Dallas Public Schools: Putting the Public in Your Public School

Photo Courtesy "I Will Graduate."

Photo: “I Will Graduate”/Larry Young Photography

Strong schools make strong communities. It’s no real secret – and if you need a local example, just look at Highland Park ISD. I don’t think anyone can argue that having strong Dallas public schools is bad for their city. I mean, I’m sure someone will argue it, and probably in the comments. But much like good roads, well-maintained utilities and inviting parks, public schools fall under infrastructure.

And yeah, I know we all know what it feels like to hit a giant pothole and mentally calculate the time remaining on your suspension, or come home to find the water is turned off because a main broke in your neighborhood. Those things are thanks to deferred maintenance.

But the difference between potholes and water main breaks and public schools is that public schools can grow stronger in spite of their communities, or thanks to them. The latter makes the growth and improvement speedier, I would wager, though.

I think of my neighborhood. A good 2/3 to even 3/4 of Midway Hollow does not attend the one public school within its boundaries – Foster Elementary. Most of us are zoned for Withers or Walnut Hill (even those of us who can literally trip and fall over and be on school property). Foster is the little school that could – and does. A poverty rate hovering in the mid-90s and around 70 percent of children who walk through the doors for the first time don’t speak English – but the school is usually in the top 10 percent of elementary schools in the district.

But an attractive, bright and successful Foster means one side of our neighborhood automatically becomes a little more attractive, bright and successful, too.

Full disclosure, I’m now the vice-chair of Foster’s Site Based Decision Making Committee, which every school must have. It’s a committee tasked with advising the principal and discussing plans for the school, and is made up of teachers, parents, students and community members (I fall under the latter category).

And you could be on your neighborhood school’s SBDMC, too. In fact, some schools don’t have them simply because nobody has ever walked in and said, “I will be on your committee.” The time commitment isn’t arduous – we’re talking a couple of hours for a meeting a month, at most (unless you’re like me and agree for more responsibility). But the opportunity to help craft the future of a neighborhood school is, for lack of a better descriptor, so cool.

But maybe you have a little more time you could devote, so I’ll tell you another campus I visit – JJ Rhoads Learning Center. Situated not too far from Fair Park, JJ Rhoads is a school full of bright learners. It’s also a school in an Imagine2020 feeder pattern.  Studies show that being able to read at grade level by third grade can be a determiner – the canary in the mine, if you will – as to whether the student will succeed, or drop out, or worse – join the school to prison pipeline.

So twice a week, I drive over, check in at the office, and tutor a child in reading. Just before Thanksgiving, we got to move up a reading level. We celebrated, then got cracking on the next level. I cannot adequately express how much I get out of rediscovering the joy of reading every week as my student and I learn the underpinnings needed for him to read at grade level by third grade.

I volunteer through Reading Partners, and in there are still lots of students at several schools (not just Rhoads) who need tutors. You can tutor for as little as an hour a week, or more. Or you can sign up to be a substitute, for when the regular tutors cannot make it. Or, if you can’t do that but want to help, email me. I can tell you everything that’s on the wish tree in our workroom at Rhoads, and you can still help a kiddo learn to read (because, after all, we still need books, pencils, dry erase markers, etc.).

But maybe you just don’t have the time (or a reliable schedule) to devote to tutoring. But could you answer a few emails? Then Big Brothers Big Sisters has a gig for you. It’s called Mentor 2.0, and it’s perfect for someone who wants to mentor a kid, but is worried about the time requirement. Basically, after going through a background check and interview, you are matched with a student at a participating school. You correspond through an online portal that is moderated, and the topics are pre-determined. All communication is initiated by the student. The only other requirement? You’ll need to meet with your student once a month or so face to face.

But maybe your time is just way too constrained for the first three ways you can help. So let me close with two ways your dollar can help area students. One is Project Transformation, which offers after-school tutoring and summer camps for children and youth in low-income neighborhoods. The dollars you direct to them will help students with enrichment activities and more.

And then there is a truly adorable way – the “I Will Graduate” shirts. The project’s mastermind is Louisa Meyer, and the idea is to plant the seed early by providing elementary school students with t-shirts in their feeder high school colors that proudly proclaim that they will graduate, and what year. “High school student leaders deliver the shirts and describe the high school experience.  Teachers are provided with curriculum suggestions to expand on the discussion of high school and college,” the organization says. Individuals, alumni groups, organizations and businesses can donate to the cause, and get their name or logo on the back.

So literally, making your own contribution to strong public schools can be anything you want. I’ve only scratched the surface.  And you don’t have to have a child attending DISD schools. You don’t even have to have a child.

Do you already volunteer with students in the Dallas area? Let us know!

 

7 Comment

  • Great article. I mean really, really great. Thank you for bringing these ways to help to people’s attention. I am serving and have served on several SBDM Committies, and etc. All schools needs helpful and kind adults to join in.

    • Thank you! I really enjoy visiting all these campuses, too, and seeing how each school tackles their particular issues. For instance, at Rhoads, they have a huge turnover of students around April or so, because families get their income tax checks, decide to move somewhere nicer because they can afford the first months rent and deposit, but then ultimately end back in the Fair Park area by next fall or sooner. But at Foster, with a similar poverty rate, the families stay put and the turnover is much smaller. So even poverty looks different from school to school

  • Having the strong support of the realtor community is a key ingredient too. I am so thankful for Bethany’s work at highlighting school issues.

    Realtors show clients many homes. When they also take time to learn about the neighborhood school and show it to clients as well, it could benefit the realtor too because a client not paying private school tuition can afford a more expensive house.

    I am also grateful to realtor Debbie Sherrington who thanks her clients by making a donation to the shirts project. Her $2,500 gift will buy over 500 shirts and her two favorite colleges will be listed on the shirt backs.

  • Photo credit to W. T. White parent and alumnus Larry Young who volunteers by sharing his talent taking thousands of pictures of students in concert, on stage, on the court or on the field.
    https://www.facebook.com/larryyoungphotos/?pnref=lhc

  • Great post! I too am on my neighborhood school’s (Kramer Elementary) SBDM and serve as the liaison for the PTA and the home owner association. I put my time into Kramer not just because my daughter will go there, but because I want it to be a better school for every child who goes there. There are so many ways to be involved with Dallas public schools, and once you get in you are truly hooked!

  • mm

    I am so grateful to Bethany for these wonderful education updates because I know they help parents make crucial home-buying decisions!

  • Nice job, Bethany!