It’s probably a neighborhood parent’s toughest decision.

Will your child attend DISD?

Most of us haven’t been in a DISD school, but that doesn’t stop us from agreeing with everyone else when the lunch chatter turns to education.

We’ve all been part of a conversation with the simple conclusion: Only a fool or a pauper would send a child to a DISD school.

Many of us seem to believe DISD public schools just aren’t good enough to be entrusted with a child’s mind, body and soul.

And rather than buck peer pressure, many parents flee to the suburbs of Plano and Richardson or across Central Expressway to the Park Cities in search of a better education.

Others hock everything, tighten their budget belt and send their children to private school – hoping the extra money spent will give them more education bang for their buck.

But many neighborhood families know the negative image of DISD schools isn’t true. They know our neighborhood schools aren’t battlegrounds infested with drugs, violence and students who can’t read or write.

That’s why they decided to send their children to our neighborhood public schools – even though they had enough money to afford private school or a move to the suburbs.

Their friends, coworkers and associates questioned the decision, but today they say it was the right choice. They say their children received a great academic education and an even better education in life.

And today, they are having the last laugh.

The Decision

Dr. Ellwood and Anne Jones always knew where their daughters, Amy and Melinda, would attend school.

“We live in a real world,” Ellwood says.

“Public school offers you a real-world setting, not based on a socio-economic setting. There are other things you need to learn than just academics.”

The Jones live in the White Rock Cloisters, a stable community off Mockingbird that overlooks the lake. Home prices in the Cloisters start at about $300,000.

The family was attracted to the area because of the neighborhood schools. They liked the reputation of Lakewood Elementary, and Ellwood graduated from Woodrow in ’59, so he knew first-hand about the high school.

To ensure their daughters received a good education, he and Anne were active in their schools – belonging to PTAs, tutoring, attending and volunteering at sporting events and shows, and making donations. Anne recently completed a term as president of the Woodrow PTA.

“If parents don’t care, then a student’s education will not be good,” Ellwood says.

And their decision and commitment to public schools has paid off. Amy is entering her senior year at Woodrow. She is involved in the cross country track team, swimming team, Variations, is captain of the Drill Team, president of the National Honor Society, and member of the Key Club and French Club.

Melinda is a junior at University of Texas. When she was in high school, she was involved in the same activities as Amy.

Ellwood and Anne say they have friends who chose to send their children to private schools because they thought they would get a better education. But when the family received Amy and Melinda’s SAT scores – a 1230 and 1060 – Ellwood says he knew they made the right decision.

“All of the schools have worked,” Ellwood says. “People believe what they want to believe. There’s a lot of hysteria.”

“All you can do is show through your actions. Talk isn’t going to change their mind. Having your kids in the schools is the most we could do.”

Plans To Win Them Back

DISD’s enrollment started decreasing in the early ’70s, when the City’s schools were desegregated.

“The total enrollment of the district just plummeted,” says Ed Baca, the area superintendent for our neighborhood’s schools.

In 1970, DISD attendance was 180,000 students. The student population was 58 percent white, 33 percent black and eight percent Hispanic. Today, there are 140,000 students overall, with 14 percent white, 45 percent black and 39 percent Hispanic.

The exodus was partly due to white flight and partly due to the growing attraction of shiny, new suburbs, Baca says.

To combat the changes, DISD developed programs such as magnet schools, the Adopt-A-School program and Positive Parents to help attract parents back.

Some of the efforts are starting to pay off, Baca says.

  • Attendance is increasing annually, new schools are being built and mobile units are becoming fixtures on several campuses.
  • A December 1992 bond issue was designed to address the overcrowding and update buildings.
  • Test scores are increasing, and so is the number of National Merit Scholars. This year, Woodrow had two students qualify for the honor, which is given to the nation’s top academic students.

“I’m optimistic that schools are improving,” Baca says. “I think in this area, we’re far ahead of the game than most areas. We have a high degree of parent involvement. It’s far from ideal, but it’s better.”

Public school education gives parents and their children more choices, Baca says. They can go to neighborhood schools or apply for magnet schools. If they choose a neighborhood school, there are several curriculum paths – fine arts, sports and advanced classes, as well as remedial courses, if a student needs extra help.

The best possible education is available in public schools, Baca says. He cites Harriet Patterson, Woodrow’s valedictorian this year who received several scholarships and awards and will attend Princeton next year.

“The quality of her education compares anywhere nationally,” Baca says. “It’s there for the taking.”

DISD, MIT & Dartmouth

In 1976, Carol and Jack Corgan’s eldest son, Kevin, was getting ready to attend school. Desegregation started a few years before, and with it, so did white flight and DISD bashing.

Despite the situation, the Corgans decided to send their sons to public schools. They looked for a new house and found one in Lakewood, and after Carol visited Lakewood Elementary, she says they were sold.

