Susan Klein has sent two children through Kramer Elementary School in Preston Hollow. That fact sometimes prompts a raised eyebrow from some of her neighbors.

 

          “When I do say Kramer, a lot of them are like, ‘We’ve heard that’s a nice little school,”’ she says. “Over the years I’ve gotten used to saying, ‘No, we go to Kramer because it’s a good school.’”

 

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

 

          But some families who could afford to move to the suburbs or send their children to private schools remain in DISD. Often, it’s not for some high-minded philosophical commitment to public education. Rather, it’s because they are convinced their children are getting a good education right in the neighborhood.

 

Klein’s son just graduated from Kramer and will start at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in the fall. Her daughter, also a Kramer alumnus, participated in the academic pentathlon at Franklin . She is now a junior at Hillcrest High School who is taking Advanced Placement classes.

 

          To Klein, a former president and former treasurer of the Kramer PTA, her children’s academic success proves the school laid a good foundation.

 

          “I think they were so well prepared to move on,” she says.

 

          Overall, the Dallas school district reported improvements in student achievement last year. Eighty-one percent of all third-graders passed the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) 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.

 

In May, W.T. White High School was one of two DISD schools named to Newsweek magazine’s list of top 100 high schools. The district’s School of Science and Engineering at Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center was ranked sixth, and White was ranked 77th nationwide.

 

          To calculate the rankings, the magazine uses an index that divides the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests taken by the number of seniors graduating that year.

 

          That measurement fits well with W.T. White principal Joy Barnhart’s emphasis on preparing all students — not just the high-performers — to continue their education after high school.

 

          “High school is a dead-end. You’ve got to keep going,” Barnhart says.

 

          Toward that end, she sends teachers and counselors to every available seminar or conference on advanced placement testing. All students are encouraged to take AP classes at some point in their high school careers. If they are “English as a second language” students who aren’t ready in the ninth grade, she expects them to be ready by the time they are seniors.

 

          “Once those kids get in a class and feel success, they’re receptive to taking more,” she says.

 

          “Most of these kids are smart,” Barnhart says. “You have to make sure they’re exposed to the content. The expectations are there. Once you get kids in a coterie that does well, they want to stay there.”

 

          Districtwide, Dallas appears to be moving in the right direction. The district reported these gains on the TAKS test scores in 2004:

 

·        76 percent of students passed the reading section, an increase of 11 percent over the previous year

 

·        66 percent passed math, an increase of 11 percent

 

·        84 percent passed writing, up 16 percent over 2003

 

·        60 percent passed science, an increase of 16 percent

 

·        86 percent passed social studies, an increase of 8 percent.

 

Also, in 11th grade, 64 percent of the students passed all tests taken — an increase of 24 percent over 2003, according to the district.

 

          The Texas Education Agency, which tracks the test scores, found that throughout the state, minority students had higher failure rates than whites, pointing out a so-called racial “achievement gap.” Statewide, 15 percent of black seniors failed the test, compared to 14 percent for Hispanics and 5 percent for whites.

 

          Those scores make the progress at W.T. White especially significant.

 

          Barnhart, who has been a principal for 33 years, says W.T. White is “truly an urban school,” despite its suburban location on

Ridgeside Drive

in a residential area.

 

          The school attendance zone stretches 26 miles up to Trinity Mills in Far North Dallas. More than 60 percent of the students qualify for subsidized lunches, meaning their families live at or near the poverty line.

 

          More than 80 percent of the students are minorities and the school has a large immigrant and refugee population, Barnhart says.

 

          “My ESL (English as Second Language) department is a phenomenal department,” she says. “Many of our ESL students are able to go into AP classes by the 12th  (grade).”

 

          Barnhart credits her “exceptional staff” with the school’s success, noting “they’ve all been trained in AP strategies.”

 

          The school also offers abundant tutoring, including on Saturdays, and students sign a contract pledging to stick with the program.

 

          Officials at nearby Brookhaven College recently offered college-level classes on the White campus so that students and their parents could become comfortable with the idea that education continues after high school.

 

          “There’s a little bit of intimidation in going to (college) class,” says Barnhart, who invited Brookhaven to come. “How do you go? How do you enroll? I wanted to see for myself: What are the issues with these children that would make them not succeed in school?”

 

          At Kramer, meanwhile, supporters say all students benefit from an exceptionally involved group of parents. The school not only has a traditional PTA, but also a Dad’s Club, as well as numerous informal “happy hours” in the neighborhood.

 

          Through a variety of different fundraising techniques, the PTA recently raised about $150,000 to make improvements to the playground and to build a learning-style courtyard designed by Klein, a landscape architect. The networking involved not only parents of current students, but also former and prospective ones.

 

          “It’s a matter of the families and Kramer believing in the school,” Klein says. “A lot of people in the neighborhood, even though they don’t send their kids there, are supporting it.

 

          “These women work so hard for that school and all those kids,” she says of the PTA mothers. “They’re not just working for their own kids either. It’s unbelievably strong.”

 


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