Jane Didear says public school wasn’t an option for her son, Derek.

“I believed everything the newspapers said,” Didear says about selecting a school. “The Morning News and the Times Herald were pretty heavy (negative) on DISD.”

So Derek attended a private Montessori program for pre-school, kindergarten and part of first grade.

Then one day, Jane thought: “Why not my neighborhood school?”

She stopped by Dan D. Rogers Elementary and was surprised by what she learned.

“The teachers did expect a lot out of him,” Didear says. “The second year, I wondered: Did I just get lucky the first year with a good teacher?”

“I’ve been lucky every time.”

Looking Beyond The Stereotype

Didear’s experience isn’t unique.

Many neighborhood parents know that a Dallas public school education doesn’t doom their children to lives of incompetence and illiteracy. Instead of buying into the media-encouraged popular belief that DISD schools are just plain bad, these parents did some research and discovered DISD offers some excellent educational programs.

And considering they pay no more than their annual property taxes (if they own a home), these parents believe they are getting a great deal.

“There’s probably a greater percentage of outstanding schools than ever before,” says Sandy Kress, president of DISD’s school board. “I think if parents look closely, they’ll be surprised by what they find.”

“People are going to discover they have little jewels in their neighborhood.”

Whatever you want for your child – computers, art, foreign languages or science – DISD seems to have it.

You’ll just have to look a little harder to find it.

“(DISD) is the best-kept secret,” says Chad Woolery, DISD superintendent. “Regardless of what your child wants to do, you can do it here.”

New and Improved

DISD’s negative image has grown and festered for several years. But its image doesn’t reflect what is happening in DISD, district officials say. Changes are occurring, and one of them is offering more and better curriculums.

“We try to give parents clout by giving them options,” Kress says.

“We know we have a diverse student body. Schools develop their own character. There are a lot of different ways to educate a child.”

The district implemented programs to give parents more say in their child’s education, Kress says. Each campus operates on a School Centered Education philosophy, with a committee of school faculty, parents and community members managing the school.

“Increasingly, parents are having more say in budget, curriculum and style,” Kress says.

Kress admits DISD hasn’t communicated the options and improvements in the district very well. But he hopes that situation will change.

DISD will have difficulty convincing some parents that the district provides a good education. Lack of faith in DISD developed over time with the negative images of desegregation, the busing of students, seemingly low standardized test scores, and in-fighting with the school board and district officials, Kress says.

Many people hear one bad story and automatically assume the problems affected all schools, even their neighborhood school, Kress says.

Susan Lewis, whose three sons have been in DISD’s magnet programs, says she frequently faces people who have no faith in DISD.

Embarrassed to Attend DISD?

“Some people just have this connotation that anything in DISD is evil,” Susan says. “I had one friend at Dealey (Montessori Academy) who said she was embarrassed to say she sent her children to DISD.”

Susan says her children receive a good education, but the negative image raises questions.

“I guess I’ll always wonder,” Susan says. “I’m encouraged they score high on their tests.”

“I do know people who could afford private schools, but choose to send their kids (to DISD) for the cultural experience. That’s one thing I’m grateful for.”

“I don’t think I would want them in a segregated, sheltered environment.”

Kress says DISD is funneling more money directly to the schools rather than into its bureaucracy. As a result, test scores are going up, and schools are becoming safer.

DISD also has beefed up its curriculums and will continue to do so. Some schools in the district are on par with some of the area’s private schools, Kress says.

“We want to make sure people have good neighborhood schools,” Kress says. “We want the basic neighborhood school to be as strong as possible.”

Using the System

Derek Didear is gifted, especially in math. He scored the sixth highest score nationwide from among 6,000 students taking the Best Test, Jane says.

But Jane, who now works for DISD’s Partners in Education program, worried Derek wouldn’t be challenged if she enrolled him in Dan D. Rogers Elementary.

