Dallas' Mata Elementary Has a Frighteningly Large Dungeon

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It's far too early to render judgment on Superintendent Mike Miles' school-choice initiative. Eventually, he wants to open nearly three dozen specialized campuses that offer an alternative to neighborhood schools but aren't as selective as magnets. Thus far, he's opened just one: Mata Montessori, just south of White Rock Lake.

Six weeks and change into the school year, the experiment seems to be working. The school has pulled in a diverse group of kids, some from overwhelmingly Hispanic Mount Auburn down the street, others from richer/whiter schools in the Woodrow feeder pattern like Lakewood Elementary, whose badly gerrymandered attendance zone inexplicably encompasses the $300,000 homes in Hollywood Heights (i.e. directly across Grand Avenue from Mata), and a handful from other parts of the district. There is some predictable round peg/square hole tension trying to align the Montessori educational philosophy, which is big on individuality and self-directed learning, with the testing- and data-driven approach en vogue in public schools in general and DISD in particular, but the district appears committed to making it work. The teachers, whose Montessori training is being funded by the district, are fresh and eager and motivated. (Full disclosure: One of them is my wife.) The specialized Montessori equipment, which, as a cursory search of educational websites will show, is mindbogglingly expensive, is brand-new. The kids, by and large from what I can tell, are thriving in the freedom of the Montessori classroom. (Full disclosure: One of them is my 5-year-old son).

My only quibble with Mata so far is this: The school has a disturbingly large dungeon. Yes. A dungeon. It's clearly labeled on the floor plan you see above, which is prominently posted right next to the stairwell next to Mata's library. Insofar as architecture is the physical manifestation of an institution's values (Allen ISD's $60-million football stadium, anyone?) what does it say about Mata that by far the largest room in the school is named after a windowless medieval torture chamber?

I have never dared venture near the dungeon, so I can't speak first-hand, but I'm told that it's just an unfinished basement room used for storing books and equipment and is absolutely not used as a forum for student punishment. Some anonymous past administrator apparently decided it would be clever to refer to it as a dungeon, and the name stuck. For Mata personnel, repeated usage has stripped the word of its punitive connotation, rendering it little more than a bland adjective for storage room.

Dungeon may soon regain its fearsome reputation in the Mata community, however. My wife doesn't find the existence of a dungeon in the basement of her school nearly as hilarious as I do, and let's just say she wasn't thrilled with the idea of publishing its existence on the Internet. I'm not saying she's definitely going to express her displeasure through antique methods of torture, just that the dungeon might be a good place to check should I happen to go missing.

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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