Much like children, some public schools are blessed with abundance: funding, volunteers, parental involvement, open spaces and safe neighborhoods.

Others do their best with what they have, happy to settle for even one of the above.

But try explaining these deficiencies to a parent who chooses public education, whether for financial, cultural or other reasons.

The presumption among East Dallasites appears to be that our wealthy suburban neighbors have everything going their way, education-wise. Who doesn’t know a handful of families who have fled the inner city for the seemingly greener environs of Plano, Richardson or Farmers Branch?

For that matter, what parent hasn’t considered making the same trek?

To answer this question, the Advocate spent a day in fourth-grade classrooms in each of three public schools: Lakewood and Robert E. Lee in East Dallas and Thomas in Plano.

We expected a revelation of Plano order versus Dallas chaos, of the Ritz versus Motel 6, of success versus failure.

But what we discovered will surprise you. Public education in Dallas is more than comparisons and contrasts, test scores and ethnic ratios.

In the end, maybe the differences between Plano and Dallas are less than we have come to believe.

Maybe our schools, at least on the fourth-grade level, really aren’t so different, after all.

Thanksgiving provides Lakewood Elementary School fourth-grader teacher Janet Cundiff with an opportunity to combine spelling, history and cultural awareness into one language arts lesson.

As with many schools, Lakewood employs “leveling” in math and reading classes, sending students from their homerooms to study with others who demonstrate similar comprehension.

Cundiff’s room is crowded with bookcases, cabinets and chairs, and it’s papered top to bottom with pictures, photos and student reports.

The students are talkative and boisterous, but Cundiff, who has taught at Lakewood for 20 years, gently and confidently reins them in. A reassuring touch on the shoulders calms the occasional restless child.

The students practice spelling “cornucopia” and “chrysanthemum” on individual chalkboards. As part of a lesson on the first Thanksgiving in 1621, students discuss foods they will share with their families.

The broad ethnic mix in this classroom reveals a varied menu. Lakewood draws half of its students after third grade from Fannin Elementary School on Ross Avenue, and most of the Fannin kids are Hispanic or Asian.

So along with the traditional turkey, Cundiff’s students will eat tamales, chitlins and sopapillas. During the discussion, children shout out food items as if they’re members of the British Parliament.

“One at a time,” says Cundiff, who wears an alphabet-embroidered sweatshirt and has a striking streak of gray in her dark hair.

Like the pilgrims, some of these students are new Americans, arriving two or three years ago from Cambodia or Mexico. After the spelling lesson, they read from “Our Country Today” and write notes to demonstrate their comprehension. “The pilgrims wanted freedom…” says Cundiff, beginning a thought.

“To life,” answers a student.

Cundiff: “They learned they had to be…”

“Brave,” answers another.

“That’s a trait you have to use at school sometimes,” Cundiff says. “You have to be brave.”

While the children read quietly, Cundiff explains: “Every year, I feel like I’m a first-year teacher. I get a new class and new students who have new needs.

“I find them very exciting to teach. I like to help them make a good beginning. One of my favorite sayings is in a song from ‘The King and I’: ‘By your pupils you will be taught.’ I learn patience from my kids. I learn excitement, anticipation.

“I think school can be fun,” she says. “It all depends on the enthusiasm of the instructor.”

When the students follow rules and finish their homework, Cundiff deposits marbles in the “Positive Thinking Jar.”

“It’s important for the students to be able to separate the seriousness from the fun part,” she says.

“The children need to learn to recognize the ability and importance of each student. It’s like when we talked about the Thanksgiving meal. They all have different foods, but each one is important.”

Parents and area businesses share Cundiff’s enthusiasm. Lakewood Elementary logged more than 13,000 volunteer hours in 1990-91, more than any Dallas school except Greiner Middle School.

Volunteers work in the library and the office, tutor students who need extra help, help operate the computer lab, and conduct the “Big Art” program, where moms and dads introduce kids to Monet and Matisse.

Most of the volunteers are mothers, says principal Karen Rogers, who arrived in mid-1990. At her previous post, Madison High School, most parents worked during the day.

“Madison has a wonderful list of volunteers. But they come primarily from their Adopters (businesses whose employees take part in the Adopt-A-School program),” Rogers says.

“A school that doesn’t have as big a base of parental volunteers needs to fill in more with businesses and churches.”

Lakewood maintains not just a large and active PTA, but a Pre-School PTA whose 175 members want to ensure, in advance, quality education for their kids. The group raised $10,000 in 1991 with a home tour and craft fair.

“We are blessed,” Rogers says.

The school did not escape DISD cuts, however. Lakewood must share its Laureate teacher with another school. And the school’s full-time counselor was cut to three days, then transferred. He’ll be replaced, but such change is unsettling for the students.

“If everything were as we desire, we’d like to not have to make those kinds of staff changes once school opens,” says Rogers, in her most hopeful tone.

But the parents do what they can to fill the gaps. The PTAs and Friends of Lakewood, primarily a dads’ group, raised matching funds to bring an Artist-in-Residence who will operate an in-school art studio for three months.

Last year’s artist, actor Carl Schaeffer of the Dallas Children’s Theatre, returns this day to Cundiff’s class to gather material for a play he will present at the school.

Schaeffer soon has the students standing on their chairs, shaking out their inhibitions. He painlessly covers parts of speech, state history, environment and conservation, the basics of theater, dealing with problems, learning to appreciate school and individuality.

“How many like school? How many hate school? Why do you hate school?” he asks.

“It’s fun, and it’s boring,” is one ambivalent answer.

Schaeffer replies: “You can go to the cafeteria and get cake, but you also have to have vegetables.”

What is the purpose of school?

Student, big sigh: “To learn about life.”

Cundiff says: “For students to prepare themselves to be responsible citizens. Better citizens.”

Student: “Senior citizens.”

All in due time.


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