So DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa is off to the land of pretty peaches. Happy summer to him and thanks, of course, for the memories. But what now?
Dallas schools must find a way to recapture the kids of the middle class, and there has seldom been a better moment for such an effort. With food and fuel costs going up and salaries pressed on every side, many parents would gladly grab the chance to send their children to a good public school. Some would work like mad to make it happen.
One Chicago mother who did just that is Jacqueline Edelberg, who left a university teaching post to rear her daughter. Like a growing number of young professionals, she and her husband had settled in the gentrifying East Lakeview neighborhood.
As kindergarten loomed, they faced a vexing dilemma: the high price of private schools, the great difficulty getting into special or magnet public schools, or a move to the suburbs. The last option was the most painful because they loved the vast range of activities available in the heart of Chicago.
Their neighborhood school, Nettelhorst Elementary, was so bad it was shunned not just by middle-class families but by all families, according to Edelberg. Nonetheless, she and a friend stopped by to check it out. They met the new principal, Susan Kurland, who bluntly asked, “What would it take for you to put your kids in my school?”
The women delivered their answer the next day in the form of a hefty list with 19 items: stellar academics; healthy, organic lunches; music, art and drama; a well-stocked, cozy library; state-of-the art technology, and a well-equipped science lab. Kurland’s response? “Let’s get moving. It’s going to be a very busy year.”
In their subsequent book about the experience, How to Walk to School, Edelberg and Kurland describe how a group of mothers, working with a supportive principal, took a leap of faith that changing the school’s environment would, in turn, transform its quality of education.
It was messy. It was tough. But a miracle emerged. A blighted, financially strapped school was made over through parental involvement — from textbooks to the facility itself.
Teams of volunteers were assigned to committees ranging from special events to curriculum to increased parental engagement. They raised money and goods from local merchants, filled an empty library with books and turned city artists loose with donated paint to create murals on every wall.
Over time families began moving into East Lakeview specifically so their children could go to Nettelhorst. Not only did their test scores shine, but so did those of the substantial percentage of low-income students who were bused from overcrowded schools in other parts of town
The effort transformed not just the school but the neighborhood around it, a neighborhood that looks a lot like those in many parts of Dallas, from Oak Cliff to Hollywood Heights.
The Nettelhorst story offers clear lessons for the Dallas district as it searches for a new leader and for the Greater Dallas Chamber, which is scouring the country for education reform ideas. It’s simple: True renewal happens one school at a time. And the remedy lies partly with the middle class.
Why not gather small groups of parents who live near neighborhood schools but send their kids elsewhere and ask them what it would take to change their minds? Most important, make this much more than a listening tour. Gather partners, as Nettelhorst did, and create the same kind of energy and action.
Special programs and magnet campuses are wonderful, but there aren’t enough of them to accommodate the children of all the middle-income families who would live in Dallas if DISD were strong.
Walking to the school down the street need not be so wild a notion. As Edelberg and Kurland pointed out, “A great many savvy parents would choose public education if only it would choose them.”