OK, so the burbs have more money. And newer classrooms. And higher test scores. Does that mean East Dallas public school students and their parents should turn in their chalk?

Much like children, some public schools are blessed with abundance: funding, volunteers, parental involvement, open spaces and safe neighborhoods.

Others do their best with what they have, happy to settle for even one of the above.

But try explaining these deficiencies to a parent who chooses public education, whether for financial, cultural or other reasons.

The presumption among East Dallasites appears to be that our wealthy suburban neighbors have everything going their way, education wise. Who doesn’t know a handful of families who have fled the inner city for the seemingly greener environs of Plano, Richardson or Farmers Branch?

For that matter, what parent hasn’t considered making the same trek?

To answer this question, the Advocate spent a day in forth-grade classrooms in each of three public schools; Lakewood and Robert E. Lee in East Dallas and Thomas in Plano.

We expected a revelation of Plano order versus Dallas chaos, of the Ritz versus Motel 6, of success versus failure.

But what we discovered will surprise you. Public education in Dallas is more than comparisons and contrasts, test scores and ethnic ratios.

In the end maybe the differences between Plano and Dallas are less than we have come to believe.

Maybe our schools, at least on the fourth-grade level, really aren’t so different, after all.

Thanksgiving provides Lakewood Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Janet Cundiff with an opportunity to combine spelling, history and cultural awareness into one language arts lesson.

As with many schools, Lakewood employs “leveling” in math and reading classes, sending students from their homerooms to study with others who demonstrate similar comprehension.

Cundiff’s room is crowded with bookcases, cabinets and chairs, and it’s papered top to bottom with pictures, photos, and student reports.

The students are talkative and boisterous, but Cundiff, who has taught at Lakewood for 20 years, gently and confidently reins them in. A reassuring touch on the shoulders calms the occasional restless child.

The students practice spelling “cornucopia”and “chrysanthemum” on individual chalkboards. As part of a lesson on the first Thanksgiving in 1621, students discuss foods they will share with their families.

The broad ethnic mix in this classroom reveals a varied menu. Lakewood draws half of its students after third grade from Fannin Elementary School on Ross Avenue, and most of the Fannin kids are Hispanic or Asian.

So along with the traditional turkey, Cundiff’s students will eat tamales, chitlins and sopapillas. During the discussion, children shout out food items as if they’re members of the British Parliament.

“One a a time,” says Cundiff, who wears an alphabet-emrboidered sweatshirt and has a streak of gray in her dark hair.

Like the pilgrims, some of these students are new Americans, arriving two or three years ago from Cambodia or Mexico. After the spelling lesson, the read from “Our Country Today” and write notes to demonstrate their comprehension. “The pilgrims wanted freedom…” says Cundiff, beginning a thought.

“To life,” answers a students.

Cundiff: “They learned they had to be…”

“Brave,” answers another.

“That’s a trait you have to use at school sometimes,” Cundiff says. “You have to be brave.”

While he children read quietly, Cundiff explains: “Every year, I feel like I’m a first-year teacher. I get a new class and new students who have new needs.

“I find them very exciting to teach. I like to help them make a good beginning. One of my favorite sayings is in a song from ‘The King and I’: ‘By your pupils you will be taught.’ I learn patience from my kids. I learn excitement, anticipation.

“I think school can be fun,” she says. “It all depends on the enthusiasm of the instructor.”

When the students follow the rules and finish their homework, Cundiff deposits marbles in the “Positive Thinking Jar”.

“It’s important for the students to be able to separate the seriousness from the fun part,” she says.

“The children need to learn to recognize the ability and importance of each student. It’s like when we talked about the Thanksgiving meal. They all have different foods, but each one is important.”

Parents and area businesses share Cundiff’s enthusiasm. Lakewood Elementary logged more than 13,000 volunteer hours in 1990-91, more than any Dallas school except Greiner Middle School.

