Why does one of the best neighborhood schools lack neighborhood kids?

Lisa Lovato, Principal of the Year. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Lisa Lovato, Principal of the Year. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Is Dan D. Rogers’ skyrocketing success enough to attract homeowners?

East Dallas has bragging rights to the best elementary school principal in Dallas ISD — Lisa Lovato of Dan D. Rogers — but only a tiny fraction of homeowners in the surrounding neighborhoods send their children to the school.

Instead, parents are sending their children to private, charter or other district schools, such as Robert E. Lee and Dealey Montessori. Only 7.7 percent of Rogers’ 518 students live in Ridgewood Park, University Meadows, Fisher Heights or North Hill homes and condos.

“I don’t even have the opportunity to make an impact on the kids who never gave us a chance,” Lovato says.

Lovato has spent the past six years navigating the shifting culture of the school, the changing demographics of the neighborhood and, most recently, the transition to a DISD “school of choice” in 2015. That’s when the school switched to a personalized learning curriculum approach, and subsequently, her students’ success skyrocketed. This past year, Rogers received all possible distinctions from the Texas Education Agency, meaning it performed better on mandated STAAR exams than peer campuses with similar demographics. The elementary school was one of 17 DISD schools that received this honor, and one of only eight non-magnet schools.

DISD recognized Lovato’s success and community-driven approach in December, when she received the Principal of the Year award, given to one campus leader at a district elementary, secondary and magnet school, respectively. It’s an even higher honor considering that there are 151 DISD elementary schools.

Rogers is thriving, but neighborhood families are just starting to take notice.

“There’s an assumption that DISD schools aren’t up to the same standard as private schools,” says Jack Courtney, a Rogers mentor and alumnus. “DISD is going to have to overcome that assumption.”

In 2010, right before Lovato’s arrival, many homeowners felt sending their children to the elementary school simply was not an option. A Ridgewood Park Neighborhood Association subcommittee requested to add its 400 homes to the Lakewood Elementary attendance zone, which is full of homeowner parents who believed in their neighborhood public school.

The request quickly became moot, as the DISD Board of Trustees pulled it from the agenda before it was ever discussed. But the failed merger highlighted two major differences between the elementary schools: Rogers’ student body was predominately Hispanic, black and poor, while Lakewood’s was white and affluent. Rogers’ standardized test scores in math, reading, writing and science also were significantly lower than the likes of Lakewood or Stonewall Jackson.

Parents insisted that the obvious racial and socioeconomic differences were irrelevant and that the campus’ low achievement was cause for concern.

Lovato became principal a year later, her first time with the lofty job title. Her résumé included seven years as a teacher before serving as assistant principal of Casa View and Truett elementaries, both high-poverty schools in Far East Dallas. Before Lovato took the helm, Rogers lacked the camaraderie it has now, and staff weren’t encouraged to take risks, says Marissa Limon, who was a teacher before becoming the school’s personalized learning coordinator. Teachers used a traditional approach in which children are taught in a group setting, and students without the confidence to ask for help tended to fall behind.

“How are we going to achieve if we’re teaching to the middle, but not addressing the high or low?” Lovato says.

(Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
(Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

The personalized learning curriculum, with similarities to the Montessori approach, has helped bridge the achievement gap because all students learn at their own pace. Lovato also has paid close attention to the hiring process. Choosing a diverse staff who can relate to students has been essential to Rogers’ success, she says.

Rogers’ student body currently is 13.9 percent black, 66.3 percent Hispanic and 15.6 percent white. Roughly 14 percent are immigrants, and 71 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. That’s a shift since 2010, when 92 percent of the school was economically disadvantaged.

The renovation of nearby apartments also has impacted the school, which lost 100 students because of gentrification. Many landlords hope to entice young professionals instead of low-income families, Lovato notes. The transition makes it difficult to project the school’s enrollment.

Cultural differences can deter homeowners from sending their children to Rogers, Lovato says. Twenty-one languages are spoken at the school, and parents sometimes are concerned about how it might impact their child’s education, even though personalized learning is designed to address those differences.

Ridgewood Park homeowner Kristy Ladner believes diversity is beneficial, but Lovato’s enthusiasm about the curriculum was what attracted her to the school, she says. Her son will enter the school as a kindergartner this coming fall.

“I felt that it would be positive for my child, regardless of what the socioeconomic status was of other children in the school, regardless of what other students were capable of or were not capable of,” she says. “It wouldn’t be a concern because of the rigors they have in place.”

Ladner founded the Rogers Early Childhood PTA to encourage neighborhood families to meet and learn about the school at monthly events. Families with toddlers have shown interest in Rogers, but those with children already attending private schools, such as Zion Lutheran School, don’t want to leave a familiar environment, she says.

The parents she’s spoken with aren’t as concerned with language barriers as they are with the number of students transferring into the school. The 518-student school has 137 transfers, nearly half of them from Hotchkiss and Jill Stone elementaries in the refugee-inhabited Vickery Meadow area.

“With all of the transfer students, there’s that concern, ‘Are my child’s friends going to be nearby or will it be harder to have those social relationships?’ ” Ladner says.

University Meadows homeowner Wynne McNabb Cunningham hasn’t decided where she’ll send her 5-year-old son to kindergarten yet, although Rogers is in the running. He didn’t qualify for DISD’s prekindergarten program, so he’s currently enrolled at Zion Lutheran.

“We would definitely consider a public school. Quality public school is vital in righting some of the institutional wrongs in our society,” she says.

Many of her neighbors purchased their homes specifically to attend a nearby private school.

“There are a lot of people who move to the neighborhood, because it’s so close to private schools that are renowned,” she says. “Because it doesn’t feed into Lakewood with traditionally higher scores, homeowner values are a bit lower.”

