Dallas Public Schools: Dear DISD, Can We Talk?

prekformsDear Dallas ISD:

I love you. I really do. Pretty much every single interaction I’ve had with you has been wonderful, hopeful and positive. But we need to talk – about talking.

Or rather, communication.

All the blogs in the world, all the tweets in the universe, all the Facebook posts in the lower 48 won’t help if your staffers aren’t uniformly informed of district practices. “What is she talking about?” you may ask.

I’m talking about my latest experience with some of the district’s elementary schools, and what I’ve discovered the front office staff doesn’t know regarding Pre-K policy.

About a year ago, when I first started investigating our options, I emailed about district policy (as a parent, not as a journalist, in fact I purposely didn’t mention my profession) regarding Pre-K. I knew that children who qualified because of income, language or parental military service were given priority, but I also knew that any open spaces could be filled by children who didn’t qualify under those circumstances, for a monthly or yearly tuition.

The response? “Ms. Erickson, there are several criteria for kindergarten. Usually, spots are filled with children who meet the criteria but some schools maintain a waiting list. You may want to check with your neighborhood school to see if that is the case.”

In other words, I had the correct information. So as time approached, I emailed our neighborhood school, because even though we have hopes that Tiny will get in to Harry Stone Montessori, I’m a planner – and I wanted a Plan B (to be truthful, I want a Plan B, C, D, and possibly E – can you really have too many plans?).

The principal was super helpful. Their classes used to fill up quickly because they offered the bilingual Pre-K, but this year they offered (for the first time in a long time) an English Pre-K, too. There had still been open spots in that class this year, but she anticipated that once word got out, there could be a wait list for it as well.

So in other words, it sure sounds like the school at least maintains some sort of wait list – which is what non-qualifying potential students end up on. So far, so good. We weren’t angling for Tiny to take the place of a qualifying student – just for him to be on the waiting list, in whatever order we arrived in, be it first, fifth, last or somewhere in the middle.

Last week I went to the school to drop off Tiny’s enrollment packet. And there is where the proverbial needle scratched on the record. The registrar had no clue what I was talking about. She had no idea. None. “I guess we call you before school starts and let you know if he is in?” she said, sounding awfully unsure for someone whose job is well, knowing the enrollment policies of the district. I let her know what I had confirmed months ago, regarding district policy. “I’ll need to call the district I guess,” she said. “I didn’t know you could pay to be in Pre-K.”

For what it’s worth, the principal apparently knew what I was talking about, since my email with her had also mentioned tuition, and she said she didn’t know how much it was now, but that it was “district-driven.”

I walked out of the school less certain about whether Tiny would have a DISD Pre-K to go to than I did when I walked in. Not because I didn’t have confidence in the teachers and the school, but because my first face-to-face interaction with the school was not chock-a-block full of information we needed.

I know that the non-qualifying potential students have to pretty much wait all summer to find out if there is a spot – mostly because people can move in and out of the district and enrollment numbers can fluctuate. So waiting isn’t our problem. It was the lack of information – and the lack of surety on the part of the people who should be able to give some definitive answers about how things work.

I was curious if it was just our neighborhood school, or if more weren’t sure. So I called a few more – again, not as a journalist, but as a parent looking for information. I called four schools, and three registrars didn’t know what I was talking about. One told me they were only allowed to take students who qualified based on income or language, but she thought Skyline maybe took kids like mine.

In other words, nobody is on the same page.

And this is where it sucks: I’m a parent dedicated to putting my kid in public schools. The district, according to higher-ups I’ve talked to, would love to have lots of parents who have bought-in to its aim for progress. But can you imagine a less committed parent walking in to something like this? A parent with the means to send their kid to literally any private school in the city – or even just move to the suburbs? Would they be so willing to both deal with the uncertainty of waiting all summer AND the uncertainty of knowing if the school officials even know what to do with their child’s enrollment papers?

