Former private-school families talk about their decision to transfer their kids to DISD

Dallas Independent School District.

You can’t send your kids to school there, right? As if the bureaucracy problems weren’t enough, doesn’t DISD suffer from knife-wielding thugs in the halls, apathetic teachers, lazy and ineffective administrators, and a curriculum that could land your child a job flipping burgers — if you’re lucky?

At least, that’s what many neighborhood families say they believed after obtaining their DISD information solely from the media and fellow parents who’ve never taken the time to investigate otherwise.

As recently as four or five years ago, the district was awash in bad publicity, parents and DISD administrators and teachers say. But as neighborhood mom Donna Flowers says today: “Things are looking much better for DISD.”

For this month’s story, we interviewed a number of parents who say that after sending their kids to private schools for years, they decided to do what they hadn’t done before — their homework.

They visited neighborhood public schools, met with teachers and principals, sat in on classes, talked with PTA members and neighbors with children at the schools, and researched test scores on the Internet.

What did they find out?

That by and large, our neighborhood schools are run by accountable administrators who hire caring, well-trained teachers. That racial and ethnic diversity can be as important a lesson as math or language arts. That public schools are filled with involved parents and often use the same textbooks and a curriculum that’s identical to what’s offered at many private schools.

They also learned that, at least for their kids, DISD schools offer a place where their kids have not only survived, but thrived.

“The mistake we made was that we pretty much relied on only the opinions from our friends,” says John Scherger, explaining why he and wife Karen originally enrolled their two oldest children in private school.

“There was a lot of ‘well, I’ve heard at Lakewood [Elementary] this, this and this goes on. But looking back,” he says, “I wish we would have spent more time talking to parents and administrators and teachers at Lakewood.”

Scherger adds this last part because this year, Drew, 10, and Leslie, 7, will be starting their second year at Lakewood Elementary. The verdict so far?

“It just has been very positive,” he says. “We love it; the kids just love it.”

They switched, he says, because they were “looking for a more positive environment — we wanted something with a less rigid, creative kind of learning environment.”

They’d heard all the negative things about DISD schools —  “low-performing, a rough school,” people said of Lakewood Elementary — much of which can be attributed to the media, Scherger says.

“The way they report sometimes for DISD seems to be more negative. But when there are four or five kids out of 100 that struggle, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a school where they’re not going to get a quality education. I think that there are a lot of misconceptions about DISD in general,” he says.

Misconceptions he’d like to clear up.

“I’ve looked at the curriculum of Lakewood, Lakehill and St. Thomas, and I didn’t see a big difference. As far as the education the kids have gotten, personally, I think it’s better. My son, when he came over to Lakewood — and it was really noticeable with him — he was a little behind in math. At St. Thomas, he’d been great at looking at tables and flashcards, at memorization. But as far as problem solving, word solving, conversions, things like that, he was behind — no question. It took him a little while to catch up, but now he’s fine.

“I think the other thing (at Lakewood) is the teachers are very qualified,” he continues. “That really goes across the board — the teachers, administrators, the nurse — they all have a lot of experience and are very qualified.”

And as for how the switch affected the kids, Scherger says it went pretty well.

“If you’re real positive about it, it’s an easier transition for the kids. So we went into it real positive, saying things like: ‘It’s going to be fun. You’re not losing friends, you’re just making more.’

“That helped a lot,” he says.

“I think my son, the first day, was a little unsure, but he didn’t really have any complaints. The second day, he came home and said, ‘I really like it.’ And every day from there on just got better. He even asks us now, ‘Why doesn’t everybody go to Lakewood?’ He just loves it.”

And so do his parents.

“Karen and I, we just looked at each other every day last year and said, ‘This is just great.’ We’ve really had a great experience there.”

“Furious.”

That how Libba Zak felt after the private school her older son, Reid, attended told the Zaks their youngest couldn’t attend there, too.

Reid, now 10, went to pre-K and kindergarten at a neighborhood private school. While there, he was diagnosed with ADHD and, like many children before they receive treatment for the disorder, had some behavioral problems.

His younger brother, Philip, who is two years younger, had just completed pre-school, and the Zaks were ready to enroll him in the same private school Reid had attended.

That’s when they were told Philip wouldn’t be accepted.

“You know, how dare they assume that because my older child had some problems that my younger child was going to be exactly like him?” Zak says now. “They’re totally different people. For Philip, it was like being judged guilty before being proven innocent.”

Incensed, the Zaks decided to try their neighborhood public school, Stonewall Jackson Elementary. And these days, Zak would rather talk about what she likes about Stonewall than what she didn’t like at the private school.