Volunteers work in the library and the office, tutor students who need extra help, help operate the computer lab, and conduct the “Big Art” program, where moms and dads introduce kids to Monet and Matisse.

Most of the volunteers are mothers, says principal Karen Rogers, who arrived in mid-1990. At her previous post, Madison High School, most parents worked during the day.

“Madison has a wonderful list of volunteers. But they come primarily from their Adopters (businesses whose employees take part in the Adopt-A-School program),” Rogers says.

“A school that doesn’t have as big a base of parental volunteers needs to fill in more with businesses and churches.”

Lakewood maintains not just a large and active PTA, but a Pre-School PTA whose 175 members want to ensure in advance, quality education for their kids. The group raised $10,000 in 1991 with a home tour and craft fair.

“We are blessed,” Rogers says.

The school did not escape DISD cuts, however. Lakewood must share its Laureate teacher with another school. And the school’s full time counselor was cut to three days, then transferred. He’ll be replaced, but such a change is unsettling for the students.

“If everything were as we desire, we’d like to not have to make those kinds of staff changes once school opens,” says Rogers, in her most hopeful tone.

But the parents do what they can to fill the gaps. The PTAs and Friends of Lakewood, primarily a dad’s group, raised matching funds to bring an Artist-in-Residence who will operate an in-school art studio for three months.

Last year’s artist, actor Carl Schaeffer of the Dallas Children’s Theatre, returns this day to Cundiff’s class to gather material for a play he will present at the school.

Schaeffer soon has the students standing on their chairs, shaking out their inhibitions. He painlessly covers parts of speech, state history, environment and conservation, the basics of theater, dealing with problems, learning to appreciate school and individuality.

“How many like school? How many hate school? Why do you hate school?’ he asks.

“It’s fun, and it’s boring,” is one ambivalent answer.

Schaeffer replies: “You can go to the cafeteria and get cake, but you also have to have vegetables.”

What is the purpose of school?

Student, big sigh: “To learn about life.”

Cundiff says: “For students to prepare themselves to be responsible citizens. Better citizens.”

Student: “Senior citizens.”

All in due time.

Lee’s Classrooms may be temporary, but the staff’s concern for students is not.

Even as she praises teacher Anna DeLay and her fourth-grade class, Robert E. Lee Elementary counselor Beth Williamson knocks on the door of a portable classroom and explains: “We have to keep our temporaries locked because we have people on campus who don’t belong here.”

DeLay’s building is one of eight temporaries filling almost half the playground at Lee, located in a tree-lined, middle-class residential area not far from the Lower Greenville Avenue strip. Another temporary classroom will arrive soon, and the situation troubles principal Jane Lampton.

“We need a playground for our children,” she says, adding that a facilities task force has asked the school district to consider Lee in the next bond proposal—whenever that may be.

But the uncertainty of building programs fades inside DeLay’s classrom. Eighteen children, all but one of whom is Hispanic, will spend almost the entire school day in this one room. The room is large and warm, and with its aged, wood floors and the soft sunlight falling on children’s faces, it’s reminiscent of an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse.

“Welcome to our bilingual classroom,” reads a sign on the wall.

“I like it out here,” DeLay says. “A student came in once and said: ‘This looks like one of the schools I went to in Mexico.’ The Kids are comfortable here. They feel: ‘This is our classroom. We need to take care of it. It’s ours.'”

The classroom is quiet. The students work efficiently and with a sense of self-discipline. DeLay seems only to direct, rather than impose the business of studying fourth-grade lessons at Robert E. lee.

An absence of the typical “leveling” system that sends kids into other classrooms for math and reading provides opportunity for DeLay to practice “cooperative learning,” which she brought to Lee from Santa Fe, N.M.

DeLay’s students split into groups of three or four to read and discuss a selection from “Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s Farm,” a collection of stories by Betty MacDonald. One “reporter” in each group writes down the main idea and supporting details.

DeLay moves from group to group and quietly compliments the children.

“Jose makes good eye contact when he speaks to someone. Crystal smiles and encourages others. This is very good. You need to encourage your groups,” DeLay tells them.

