private education in Dallas, a thriving industry not known for defections, for the less heralded (and oft-maligned) realm of the Dallas Independent School District.

Sloan's mother, Sandra Looney, also recalls the anguish of the day her daughter entered the alien environment of public high school. "For Sloan, there just wasn't enough to do [at private school], and I saw her light going out," Sandra says. "We knew we had to make a change." But Sloan, a straight-A student, was still fearful of leaving familiar surroundings. "The night before, she cried and asked, 'What about my friends?'" Sandra says. "I said, 'Sloan, try it for one day and see if you like it.'"

That morning, Mike Looney took Sloan, then a sophomore who had attended religious schools all her life, to school. (Like several parents interviewed for this story, the Looneys asked that their former private school's name not be used.) Walking through the doors of Woodrow Wilson High School, a Gothic-styled community pillar in Lakewood, Sloan shared her father's uneasiness and wondered whether she was making the right decision. "She was scared to death, and I was scared to death," Mike recalls. "She walked through that metal detector, and I said, 'Are you kidding?'"

Sloan's former school had dress codes but no metal detectors, a near-universal trapping of contemporary public schools, where administrators increasingly guard against possible but rare acts of violence. So why did Sloan voluntarily leave a prestigious private school for her neighborhood public school, part of an urban district that--if water-cooler consensus is to be believed--wallows in a perpetual state of turmoil and is seemingly incapable of educating its students?

Easy, says the Looney clan: Woodrow Wilson is simply a great school with top-notch academics and extracurricular programs, a diamond in the rough that they previously overlooked. And for Sloan, private school was too small and confining--no drama club, Friday-night football, or drill team--to feel like an authentic high-school experience.

"It's the best thing we ever did," says mom Sandra, now the school's PTA president, who praises Woodrow's devoted teachers, inclusive atmosphere, and strong sense of tradition. "I'm not saying it's right for every kid, but it's right for mine."

Sloan, now 17 and an incoming senior set on attending Vanderbilt University, also sees her switch as a great move. "The second I walked in there, I made the best friends in my life," she says, exaggerating only slightly; she quickly bonded with girls she met on her first day and was flooded with offers to join sports teams. "It was so much bigger, and I'm a very social person," says Sloan, who insists her classes are challenging. "I'm getting just as good an education as I would in a private school."

After Sloan switched to DISD, her sister Kate soon followed, entering Woodrow mid-year as a freshman. (The family's youngest child still attends private school.) So what does their defection mean in the continuing debate over the allegedly inferior provinces of DISD and public education? It's not a stretch to discern that the Looney family has made a choice directly contrary to conventional wisdom. Public education is bemoaned as "failing" by pundits of all stripes, many of whom fiercely champion private-school vouchers as a way out for kids trapped in the rubble.

And, need it be said, we're talking about DISD, Dallas' leading attractor of bad press. Criticism of the district, deserved, exaggerated, and baseless, flows like so much effluvium from news, talk radio, and rumor mills into the public mind. Many real estate agents warn families to avoid DISD at all costs--admonitions that surely hurt the district's chances of improving its fortunes. A forum held last September by the Greater Dallas Association of Realtors showed the industry's lack of confidence: It was titled, "Wud U Bet on Publik Education?"

Hearing the Looney family's tale of converting to DISD, one cannot help but think, What are you people smoking? Yet they are not alone.

There are dozens of families who have made the remarkable leap from private schools to Dallas public elementary, middle, and high schools--families with means either to attend private school or flee to suburban public schools. Hillcrest High principal Vickie Richie reports that about 20 to 25 students transfer from private schools each year, although some probably leave for financial and disciplinary reasons.

The refugees cite several decisive factors, including greater variety in curricula (especially with nationally standardized Advanced Placement classes), more variety in sports and activities, expanded opportunities for parent participation, and greater racial and ethnic diversity than private schools. "We were one of those misguided couples who had not investigated the public-school system just because of what you hear," says Ray Flowers, an East Dallas parent who with his wife, Donna, switched their son to public school two years ago. "We could not be more pleased," he says. "There are pockets of DISD that are superior, and that's what we've found at Franklin [Middle School]."

Indeed, while the transplants praise their public schools with astounding effusiveness, almost all of them report that friends and neighbors are aghast. "When you tell your friends your child goes to a public school, they almost look down their noses on you," says Kathy Wine, whose daughter is a sophomore at Hillcrest High. "All my friends at Christ the King thought we were absolutely crazy when they heard we were leaving."

