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]."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jonathan Fox
Contact: Jonathan Fox