“They say teachers go with the trend,” DeLay says. “I find cooperative groups tend to develop work habits the children will use later on in life. You never will work in an office by yourself. You always have to work with somebody. When they work in groups, they all have to come to a consensus.

“I try to mix learning styles within the groups. Children with visual, tactile and auditory styles learn from each other that way. And I try to use more literature based teaching than the basal (textbook).

As with other fourth grades in Texas, DeLay’s class studies state history. In mid-February, the students will display what they’ve learned with a living Texas Explorers “wax museum” in the halls of the main school building.

“They involve everything—language arts, art and social studies” in the project, DeLay says. “It’s amazing how much they learn.”

DeLay first taught at her elementary alma mater, Larragoite, in Santa Fe, and left after seven years for a classroom on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in Colorado. She returned for one more year in Santa Fe, before DISD recruited her.

Her first year teaching third-graders at Lee was so successful that principal Lampton asked DeLay to follow her class to fourth grade. She taught 10 of these 18 students last year.

“The first day of school, they were ready to work. And the others caught up very quickly. It was like we hadn’t missed any time,” DeLay says.

Her first task in the classroom today was to write on the blackboard, “Once someone helped me by…”

“We do journal writing every morning,” Delay says. “That’s where i find out about them. I tell them: ‘If you need time out, let me know.’ If a child has a bad day, with a little pat on the back, he’ll forget all about it and be able to work.”

Lee Elementary is 60 years old this year. A bust and oil painting of Gen. Lee adorn a hallway outside the auditorium.

Could Lee’s vision of freedom have encompassed a school in his name that serves soft tacos in the cafeteria and conducts PTA meetings in Spanish and English?

Principal Lampton envisions a completely bilingual school.

“A lot of our (Anglo) parents desperately want their children to learn Spanish,” Lampton says. “We would be stronger academically if all our children were learning a second language.”

Volunteers help by offering their services as math and reading tutors, Lampton says. And the PTA prepared kits to help volunteers teach art appreciation.

“We just need people to come in and do it,” Lampton says.

Computer literacy is another issue. Only he remedial reading students in grades 1-3 receive intensive work in the school’s single, modern computer lab. While all students can play educational games on a bank of old Commodore computers in the library, the better students can’t match the remedial students’ computer awareness.

Back in DeLay’s classroom, the children read “Don Quixote” in Spanish. They are dramatizing two favorite stories—Quixote’s battle with the windmill and “Batman against Drugs”—in an upcoming  video with Lee’s artist-in-residence.

“I’ve seen a big change in the students from last year. They’re  really confident, DeLay says. “If they make a mistake, they learn from it. They can say, ‘Oh well,’ and try again. They have to take chances, or they will never learn anything because of a fear of failure.”

Lesson finished, the children stack texts in boxes pushed against the wall and line up to quietly await the bell. Across the room, each windowpane is filled with a piece of melted crayon art from an earlier class project.

DeLay admires the pictures.

“They’re all different,” she says, smiling. “Just like the children.”

Sure, they’ve got newer playgrounds and better libraries. But do Plano students really learn more?

As Carey Carrell teaches a morning reading lesson to her fourth-graders at Thomas Elementary School in Plano, adjectives and pronouns float in from the grammar lesson next door.

The ambient sound is not intrusive, but representative of Plano’s “modified open classroom” system, which places most of the school’s 150 fourth-grade students in one large room, loosely divided by a series of partitions.

Teachers are free to roam between classes to assist each other. Except for children’s artwork on almost every wall, the one-story, suburban school has a distinctively institutional feel with its long corridors and sharp angles.

Carrell reads from a lesson on the overhead projector, a ubiquitous piece of machinery some pilgrim headmaster must have brought over on the Mayflower and will probably find its way to the first classroom on Mars.

On the projector are a series of printed directions about following directions. The lesson teaches comprehension and discipline, two continuing elements of fourth-grade life.

