Dear 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.
The Lady Who Can Type With Her Fingers Crossed