This is the first interaction most parents will have with DISD. It behooves you to make sure that everyone that interacts with them has the same information. Yes, some schools don’t choose to maintain a wait list. Space is limited across the district (can we all agree we need universal Pre-K?) to the point that if every qualifying student enrolled in Pre-K, there wouldn’t be room for them. In some schools, the chances of a non-qualifying student making it off the wait list are so small that they just don’t bother with a non-qualifying wait list.

But if you’re the administrator or registrar of that school, wouldn’t it be better to say that up front, before the parents trek over to pick up a packet or (worse) come back over to drop off the packet they’ve already filled out? Or better yet, couldn’t the district utilize its website to create a page explaining the program for both qualifiers (as they do now) AND non-qualifiers, with a contact form for non-qualifying families that allows for toggling to choose the school you’re interested in, and a place to write a note asking for information regarding potential wait lists? Or even better, only include the schools that maintain those lists. If your neighborhood school isn’t on it, then you know there is no waiting list. And maybe the information for non-qualifying families could also explain the tuition process, as well.

My favorite boss in the world (who also happened to be my first boss) used to tell us to “work smarter, not harder, but work harder to work smarter.” I think this could be a good mantra for Dallas public schools. For all the good it is doing in ways big and small, it just seems like communicating with parents of prospective students is one thing that kind of falls by the wayside. It’s great to have magnet fairs, but what about the parents of a four-year-old that just wants to know about enrollment for their neighborhood school? That information is harder to find.

In conclusion, I’ve been impressed – through campus visits and magnet fairs and open houses – with every single teacher and administrator I’ve met. It’s just this one little thing that put a burr under my saddle. But it’s a little thing for me. It may not be such a little thing to other parents – and you really only have one chance to impress the majority of these parents.

Sincerely,

The Lady Who Can Type With Her Fingers Crossed

 

 

16 Comment

  • mm

    I agree! It’s much too difficult to determine whether or not a school’s Pre-K will be open to non-qualifying students, which is one of the reasons we’re just eschewing DISD Pre-K entirely, opting for a local private school, and planning on starting our kiddo in Kindergarten when the time comes. Wouldn’t it be better, though, if there was a greater mix of income levels and families in Pre-K, just like there is for Kingergarten? And yes, I think we all SHOULD agree on universal Pre-K.

  • I sure hope the administration reads this and addresses this issue! So frustrating!

  • Amen! On a broader level concerning support for DISD schools, it would help if the entire Board of Trustees would support the newly released comprehensive plan that calls for more school choice. No, I don’t mean giving people vouchers to pay for their private schools outside of DISD. Rather, the plan calls for turning more DISD schools into the type parents want to choose for their children–like the district’s high-achieving magnet schools. Montessori and IB program schools are also good examples. DISD has some great schools where the interest exceeds capacity. Make more of these schools available to those of us willing to put our children in DISD schools, and the tide could turn.

    • mm

      LIKE! This would also keep more people from moving to Plano, etc., for the schools…

      • mm

        Over the next five years, Miles has a plan to add 35 new schools of choice – which is huge. But the key is giving him the chance to accomplish that.
        This district needs to stop the revolving door in the superintendent’s position. The DMN had a great editorial today – not arguing that Miles’ missteps aren’t concerning, but that it isn’t time yet to start talking about firing.
        To be honest, when I ask people about schools, frequently if they can manage to put a finger on the reason they won’t choose DISD (some have ephemeral “I keep hearing bad things” reasons) the reason has more to do with the administration and the school board than their actual neighborhood school. People worry about plotting an educational path for their child and then seeing it yanked away with a new administration because the old one was fired before it could see results, by a school board weighed down more with politics than what is good for the entire district.

        http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/editorials/20150225-editorial-we-need-to-look-at-the-big-picture-at-disd.ece