Lovato has tried to engage neighborhood families through open houses and tours, but Rogers is willing to teach any student willing to put in the effort, she says. Her “infectious enthusiasm” and determination are what impresses Courtney the most. He hopes that positivity will become more apparent in the neighborhood, but it won’t happen overnight.

“We as alumni need to do more than what we’ve done, DISD needs to do more than what they’ve done, and then hopefully we’re where we need to be,” he says.


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  • Los_Politico

    Anyone interested in private schools should be sure to read this. “The assumed superiority of private schools may no longer hold.”:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/upshot/dismal-results-from-vouchers-surprise-researchers-as-devos-era-begins.html?_r=0

  • Pingback: Analysis: The underlying meaning of 'school choice' and 'neighborhood school' - Advocate Magazine()

  • Pingback: Analysis: The underlying meaning of 'school choice' vs. 'neighborhood school' - Lake Highlands()

  • Pingback: Analysis: The underlying meaning of "school choice" and "neighborhood school" - Lakewood/East Dallas()

  • Jeremy

    When we looked at schools for our children to start kindergarten (10+ years ago) we were told by a representative from the district at an open house at DDR that he wouldn’t send his kids there. Clearly not a ringing endorsement. What else were we to do but try the many local private schools?

    I understand that DDR has changed dramatically, but it’s too late for my kids. I believe in public schools, I would prefer my kids to attend public schools, and I’d like to be supportive. But on the district level, what has DISD ever done to try to attract middle class families back to the district. I am constantly looking for opportunities for my high schooler, but time and again we simply feel unwanted and that DISD in not interested in helping middle class kids.

    I’m sure it’s a chicken and egg problem: “If you’re too good to send your kids here, then we don’t want you.” But something has to change. Schools can’t be successful without neighborhood support. But how much will a neighborhood support a school they don’t send their kids to? And the data on the benefits of socioeconomic diversity and blending in schools is compelling. But how much “blending” can you do when district wide, the numbers of middle class families sending their kids to DISD schools is so, so small?

    It’s too late for my kids, but I hope DDR continues its success. I’d like to see neighborhood families coming back to DDR and DISD. But I think its going to take a change in attitude on an institutional level at the District. But that’s just my $.02.

  • Casual Observer

    I think Zion is an excellent school. I am proud to have it in our ‘hood. Over the years, I have seen many children go to Zion and grow up to be outstanding young adults.

  • Elissa Chudwin

    Thank you for the input. It’s definitely been interesting to read, and it’s something to consider as we continue to cover education. Although, based on the comments, it’s clear that how everyone judges a school is different, and the reasons why they choose a school are just as impactful as the choice itself, which, hopefully, the article conveyed. Thank you for weighing in.

  • Casual Observer

    What’s your beef with Zion? We have lived on Ledgestone since 1991. I think I have a broader range of experience and information on the subject.

  • Los_Politico

    First rate private schools are schools that are better than all public schools. There are not many of these in Texas. Locally we have Greenhill, St Marks and Hockaday.

    Second rate private schools are schools that are better than most public options. Locally we have Jesuit, Ursaline, ESD, and a couple others.

    Third rate private schools are worse than the local public schools, but better than some nearby publics. Think Lakehill or St John’s. These schools are usually established as white flight academies and grew after desegregation orders nationwide.

    Then you have the bottom feeders that are actually worse than the worst public schools.

    With the exception of the top schools, these institutions are notorious about not releasing data about their SAT scores or other hard metrics that would allow you to compare them to public schools. They make it very hard to figure out how much learning is going on inside the building and if it’s a better teaching environment or just one that limits access. So I go by college matriculation and I can compare where a kid from Pearce or Booker T went vs a kid at Lakehill or ESD.

    Now that I’m older I’ve had the chance to meet adults who went to these schools 5, 10, 20 years ago and I’ve developed impressions of each campus and what “value” they added versus the neighborhood schools. In general, Texas private schools are not impressive.

    I would never send my kids to any private schools other than the top tier. I choose to live in East Dallas where between Woodrow, Booker T and TAG I’m sure my kids will get into better colleges than if we went private (or in the case of Greenhill, as good, and I don’t have to drive to Addison). And college is my number one goal.

    Last thought, if you have a tier 3 private high school sticker on your car alongside a “non selective” college sticker I am judging you.

  • Elissa Chudwin

    I’m very interested to learn why you believe these schools are third rate and which you would suggest are better. Is this based on personal experience, what you’ve read or what you’ve observed? Do you support public schools? Just trying to get a sense of your opinion.

  • Los_Politico

    Yeah, I don’t buy that. They may have bought a house and STAYED, but they didn’t move for a third rate private k-8 school.

  • Casual Observe

    Having lived in the area for many years, I have talked to people who have moved there to send their kids to Zion.

  • Los_Politico

    No one has ever moved to east Dallas to attend Zion Lutheran! ha

    “Doing well academically”? Make them prove it. Those are white flight schools with zero academic value add.

  • Elissa Chudwin

    She referred to Zion Lutheran, Lakehill Prep, St. John’s and a handful of other parochial and private area elementary schools. There’s several schools that serve elementary students east of the Tollway that are doing well academically.

  • Los_Politico

    “There are a lot of people who move to the neighborhood, because it’s so close to private schools that are renowned,”

    What school is she referring to? I’ve never heard of anyone moving east of the Tollway to be near private schools.

  • Elissa Chudwin

    Unfortunately, with technology, errors do happen, and it has been fixed. Thank you for pointing it out.

  • I can’t take an article on education seriously when there is a massive, jarring grammatical error in the headline.