Our old neighborhood middle school is shiny and new
Story by Rachel Stone
When J.L. Long Junior High opened in 1933, about 500 students entered the most on-trend, state-of-the art school in North Texas.
When 1,000 or so students entered what is now J.L. Long Middle School at the beginning of this school year, they walked into an old school that’s like new.
“We’ve had a good start to the year, and I think it’s because everyone feels good in the new building,” principal Danielle Petters says.
The results of a $3.7-million renovation to the school will be on display as part of the Lakewood Festival of Homes Nov. 9-11. But new digs aren’t all J.L. Long has to show off. The school also has drastically improved its test scores, hired a new crew of teachers and adopted a new logo and brand.
Some of the J.L. Long renovations aren’t sexy. All of the heating and air conditioning units had to be replaced. Since the building is a historic landmark, the school’s original windows had to be preserved. Each one of the cedar wood frames and sills had to be refinished and reinstalled one by one.
Heavy equipment used in renovations over the summer tore up the grass and left the school’s front yard nothing but a big patch of dirt. Machines also damaged the front walkways.
“It looked like a warzone,” Petters says.
So all that had to be replaced days before school started.
Throughout the school, lockers were painted, new doors were installed and lighting was replaced in hallways and most classrooms. New shades on the windows allow more natural light and less dust compared to the old metal mini blinds.
A dropped ceiling at the entryway of the school was raised, giving it a grander, more open feel.
The Long Dads Club raised $500 to buy supplies for a new trophy case, which they built under a staircase on the ground floor.
“There’s been a lot of support from the community, the school board and the Dallas ISD facilities department,” Petters says.
The cafeteria has all new furniture and looks more like a restaurant, with booths and tall café tables replacing long, uniform cafeteria tables. Petters says the staff was worried about how students would react to the change, but they love it, she says.
The gymnasiums also received updates. The ceilings in the gyms had been replaced about nine times in the past 12 years or so because every time a ball was kicked to the ceiling, it would poke a hole in the tiles. So Petters and the facilities department decided to take the ceilings out entirely and leave the beams and pipes exposed.
The school’s library is small, built for those 500 original students. So Petters asked the construction crew to knock out one wall that used to house a 200-square-foot office and add bookshelves to make it part of the library. They were careful to preserve the library’s Olin Travis mural “Food,” which was a Works Progress Administration project. An art classroom across the hall will be used as a library annex next year, when art moves to a portable building.
Getting the school ready for the home tour has been a little like getting one’s home ready for a party, says Long PTA member Heather Brooks.
“It’s given [DISD] a sense of urgency,” she says. “We’ve kind of been able to use it as leverage to get some of these things done on time.”
Texas elementary and middle school students took a new standardized test, STAAR, for the first time last year. And Long students did well overall on the test.
Preliminary comparisons to the previous year’s TAKS scores show Long scored second-highest among DISD middle schools in reading and math.
Scores jumped dramatically overall. And in subpopulations, including African American and special education students, math scores increased as much as 19 points.
“Last year, we were just below average,” Petters says. “Now we’re No. 2 in the city across every subject.”
She chalks that up to spending part of her budget on instructional coaches, consultants hired to work with students only on test preparation.
Petters also this year hired 36 new teachers, representing about a third of the school’s faculty.
Because of budget cuts and an unsteady DISD administration last year — the district was under an interim superintendent for most of the year — many teachers retired, found other teaching jobs or left the field, Petters says.
She took advantage of the turnover, spending the summer recruiting staff.
About half the new teachers came from out of state. A few have neighborhood ties, including IB Middle Years Program coordinator Dora Renaud, whose dad was a principal at Lipscomb Elementary.
The new teachers also include a Mandarin Chinese instructor, a football All-American from BYU who teaches math, and a science teacher who co-founded a nonprofit that plants sustenance gardens in low-income schools.
Since Long has new digs, new teachers and maybe a new attitude, the PTA decided it was time for a new brand.
Comerica bank donated the work of its in-house designers to create a new logo and slogan for the school. The motto is a simple one: “Go Long!”
“It’s simple and easily identifiable,” Brooks says.
The PTA is producing yard signs with the Go Long! message, modeled after the “Choose Woodrow” campaign. And the school’s new logo is up on its new marquee.
“We thought this would be an opportune time to get a new logo out there and a new look and feel, and kind of reintroduce the school to the community,” Brooks says.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.