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 DISD schools offer a place where their kids have not only survived, but thrived.

“I had listened to the media and, like all young parents, heard there was nothing good about DISD,” says Donna Flowers, explaining why she originally enrolled her son and daughter in private school.

“Back then there was a lot of scuttlebutt – six different superintendents in five years, or something like that.

“DISD just did not have a good reputation, so I thought it wasn’t worthwhile to even educate myself.”

So her children, John and Kate, went to private school. Over the years, she and her husband began to doubt their decision.

“We weren’t totally sold on the school we were at,” she says. “We’d talked to people who had done DISD and sent their kids to Harvard.”

The final straw came when John was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder.

“He started having some issues, and they were less patient with him in private school,” she says. “Public school has more facilities to deal with ADD and things like that. If you go about it correctly, you can get lots of help.”

When they visited Franklin Middle School, they were impressed by then principal Johnlynn Mitchell.

“We fell in love with her,” Flowers says.

That was more than five years ago. John will be starting at Texas Tech University this month, and Kate will be a junior at Hillcrest. Today, their parents still sing DISD’s praises.

“The kids have an opportunity to be involved in a gazillion things,” Flowers says. “You can find your niche in public school, and there is quite good instruction.”

And she’s still and admirer of Mitchell, who is now principal at Hillcrest.

“She’s not afraid to do the hard stuff – that’s one of her biggest talents,” Flowers says. “Her priority is the student body, the kids, making sure they get the best education they possibly can. She does whatever it takes to the extent that she can.”

Things are changing, Flowers believes, from the top down.

“Dr. Moses (DISD’s former superintendent and a neighborhood resident) has turned things inside out. DISD’s not perfect, but my gosh…things are just completely different than they were.”

So different, she says, that it’s even more important now that parents not rush to a conclusion when it comes to the neighborhood’s public schools.

“Educate yourself before you make a judgment. Go visit the school, go visit the principal. Don’t make a decision based on hearsay,” she says. “Form your own opinions by educating yourself.”

As Harvard-trained doctors, Renee Rossi and Fred Duffy say they can afford to send their kids to any school they want.

And when they first moved here in 1998, “we wanted to use public schools,” says Rossi, explaining that she and Duffy attended public milling around, kids in the principal’s office, that kind of thing. I just wasn’t sure what was going on.”

So they enrolled their oldest, Ryan, now 9, at a church school after testing him at a number of private schools – an experience that left her disturbed.

“This practice of testing four- and five-year-olds was just ridiculous, ludicrous,” she says. “At one school, they told me his missed question No. 16, so he wouldn’t get into the school. At the same time, I knew people who were getting their kids in by making phone calls, because they knew somebody who knew somebody.”

Eventually exasperated by the situation, Rossi and her husband went back to Preston Hollow Elementary and talked to principal Teresa Parker. This time around, they felt different.

“I was very pleased with what I was seeing there,” she says. “There is a very active PTA, and the parents are involved in some of the decision making. That’s just one of the things that was wonderful.”

The school’s diversity also is high on their list.

“I think that when you come to a school like Preston Hollow or another public school, having a mixture of families is important,” Rossi says.

She gives an example: “At Preston Hollow, around 75 percent of kids qualify for reduced lunch or free lunch, meaning they’re at or near poverty level,” she says. “It’s important for kids to see that, because I don’t think you can really empathize with what’s going on in the world unless you experience it first hand. You can sympathize in sort of a pedantic way and talk about it like it’s a problem. But you can’t understand it.”

Rossi makes it clear that she’s not against a private-school education and might eventually transfer her kids back into private school.

“It’s like anything. You try to look at it year by year and school by school, and look at what resources are available to your child,” she says.

She wants to make sure her decisions about where to educate her children are based on her own research and not other people’s opinions or misconceptions.

“Certainly the biggest thing we’ve seen is people are very fearful,” she says. “They put on this blanket assumption that all of these schools are not safe. You have to look at the individual school.”

For the foreseeable future, she says, Ryan and Evan will stay at Preston Hollow.

“Our experience has been rather positive overall. Our kids are challenged,” she says, “and we’ve just been really pleasantly surprised.”

“Certainly the biggest thing we’ve seen is people are very fearful,” she says. “They put on this blanket assumption that all of these schools are not save. You have to look at the individual school.”

For the foreseeable future, she says, Ryan and Evan will stay at Preston Hollow.

“Our experience has been rather positive overall. Our kids are challenged,” she says, “and we’ve just been really pleasantly surprised.”

Kirsten Schorsch admits she and her husband, John, sent their children to private school for all the wrong reasons.

“Everybody we talked to or met said, ‘Oh, you can’t send your kids to DISD,’” Kirsten says. “They gave us every reason under the sun: ‘There’s drugs, the kids are terrible, the teachers are terrible, your kids will never get a good education.’