Such defections arrive as ire among white families over the tumultuous desegregation battles of the '60s and '70s fade into memory (busing students to achieve racial quotas ended years ago). Plus, DISD has reopened at least five North Dallas schools over 15 years, including Withers, Nathan Adams, Kramer, Dealey, and DeGolyer elementaries, to accommodate surging enrollment. (The district has also opened one brand-new North Dallas school, Anne Frank Elementary.)

To fill these schools are legions of young homeowners who have gradually replaced elderly residents. Families with more modest incomes that moved into previously singles-only apartment complexes (pried open by the 1984 Federal Housing Law) have also played a role in the revitalization.

Nationally, interest in public education is also rising, notwithstanding relentless criticism of public education and clamor for tax-funded private-school tuition vouchers and other alternatives to public schools. Nine out of 10 school-age children--more than 46 million students--attend public schools, a share experts say is slowly rising.

In spite of all this, it's difficult to say private-to-public migrations are increasing, since hard statistics are rare and strong demand for Dallas private schools, many of which have legendary waiting lists, continues unabated.

But the public-school arrivals are significant since they signify that people are willing to buck the DISD-flight trend; their actions, in fact, could help begin to repair DISD's sorry public image and lure skeptical residents back to Dallas public schools. They could also aid in shredding one of education's most imposing dogmas. That is, as Johnlyn Mitchell, principal of Franklin Middle School, puts it, "If you pay for it, it's supposed to be better."

Hosannas from the happily converted, however, also prompt nagging questions that go to the heart of criticism toward the school system: How can the DISD that the Looneys applaud be the same system denounced for its abysmally high dropout rate? Or the same one where fewer than 40 percent of the students are up to grade level, where reading scores refuse to budge after years of pedagogical interventions? How much of this shoddy record is the fault of DISD, and how much is the fault of AWOL parents?

Such questions stir a thick gumbo of frustration and recriminations that aren't likely to be settled soon. Are any schools getting unfair advantages come budget time? Administrators at schools that attract private-school defectors staunchly insist they make do with the same lean budgets everyone else gets, although they admit their good reputations help retain top teachers (which means other schools get newer, inexperienced teachers, as well as castaways).

They also benefit from committed legions of parents, who help buy extras not available from stingy public-school budgets. Such activism surely acts as a powerful stimulus on student performance.

And that's probably the rub in a district where in some cases less than 1 percent of registered voters have cast ballots in trustee elections. "In these big bureaucracies and highly centralized systems," says Linda McNeil, an education professor at Rice University in Houston, "the key to strong public schools is having parents and faculty work together on behalf of children."

For now, the contradiction attracts withering scrutiny. It was a recent Dallas Business Journal editorial, published shortly after the school board's messy ouster on July 5 of short-serving Superintendent Bill Rojas, that set a new standard for anti-DISD invective.

Its headline bluntly exclaimed: "Solution for DISD: Abandon It." Urging families to boycott DISD, the editorial called on business and church leaders to fund private schools rather than aid the district. "Why hand more gasoline to the arsonists?" quipped Journal publisher Huntley Paton, who worried that DISD's bad image was causing Dallas to lose corporate relocations. "DISD doesn't need more attention or money...It needs to be stopped."

Public-school defenders cringe at such condemnations, members of the Looney household included. With fervor equal to DISD's strongest critics, they praise Woodrow for its high standards and strong community grounding, and they say critics like Paton are painting an erroneous picture. "I don't see that [Sloan has] digressed in the quality of the education," says Mike Looney, a Woodrow alumnus of the school's class of 1967.

Even so, Looney admits he, too, formerly held local public schools in low esteem. A few years ago, he says, he simply couldn't imagine his offspring following in his footsteps to his alma mater. "There seemed to be such turmoil," he says. "I thought, 'Woodrow's not the same, DISD's not the same.' You see the stuff on TV and all the fighting and screaming, and I didn't want my daughter to be a part of that."

Now, he's been converted back and argues that families interested in public education should fear not, because well-publicized shenanigans at DISD headquarters have little effect on daily business at Woodrow.

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."

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.

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."

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.

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.

Private-to-public school conversions, however, don't account for the whole picture of unexpected support for DISD schools. Supporters of several North Dallas elementary schools, which often have PTAs with as many as 50 board members, have launched advertising campaigns to attract undecided parents to "round-up" nights and other events.

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.)

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."

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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