“It’s been great,” she says. “I think he’s had better teachers. I think they’re more on top of what’s going on [day to day], but also academically. The curriculum is just as challenging, and the older you get, the more opportunities you have to do different things.”

It’s been beneficial for her and her husband, too, she says.

“At private school, you can just write a check and go, ‘Here, take care of my kids.’ Whereas in public school, you’re more a part of the school and part of your child’s education.”

She admits that, like many parents, they had fears at first.

“You hear things about gangs and things that make a lot of parents afraid of public schools,” she says. “They think if you go to public schools, that’s where you get knifed or are a victim of a drive-by shooting because you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

At some district schools, those concerns are legitimate, she says. But what bothers her is peoples’ unwillingness to see that these things can also happen in private school.

“There are bad things that happen at private schools. If you’re worried about drugs, then talk about being in the private schools — the private school kids can afford them,” she says. “I just think it’s the nature of the beast. It’s just school and kids going through adolescence and puberty.”

As for the issue of diversity, Zak now feels she’d be doing her boys a disservice by giving them a private-school-only education.

“I had cousins who grew up in Mississippi, and none of them went to public schools. It always bothered me, because I thought, ‘What are you going to do when you get to the real world? Not everybody sitting next to you is going to be in a uniform like they are in private school.’

“I just think they would never know what it’s like to be friends with someone who isn’t like them,” she says. “It seems like if you don’t learn some of those things when you’re a kid, it’s hard to learn them when you get older.”

Anne Groben Williams calls her children’s private school attendance her “$40,000 experiment.”

Groben Williams and her husband, Stephen, initially sent their oldest, 11-year-old Cate, to Lakewood Elementary for kindergarten. The next year, because of a principal change, they decided to transfer Cate into private school.

“It was a knee-jerk reaction,” Groben Williams says now.

Cate and younger brother Stephen, 8, attended private school for two and a half years. Their mom won’t name the private school they attended and won’t talk about the reasons she pulled them out, saying only that it was the behavioral problems of other students, not her own children.

“It doesn’t serve anyone well” to talk about things in the past, she says. What she will talk about is the lessons she learned.

When her kids entered private school, she says, she was told the school’s curriculum was “academically accelerated.”

“You want to hear all those things,” she says. But when she put them into Lakewood, she says, she discovered the schools were using the same books.

“Curriculum for the fourth grade is the curriculum for the fourth grade across the state of Texas,” she says. She even found that Cate was behind in math when she re-enrolled in Lakewood.

These discoveries made her question her motives for putting her kids in private school and made her wonder: “What it is that makes people go to private schools in our neighborhood?

“In our neighborhood, it’s really either a religious decision, or it’s a social decision. If you look at all of the schools within this neighborhood, they’re using the exact same curriculum. They may add depth within that curriculum, but the fact of the matter is they all have the same curriculum,” she says.

“So you have to take that out of it. And if you take that out of it, what do you have? At some place like St. Thomas, you have religion. But if you don’t have that, then you have to get into socialization. And quite frankly, is it socialization for the child or for the parents?”

Groben Williams says she is convinced that the diversity within public schools, whether consciously or not, plays a big part in parents’ choice of where to educate their children.

“I think that my favorite comment is, ‘I’m not racist, but…,’” she says. “The problem is really fear of the unknown. You know your neighbors, but you may not know the people who live on the apartment complex on East Grand. And it is a little unnerving.”

She says she understands parents’ fears, but wishes they’d explore those fears a bit more.

“Poverty does produce a different subset of problems, unfortunately, in our country. You have potentially single parents who have to work two or three jobs just to be at the poverty line.

“Does that create potential problems in the class room? Yes,” she says. “It could be they’re hungry or that there is a social situation at home that is disturbing to them. It could be that they’re starved for attention.

“But you can’t assume that just because someone is at the poverty line, that that child does not have parents who care for them or that they have an inability to learn,” she says. “It’s a generalization, a sweeping statement. You have to look at each individual.”

Groben Williams says she has discovered that at Lakewood, issues of diversity in race and socioeconomic status are handled well. The parents, teachers and administration, she says, spend “a lot of time and energy” meeting the needs of all children.

She ticks off a list of reasons why she values Lakewood Elementary: the Math Maniacs before-school enrichment program, the Dad’s Club, the Chess Club, the gifted and talented program, the Lakewood Outdoor Learning Area and the Lakewood Opera, where kids write the words and music to an original program as well as make costumes and build sets with the help of two teachers.

“I don’t understand putting your kid in private school in Lakewood. Our school is a great school,” she says. “I’m comfortable sending my kids there. And it’s not full of blond-haired, blue-eyed, pink children who make straight As.”


WANT MORE?
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.