Robert E. Lee garden

Robert E. Lee Elementary’s courtyard garden is one of many assets lauded by organizers trying to drum up interest in the school.

The community organizers of this week’s pep rally, of sorts, for Robert E. Lee Elementary expected a turnout of around 40 people. To their surprise, more than 200 showed up and stood outside in the almost-freezing cold for half an hour to listen to local dignitaries praise Lee’s dual-language program, its in-progress International Baccalaureate certification and its courtyard garden overseen by a Dallas Master Gardener.

Ken Dawkins, parent of a kindergartener in the dual language program, believes the school has finally hit a tipping point. He has lived in the neighborhood 15 years, and he and his wife of eight years, Jennifer, were of the opinion that “it was kind of not an option to send your kids here.” Their opinion changed, however, starting with a tour of the school.

“I think it’s better than I thought it was in the first place,” Dawkins says. Plus, he adds, the school has improved in recent years. “A few parents got involved and were super active the last couple of years before we got here. Everybody has decided to step up at the same time.”

We wrote a story seven years ago with a similar theme. Negative perceptions had driven away families zoned to Lee, but parents who lived nearby were banding together to form an early childhood PTA and generate interest in the school. There was even a similar pep rally — a pre-k and kindergarten round-up in Lee’s auditorium to which many neighborhood families walked. “It’s sort of chicken and egg — does the middle class come in when it gets better, or does the middle class come in and make it better?” former Dallas ISD trustee Jack Lowe said at the time.

That particular effort, however, fizzled. Various parents we interviewed for the story wound up sending their children to private school or moving to other neighborhoods. The hope that Lee would become another Stonewall or Lakewood was dashed.

Will this time be different? It seems that way.

One factor may be the students and engaged families Lee assumed from Bonham Elementary when it closed. Another is a new an energetic principal, Bridget Ransom, who replaced Ali Saiyed after he decided he needed to work from home for family reasons. Not to mention that, under Saiyed, the school launched a dual language program — which many parents cited years ago as a factor that could draw them into the school — and is on its way to becoming an IB certified campus, a program very popular among neighborhood parents and already in place at J.L. Long Middle School and Woodrow Wilson High School, where Lee students will attend.

The result is that the underutilized campus, which Ransom calls “a hidden jewel,” may be about to lose its status as a best-kept neighborhood secret. Nearby Stonewall Jackson Elementary, to which parents within the Lee boundaries have transferred for years, is overcrowded. Lakewood Elementary, overcrowded for some time, has long since stopped being a transfer option. And Tracie Fraley, executive director of the Woodrow feeder pattern, is committed to making all the elementary schools in her charge places where parents want to send their children — and then give them a choice.

The pep rally organizers — who went door to door passing out event fliers; made sure two city councilmen, two Dallas ISD trustees and the DISD superintendent were present; and encouraged dozens of prospective parents afterward to tour the school and poke their heads into Lee’s busy classrooms — are going all out to make sure Lee is not only a viable but also a sought after choice.

“We need to inform and educate our neighbors about the good things happening at Robert E. Lee,” Councilman Philip Kingston said at the close of his speech. “They need to know this school will turn out good students and give them a running start as they head into junior high and high school.”

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