“For us, it was an important decision,” she says. “This just felt real good.”

Kevin and youngest son Colin went all the way through neighborhood schools – even though the Corgans could afford to send them to private school.

When they entered the fourth and sixth grades at Lakewood, the Corgans wondered about sending their sons to Long and Woodrow.

“It was a real happy time for (Kevin and Colin),” Carol says. “I thought: If they’re this happy, why change anything?”

“If they’re this happy, we must be doing something right.”

Their friends in the Park Cities, where Jack grew up, questioned their decision. But when they saw how well their sons were doing, Carol says the questioning stopped.

Both Kevin and Colin were president of their respective classes at Woodrow. Kevin graduated from MIT a year ago with a degree in economics and finance. He works on Wall Street as a corporate bond trader. He graduated with a 4.7 grade point average on a 5.0 scale, was captain of the rowing team and president of his fraternity.

“There was no way he was not prepared,” Carol says.

Colin attends Dartmouth and also is getting a degree in economics. He has a 3.8 grade point average on a 4.0 scale and was recently recognized for having the highest average on the Ivy League school’s football team.

“I don’t think the kids were ever compromised in what they learned,” Carol says. “It’s kind of no limit, to a certain point. There were definitely resources there.”

Carol and Jack were involved in the schools. Jack was one of the founding fathers of the Friends of Lakewood Elementary, and they were volunteers for Positive Parents. They served in all PTAs, and Carol worked in the office at Lakewood once a week.

“Because I was involved, I felt comfortable,” Carol says. “Because I was involved I knew what was going on.”

And having this first-hand information helps when Carol faces DISD bashing.

“I try not to get into arguments, even now,” Carol says.

She hears a lot of the myths about “scary” public schools from parents who send their children to private schools.

Recently, she says she faced a situation in a social setting where someone was saying something she knew was untrue about public schools. She corrected the person because she says it’s important for people to know that public schools – at least the ones she knows – are not bad.

“It was a good decision for us,” Carol says. “We would not have wanted to do it any other way.”

A View From the Outside

Paul Geisel, a professor of urban affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington, drew up the desegregation plan for DISD. When the plan was implemented, he says white flight was anticipated.

“You get white flight whenever there’s change,” Geisel says.

But the people who stayed or moved into inner-city neighborhoods are the people who want a real community – with children, senior citizens and residents of all colors, Geisel says.

“Living in the inner-city is an eclectic, bizarre experience,” Geisel says. “Most people want a sense of community, and some people don’t.”

Many of the myths about public school come from the media, says Charles Funkhouser, dean of the education department at University of Texas at Arlington.

Reading about a single shooting in a single school damages all public schools, Funkhouser says.

“It takes a lot of National Merit Finalists to counter that,” he says.

I don’t think public schools are near as bad as being reported. If you poll the kids, they’re going to feel safe.”

Public educators are dealing with more societal problems today than 20 years ago, Funkhouser says. Public schools provide transportation, breakfast and lunch, counseling and anything else a child may need.

“Private schools couldn’t even touch that,” Funkhouser says. “I can’t think of any other enterprise that’s taken on such a task.”

And compared to other large urban school districts, such as Chicago, New York and Boston, Dallas is doing a good job, Funkhouser says.

“I think Dallas has got it under control,” Funkhouser says of the 10th largest school district in the country.

“If your child is an average student, they can do well in private or public schools. I think it’s advantageous if your child is slightly unique to be in public school.

“You can go swimming in a public pool and experience some inconveniences. It’s a little more rowdy and crowded. Or you can join a country club and swim with everyone who is like you.

“But the swimming is the same at both places. It’s that way with education.”

Private, Then Public

Lana Stackhouse, who was educated at Hockaday, initially sent her daughters, Arianna and Michele, to St. Thomas Aquinas. She was a single mom and felt the extra discipline and love of the nuns at the Catholic school would help with parenting.

But when it was time for her daughters to go to high school, she sent them to Woodrow.

“I wanted my children to relate to the real world, because no matter where you go, you’re going to have to deal with that,” Stackhouse says.

“Woodrow allowed them to be individuals – to bring out their good stuff. I think they got a better education at Woodrow. The teachers at Woodrow are there because they love to teach.”

Stackhouse says she, and her friends, questioned her decision.

“Every day for four years,” she says, “until graduation day.”

“People outside of Woodrow think it’s a very tough school. That’s far from the truth. I asked my children constantly: Are you scared to go to class? And they said: No. You’re going to get all walks of life at Woodrow.”

Daughter Arianna is a junior at SMU and plans to attend medical school. Michele is a sophomore and wants to go to law school.

“Because they’re paying money, people think they’re getting a better education at a private school, but they’re not,” Stackhouse says. “When my kids are winning full scholarships to top schools and many awards, I guess I have the last say.”

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