Ashley Bull was raised in Highland Park and knows well what her old friends think about the fact that her children attend Dallas public schools.


“There are people that are like, ‘Oh, my gosh, when are you going to move? What are you going to do for high school?’’’ Bull says.


The answer: probably stay put. Right now, that’s a ways off — two of the Bulls’ three children are at Lakewood Elementary.


“Maybe they feel like it’s not the best,’’ Bull says of her old friends. “Maybe that’s true. Maybe there’ll be less AP classes. I feel like in the whole scheme of life, they’re going to get what they need — and a little bit more.’’


The Bulls and other middle class families like them could afford to live in another school district. They don’t stay for some high-minded philosophical commitment to public education. Rather, they say it’s because they’re convinced their children are getting a good education right in the neighborhood. And they say their children are also getting a broad view of real life.


“It’s a nice mix of kids there (at Lakewood ). They’re getting a great education,’’ Bull says. “I’m not sure how it compares to St. Mark’s. But I don’t want my children there. I want my children in the mainstream.


“Growing up in Highland Park , it was a great little upbringing, but I never knew anything else existed,’’ she adds.


In the Dallas school district, it’s hardly a secret that many students don’t pass state achievement tests, not to mention that the majority are eligible for free or reduced price lunches because they come from struggling families.


But families throughout our neighborhood say those figures belie what they routinely see at neighborhood schools.


          Overall, the Dallas school district reported improvements in student achievement last year. Eighty-one percent of all third-graders passed the TAKS in 2004, a 15.1 percent increase over 2003, according to district figures.


          According to the Texas Education Agency, the number of recognized schools in the Dallas district increased from 40 in 2003 to 55 in 2004.


And some of the best-rated schools are in our neighborhood attendance zone.


Mount Auburn Elementary was one of 16 schools earning the highest rating of “exemplary.” The designation is given to schools with a 90 percent or higher passing rate for all students for reading, language arts, writing, math, social studies and science.


          Several other neighborhood schools — including Stonewall Jackson Elementary, Lakewood Elementary and William Lipscomb Elementary — earned the second-highest rating of “recognized.’’ It’s given to schools that achieve a 70 percent or higher passing rate.


          In addition, longtime Stonewall Jackson principal Olivia Henderson was named DISD Principal of the Year in June.


          Parents at Lipscomb Elementary are also used to raised eyebrows from people who learn that they are willingly sending their children to an inner-city school.


          Years ago, Sarah Dieterich used to be one of those people.


          “At the time, I said: ‘Before we have children, I want to move away. I don’t like the looks of that school,’’’ she recalls.


          Now her two sons will be returning to school there in the fall, entering the first and third grades. The school, which only goes to the third grade, has a more intimate atmosphere than larger elementary schools, she says.


“It’s like the school I used to go to, like a village school,’’ says Dieterich, who is from . “The principal knows the name of all the kids. You see the principal all over. She’s not somebody who hides behind her office door.’’


          Dieterich suspects that many of the newer, affluent families who’ve moved into the area are turned off by the school’s aging exterior.


          “When we first moved into the area about 15 years ago, the house we originally bought was a steal. Since then, property prices have really risen, the area is really up-and-coming. The look of the houses has changed,’’ she says. “The whole neighborhood has had a face lift, but the school has stayed looking like it did years and years ago.


          “Several other mothers in the area have come up to me,’’ she says. “They say, ‘What do you think of that school?’ They say, ‘We’re wondering if we ought to go private or move away.’’’


          She encourages them to visit the school, where she said they’ll notice small classes and the friendly environment.


The Dieterichs lived in when the children were younger and sent the boys to private schools. The ethnic diversity, and the fact that school announcements are made over the loudspeaker in English and Spanish, is something the family likes.


          “We’ve got black friends, we’ve got white friends, and we’ve got Hispanic friends,’’ she says.


          Overall, 63 percent of the students who attended Dallas schools last year were Hispanic, 30 percent were African American and 6 percent were white, according to school district figures.


          But those figures don’t begin to tell the story of the district’s true diversity. Officials say that students come from homes where 70 different languages are spoken.


That can pose practical challenges both during and after school. Several years ago, the Dieterichs helped launch a Cub Scout troop. The first year, they had four members. They decided they had to work harder to get the word out that everyone was welcome. The next year, they had 21 scouts.


          “We’re trying to get out there into the community and show good things are going on,’’ Dieterich says.


          Over in Lakewood , Ashley Bull says neighbors with older children helped convince her that the schools were fine.


          “We kept getting opinions from people in the neighborhood, and they were like, ‘Oh yeah!’ she recalls. “I have never had a second thought.”


          She says she knows her family has made the right decision to be around people from a variety of backgrounds.


          “I think this life experience too is going to get them further … knowing how life really is,’’ she says. “It’s been a good smooth ride.’’


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