Sick of Waiting on DISD, Lakewood Elementary Parents Are Raising $15 Million for Expansion

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Compile a list of Dallas ISD's best elementary schools, the ones that convince affluent young parents to forsake the lure of private schools or the suburbs, and Lakewood Elementary will rank at or near the top. Spend a moment browsing through the Texas Tribune's public schools explorer. Its students crush the district and the state on the TAKS test. Teachers never seem to want to leave. Lakewood never fails to show up on the Texas Education Agency's roster of exemplary schools.

So, the academics are superb. The school itself -- the actual, physical building on Hillbrook Street -- not so much. It was built in 1951 and is showing its age. The bigger issue, though, is space. More than half of Lakewood's nearly 700 students are crammed into portables that were planted on campus decades ago and never left.

This is a problem, says parent Dorcy Clark. "We have the academics; we have the programs," Clark says. "What we don't have is a place to house all these kids."

Nor is DISD, saddled with more pressing needs elsewhere in the district, particularly keen on funding any serious renovation. So, Lakewood parents have taken the task upon themselves, hoping to raise $15 million in private funds to double the school's footprint, from 45,000 to 90,000 square feet, and update much of the existing building.

Clark, who is spearheading the effort as president of a newly created nonprofit, the Lakewood Elementary Expansion Foundation, describes the fundraising goal as "doable, but ambitious." And, as one would expect with a project of that magnitude, the strategy is a couple of degrees more sophisticated than a series of PTA bake sales.

Clark didn't get into the specifics of the campaign but said that a large portion of the money will come from local companies and foundations, with families and alumni chipping in the rest. Pay enough, and you can get your name on just about everything but the school itself, from the library ($1.5 million) to the rain-collection system ($150,000).

The group has until the end of December 2014 to raise the money, which Clark hopes to beat. Even if they fall short, it's a remarkably ambitious effort, more reminiscent of a private school's endowment campaign than something cooked up by a group of parents. The only somewhat comparable example in memory is the $57.1 million public-private redo of Booker T. Washington High School a few years back, but that comparison breaks down pretty quickly. Booker T. already had bond funding, and it had the distinct fundraising advantage of being a well-known arts magnet in a high-profile corner of downtown.

Just as remarkable is the disparity it highlights between DISD schools. It says a lot that a single elementary school in an affluent neighborhood can -- or reasonably believes it can -- raise $15 million while Superintendent Mike Miles gets $20 million for Imagine 2020, his public-private effort to transform the Lincoln, Madison and Pinkston High School feeder patterns, which encompasses 21 schools.

That's not the fault of Lakewood parents, who are merely investing in their children's education. In the end, it's also good for DISD, even if it does heighten those disparities. Much better to have parents funneling cash into an already well-off public school than shipping it off to St. Mark's or Hockaday.

As a side benefit, the hope among Lakewood parents is that their effort can serve as a model for other schools that need improvements but are too far down the priority list to merit DISD's immediate attention. So, perhaps the improvements will spread.

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