But this lesson turns out to be fun—almost. When the kids finish, they find they’ve each drawn a house. Then Carrell assigns them to write their own directions to finish the house.

“I always worry when I have to teach that way that I’ll look too stiff,” Carrell says later of the packaged exercise. “That’s not the way I want to be. We like to have fun here, too.”

Saralyn Fineout joins Carrell after dismissing her math group from a traditional (four walls and a door) room on the perimeter of the open classroom. Both teachers are young, and both are products of the Plano school system, which has employed open classrooms for 25 years.

Fineout, a graduate of Baylor University, has taught at Thomas for four years, and Carrell is in her third year out of Texas Christian University.

The teachers set the tone for the school day with 8:30 a.m. announcements over the public address system. Fineout, in her self-described role as “Trash Queen” at Thomas, discussed keeping the school free of litter.

“We’re very loud,” says Fineout, who occasionally sings “God Bless America” prior to Dallas Mavericks basketball games at Reunion Arena. “That’s why I’m in the other room, because I have such a loud voice.”

At Thomas, students meet in the mornings and afternoons for homeroom, where they also learn social studies and art. They disperse to study math and reading with others at similar comprehension levels. Fourth-graders work at seven different levels.

Students who demonstrate aptitude in various skills receive extra challenges in Plano Academic Creative Education (PACE), similar to Dallas’ Laureate program. Or, some of the kids from Fineout’s seventh-level math class who struggled this morning with column addition might visit the school’s Learning Center for those who need extra help.

Both Carrell and Fineout say they returned to Plano because of the quality of the school system. Students and teachers can excel here, they say.

“In Dallas, a lot of the schools have portables,” Carrell says, referring to pre-fabricated classroom buildings. “The teacher just cannot leave the class.

“But in here I know mot of the time what’s going on in this room over here. Saralyn leaves her door open, and we can hear what’s going on in each other’s rooms.”

“We work together,” Fineout says. “If I’m in a bind with a student, I can easily get up and leave with the child, and Carey is right there to take over my class.”

Innovation has its disadvantages, however, at least for the teacher.

Plano school administrators believe a lunch room is a waste of space better used for classrooms. So students retrieve lunch bags or buy meals at a temporary cafeteria line (fried fish today) and return to their desks. There, they chatter or work on assignments while they eat.

“My room is going to smell like fish all afternoon,” Fineout says.

A Thomas tour reveals more signs of prosperity. Children file in a long line past the large, sun-lit library, where a parent volunteer shelves books for librarian Liz Wallace.

First-graders bang happily away at keyboards in the computer lab. (Principal Elizabeth Kirby says the school will have a lab for each grade by the end of the year. Funds from a recent bond election will pay for the improvements). A park-sized playground lies to the south.

Fifth-graders work in a true open classroom. Today, the teachers are all dressed in red “Let it Snow” sweatshirts.

“We don’t have any walls,” says one teacher.

Jokes another: “So we won’t climb them.”

Back in the fourth grade, Carrell expands the “team” concept to art class, where one child begins a drawing and passes it around the room to be completed.

Carrell is displeased.

“Who drew M.C. Hammer’s head on the roof of this house?” she asks.

Also on the agenda: Consonant diagraphs and a popular spelling game called “Sparkle,” which leaves all but one child on the floor and out at the end.

When the kids behave and finish their work, they collect T-Tickets (for Thomas Texans), good for prizes such as lunch with the school’s Adopt-A-Cop. Poor behavior or failure to prepare for class earn marks in the students’ folders which go home weekly for parental review.

Fourth grade, Fineout says, is largely about children “learning to be responsible for themselves instead of waiting for their moms to do it for them.”

Carrell says: “We really have to help them gain their independence. Fourth grade is such a big transition because they’ve been babies up until this point. This is the first big step. Next year, they really start getting ready for middle school.

“So we have to get them ready to get ready for middle school. And once they get to middle school, that’s it.”

What could be bigger than that?

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