But at the school, Derek became involved with the Laureate program, which provides an enhanced curriculum for elementary students.

“In the fourth grade, he had a science teacher, a math teacher, a language arts teacher and social studies,” Didear says.

Last year was Derek’s final year at Dan D. Rogers, and Didear attended informational sessions about Franklin Middle School, which handles students graduating from Rogers. She researched Franklin’s advanced placement classes and extracurricular activities, such as band and art.

But she also checked out DISD’s Alex W. Spence Academy for the Academically Talented and Gifted, a district magnet program that provides an enhanced curriculum and smaller classes. Derek applied and was one of 75 students accepted into the Academy.

Didear says she weighed the pros and cons of each DISD program and decided the Academy would be best for Derek.

The Neighborhood School

But the choices are not only between one school or another. Each neighborhood school has a plethora of programs of which to take advantage.

Take neighborhood residents Emily, Alex and Pat Cunningham. All attended Stonewall Jackson Elementary, and will probably attend J.L. Long Middle School and Woodrow Wilson High School.

Even though they attend the same schools, each one’s education has been different.

  • Emily is fluent in sign language, which she learned at Stonewall, and began taking piano lessons at school in the first grade. In May, she was admitted to the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts’ piano program, but chose to attend Woodrow to take advantage of the choir and one-act play programs, as well as the advanced placement courses that will give her college credit while in high school.
  • Alex is entering the seventh grade at Long. Alex’s mother, Nancy, describes him as an average student who has not needed any special educational programs, but thrived at Stonewall.
  • Pat is in the fifth grade at Stonewall and has a learning disability. Nancy says DISD has spent thousands of dollars on tests, psychologists, counselors and teachers to address his needs.

“DISD put everything behind these kids,” Nancy says. “That’s the plus of being in a big school district – you have choices. It’s absolutely different for each kid.”

Stonewall is the regional school for deaf students, so sign language is in the curriculum for all students, says principal Olivia Henderson. Stonewall has a science lab in which sixth graders dissected a pig heart last year. There also is a computer lab and an extensive music program, with a choir and band.

Other neighborhood schools also have special curriculums. Woolery says some schools have reached out to the arts district to provide programs for students, while others have turned to the business community.

What Should You Look For?

“The best place to start is your neighborhood school,” Woolery says. “The key thing is for a parent to know what is there now.”

Woolery suggests some questions to ask of DISD administrators:

  • How many parents are involved in school programs?
  • What is the staff turnover?
  • How does the school compare with other schools?
  • What is the school’s performance on tests?
  • How is it ranked in the district?
  • What special programs are available?

If parents discover a school out of their attendance zone that they would like their child to attend, they can request a transfer, Woolery says. For information about transferring, call assistant superintendent Shirley Newsome at 565-6524.

Larry Smith, principal at Bryan Adams High School, says several students have transferred into his school to take advantage of special programs.

“It’s a traditional, comprehensive, middle-income high school,” Smith says. “There are a lot of things available at your neighborhood school.”

Many students are involved in the extensive theater programs at Bryan Adams, as well as drill team, band and football, Smith says.

But it’s not just the extracurricular activities that make Bryan Adams stand out. Last year, Bryan Adams had nine National Merit Scholar Finalists, Smith says.

When students come back to visit, Smith says he always asks the same question: “Did we prepare you to be successful in school?”

“Everyone has said they were prepared.”

Making the Decision

When it’s time for Derek to attend high school, Didear says they will research, again, the neighborhood school and the magnet programs. But she says she is confident that no matter which program they choose, Derek will receive an excellent education.”

“We do have choice in public schools,” Didear says. “I’ve been real happy.”

Nancy Cunningham feels the same way. She says when Emily decided to attend Woodrow instead of the Arts Magnet, it was a tough choice. But in the long run, Cunningham says it was a good decision.

“Families have to look at their individual needs,” Cunningham says. “Our community schools reflect our neighborhood.”

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