  • Alan Cohen: Director of DISD Early Childhood Education. Mike Koprowski: DISD Chief of Transformation. I’ve spoken with both these guys; very approachable and open to parental feedback and involvement. I would try to CC them on this blog as they could probably give and gain much insight. My wife and I’s experience has been somewhat similar, but pertaining to different circumstances. We’ve been consistently pleased with the majority of interactions with teachers and staff, and the kindergarten education our son is receiving, but effective communication has been hit and miss at times. My wife’s a planner, and she is affected more by communication deficits than I am, I generally just roll with things, but I hear about it. I know there may have been a sense (hopefully in the past) that DISD shouldn’t cater too heavily to the “hovering parents” that come with a laundry list of personal interest needs……..but in one sense, learning to effectively communicate issues at the classroom level, school level, and district level to a degree that satisfies the North Dallas “planner mom” (a better term I think) will do wonders in strengthening perceptions about DISD and helping to further engage existing DISD parents and likely help the urban poor more than the children of the vocal few.

    • mm

      I agree – I understand the focus right now in Pre-K is the students that actually qualify (because there are a plethora of studies that show they are the ones that need it the most).
      And I’m OK with not knowing if he actually got a spot until August. But I do want to feel confident that the person I’m handing my packet to knows what I’m talking about – and has the same information I do about the process.
      As it stands, if you’re a parent who doesn’t want to go through the magnet process but is interested in Pre-K, but doesn’t qualify under the income, military service or language criteria, there is zero information readily available, and it’s a hard slog to get the same answers from every school AND the district.

      • If we had gotten a sense that our school would support our youngest (pre-k, soon to be K) child in the pre-k program, we might have considered dropping his last year of daycare in leu of paying for pre-k so he could attend the same school as our current kindergartener. Seems like the program let out earlier than the other grades or maybe didn’t jive with the YMCA directed after school program, but I don’t remember why we didn’t look into it more closely? We probably missed an opportunity there, I talked with the Pre-K teacher 2 rooms down during an open house and she’s pretty amazing (as was the classroom) and seemed to have a great plan to brings kids up to speed for an easy transition to K. As it currently stands, we have two drop-offs and pickups, and due to the drought of North Dallas full-day pre-school options, they aren’t anywhere close to each other. We’ve seen that the majority of our boy’s friends have age separations like theirs, that puts them 1-2 grades apart, making paid pre-k an attractive option if the quality, convenience, and especially communication is in place. I do get the sense that the budget for pre-k is about as uncertain as enrollment patterns, and wonder what mechanism DISD even uses to collect pre-k tuition and what the uptake has been. I read about paying tuition somewhere before for non-qualifying kids, but don’t remember ever seeing anything from DISD about it.

    • mm

      Please CC Alan and Mike, and we’d be glad to hear from them as well as in an interview. One of my CD goals for 2015 is to build stories on DISD and how it affects Dallas real estate, because it sure does!

  • Bethany – thanks for writing your columns. I’ve enjoyed them all but this one really resonated with me. We have a 1st grader at our neighborhood DISD school and a 3-year-old that I would love to enroll at that school when pre-K rolls around. So far, our experiences with DISD teachers have been awesome, but the systemic bureaucratic challenges are frustrating and discouraging. In my opinion, Pre-K for non-qualifying kids is one of several areas where opaque and short-sighted policies are holding the district back.

  • Hi – I have enjoyed your articles about the search process for your son’s school. But, you left us hanging! Have you all heard yet about Harry Stone? If not, when should you?

  • To add to the confusion, DISD has a pre-k registration website. It states in its FAQs there is no tuition option.

    http://www.prekweekdallas.org

    If my family doesn’t meet the qualifications for free pre-k can I pay for my child to attend?
    No, Dallas ISD does not offer tuition based Pre-K.

    • mm

      And to make it even more confusing, I got a call yesterday from our feeder elementary (the one we took our registration forms to) asking for more paperwork. “Now, to clarify, we do not qualify by income or language,” i said. The registrar said, “I know, but he is in line for an open spot, so go ahead and bring it.”

      I seriously don’t know what is going on. I think I will be making some calls and emails tomorrow, because this is super confusing.