If you ask Jon Dahlander, it all started with a playground.

The playground to which he refers includes the new swings and slides on the campus of Lipscomb Elementary School. The school’s PTA had raised some money to replace an aging wooden playground that had been there since the ’80s, but couldn’t come up with enough to finish the job. So the Swiss Avenue Historic District, the Old East Dallas Exchange Club and other neighborhood groups pitched in to purchase the brightly colored plastic contraptions last spring.

A funny thing happened next, says Dahlander, who is Dallas ISD’s communications director and also has lived near Lipscomb on Bryan Parkway in the Swiss Avenue Historic District for years: Parents suddenly began taking their kids to the playground.

“It became this magnet for young parents within the neighborhood,” Dahlander says. As they got to talking, they began asking each other the inevitable question: Where are you sending your kids to school? “It wasn’t long before they said, ‘We ought to check into Lipscomb,’” Dahlander says.

The school’s boundaries encompass the four contiguous historic districts in Old East Dallas, including Swiss Avenue, Munger Place and Peak’s Suburban, and is nestled in Junius Heights. But few parents living in those neighborhoods were sending their children to Lipscomb; instead, the vast majority of the school’s students were coming from nearby apartments.

As the playground parents looked into the school, they quickly learned that Principal Yolanda Gonzalez was a 30-year resident of Munger Place. Gonzalez took the helm of Lipscomb five years ago, vowing to turn it into an exemplary school, the highest academic designation the state of Texas bestows. She was true to her word — Lipscomb has been rated exemplary for three years running.

The playground parents generally liked what they saw, but they soon ran into a snag.

“We kept hearing from potential parents that we have this fourth and fifth [grade] issue,” says Matt Wood, a Junius Heights resident. The issue was that after third grade, Lipscomb students — along with Mount Auburn students — would move to Eduardo Mata to finish elementary school. Parents didn’t like the idea of sending their children to two different elementary schools, including one on the other side of Grand Avenue.

“Then when they show up at J.L. Long [Middle School], they’re behind, and that’s a problem,” Wood says. “It’s pretty well-accepted that the fourth and fifth feeder program, while good on paper, doesn’t work very well in practice.”

The parents weren’t ready to give up, however. They had momentum, partly because of the influx of young families who had begun buying homes in the historic districts. Wood says when he moved into Junius Heights six years ago, no children — not even high schoolers — were living in the 14 homes on his street. Now, there are seven children under the age of eight, “and two young couples who don’t have kids, but I suspect they will within a couple years,” Wood says.

“This is such a small community to just to put them here and there and everywhere,” says parent Pauline Mayfield. “East Dallas is like its own little village. Everybody knows each other.”

Anyone who talks about Lipscomb mentions Mayfield in the same breath. The recently formed Old East Dallas Early Childhood PTA was her brainchild, Wood says, and Dahlander agrees that she “circled the wagons and got everybody together.” As Mayfield and other parents began asking Gonzalez about the possibility of extending Lipscomb’s classes through fifth grade, the principal immediately got on board.

“I truly believe in a community school,” Gonzalez says. “It makes the neighborhood more cohesive, and the diversity you have in the neighborhood comes into the school.”

Together, Gonzalez and the parents began petitioning Dallas ISD Supt. Michael Hinojosa and board president Jack Lowe, even showing up at board meetings to make their case.

“People started saying, OK, this is a neighborhood group that wants to reclaim their community,” Dahlander says. “It’s just the power of community and people saying, ‘This is what we want out of our public school,’ and if more people would realize that, community by community in the city of Dallas, what a tremendous thing it would be.”

This fall, three fourth-grade classrooms have been added to Lipscomb, and the next fall, those fourth-graders will attend the school as fifth-graders. Mount Auburn will continue feeding into Mata for now, but eventually both schools also will become pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade elementaries.

“A lot of people who were kind-of on the fence because the school was going only up to third grade are now going to send their children to Lipscomb,” Mayfield says.

That’s where her children will attend, of course. Mayfield lived a couple of blocks away from the school in Junius Heights when the Old East Dallas ECPTA formed, and her family recently moved to a more spacious home, but made sure they chose a home within Lipscomb’s boundaries — they’re now living on Bryan Parkway in the Swiss Avenue Historic District.

Wood also plans to send his twin daughters to Lipscomb next fall when they are ready for kindergarten. The Old East Dallas ECPTA has roughly 60 members, and all of them are at least considering Lipscomb, he says.

“You know, if enough of us just do this, then this is a neighborhood school, and we have to worry less about what we hear is happening at DISD,” Wood says. “All we have to worry about is what’s three or four or seven doors down from us.”

And if that’s a good education, which Lipscomb has proven it provides, Wood says, it gives neighborhood parents one less decision to worry about.

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