“As pathetic as it sounds, you feel quite a bit of pressure from those around you,” she says. “We didn’t know anybody who was sending kids to public school in our area.”

So they sent sons Brandon and Aidan to private schools. Over time, Brandon attended three private schools and Aidan two. They left each school, Kirsten says, “because of lack of faith in leadership.” Bad administration, Schorsch says, was leading to “teachers leaving and dropping out like flies.”

She also felt her boys weren’t exactly blossoming in private school.

“To be honest, their self confidence was eroded. Brandon never felt like he was good enough in private school, because there was a lot of pressure for him to be like everybody else, and he’s just not like everybody else. He’s a different kid.”

The family was told more than once to have Brandon tested for Attention Deficit or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity disorders.

“We’d be told we had to do that, and we’d come back with reports he was fine, and then be told, ‘Well, that can’t be true.’”

Two years ago, fed up, they enrolled the boys in neighborhood public schools. This year, Brandon will be in eighth grade at Franklin Middle School, Aidan will attend fourth grade at Preston Hollow Elementary, and youngest brother Grayson will start kindergarten there.

Kirsten says their decision to move the boys to public school has been met with incredulity from some of their friends and neighbors.

“People ask, ‘Hasn’t he been threatened? Hasn’t he been beaten up? Isn’t there violence in the halls?’ I’m like, ‘No!’” she says, laughing.

In fact, Schorsch says, her kids are happier in public school that they’ve ever been. Brandon is making good grades and on the math team at Franklin, and, Kirsten says, “he’s feeling good about being smart.”

Looking back now, Schorsch says she regrets that she let herself be pressured into sending her kids to schools that weren’t right for them.

“I don’t know if we were every truly happy with private school,” she adds. “But we felt we had no alternative.

“There’s this cloud of fear that a lot of families are living under,” she says. “You know that peer pressure thing you went through in junior high? Well, it amazes me, as adults, how much we don’t grow up. We think, ‘If my neighbor’s doing that, I have to do that.’

“There are plenty of people who have successful, wonderful times in private school. But there are also plenty of people in private schools who are miserable,” she says.

“I just desperately want people to understand that they do have a choice.”

It wasn’t Rebecca Pendergrass’ idea that her daughter, Laura, transfer to public school.

It was Laura’s decision – a decision made all the more surprising given she was in the middle of her seventh grade year, a time and age at which most kids would rather chew off their won arm than start over at another school.

“I just kind of got tired of the clique-iness,” says Laura, now a 21-year-old radio/TV/film major at the University of Texas in Austin. Her class at the private school she was attending had only 25 students, and Laura’s mom says that she felt reigned in by the school’s size.

“I came home one day and said, ‘I want to look at Franklin [Middle School] down the street.’ And my parents surprised me. They were like, ‘OK, we’ll go check it out.’”

Her parents weren’t as calm as they seemed.

“I thought: What are we gonna do if she gets down there and doesn’t like it?” Rebecca says.

But unlike many other private school parents, their family already had exposure to the public school. The Pendergrasses’ youngest daughter, Emily, a year younger than Laura, already attended Franklin. Emily has Down’s Syndrome.

“If there were a private school for her, she probably would have been there,” Rebecca says. “But they don’t have the resources for someone like Emily. In the public sector, you have speech therapists, you have a special education department. Most private schools don’t have that.”

And so the Pendergrasses became a full-time public school family – a decision they’ve never regretted, Rebecca says.

As far as Emily is concerned: “I would say she’s average to a little better than average in her social skills because she’s been mainstreamed with regular kids.”

And Laura? She succeeded at Franklin and Hillcrest, becoming a cheerleader and graduating seventh in her class.

“I really don’t feel that I was shortchanged academically. I didn’t feel like I was lacking in anything,” Laura says. “The basic curriculum was pretty much the same. Except going to public school, I had a lot more elective opportunities, like speech, drama, art classes and journalism.”

Rebecca agrees. Asked if Laura received as good an education at Hillcrest as she would have at the private school, she responds: “Yes, absolutely. In fact, I think we had some stronger teachers in the public sector.”

The school’s diversity was an important factor too, Rebecca says.

“I really think that prepared her for being able to do as well as she has done at UT. At some point, you have to learn to live in the real world, and I think it’s easier to do when you’re younger. These people who put their kids in private school, that’s not doing them any favors. When they do get out, it’s such a shock for them because they’ve been held in the bubble for so long.”

They’re also not doing the public school system any favors either, she says. Though a supporter, she knows there’s room for improvement in the district.

“If everybody put their kids in the neighborhood schools, used the public school system, what fabulous schools we would have,” she says. “Parents would get behind the system, and we would have more resources than we have right now.”


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