It happened again this week. Someone (in our comments section, no less) came in at a rate of speed somewhere between Miley Cyrus’s wrecking ball and the Kool-Aid man through a wall to utter this phrase: “Dallas ISD is failing.”
Now, to anyone who has paid attention, we know this isn’t true. Anyone who is a regular reader here knows this isn’t true, because I’ve told you it isn’t true, in five-part harmony and in interpretative dance, and continue to do so weekly as part of our ongoing School+House feature.
But instead of going with facts and figures (and yes, I’ll have a deeper dive on the latest TEA scores later this week), I’m going personal.
I’m going to tell you why my husband and I chose Dallas ISD over the plethora of options we had for our son. And I’m going to tell you something else that isn’t really a secret, but something I don’t think I’ve ever shared here.
Our son, who we call Tiny on social media, is autistic. Yes, high functioning, but autistic nonetheless. We’re proud of him, and the strides he’s made, and the work he puts in to things most neurotypical kids find are second nature, like making conversation, focusing in a roomful of other students, and eating hamburgers (the texture bugs him unless it’s cooked a certain way, and even then he won’t eat them unless there’s literally nothing else).
So yeah, we could’ve looked anywhere else, and nobody would’ve said boo to us about it. But instead, we’ve chosen our neighborhood Dallas ISD school — twice. First, in our old neighborhood, where we were close enough that he could walk to school every day.
He spent kindergarten through second grade at Foster Elementary, making friends, learning his strengths and weaknesses, and falling in love with learning. His favorite subjects are science, art, music, and lunch. He swears lunch is a subject.
We talk a lot about how some things come easily to him, and some things are harder, and that’s OK. One of his superpowers, we tell him, is his remarkable ability to make friends (and proving that autism is indeed a spectrum disorder). And we asked him to do just that Monday when he started his first day of third grade at a new school — Chapel Hill Preparatory.
And he did. He eschewed company for his walk up to the doors, squared his shoulders, lifted his backpack, and walked into a brand new school alone. By the end of the day, when I picked him up, it was to a chorus of kids telling him goodbye and high-fiving him.
“Mom, I had a GREAT day!” he said. “I made so many friends and my teacher is so great!”
I bring all this up because every year Tiny has been in Dallas ISD has led to this point. From his kindergarten teacher, Ms. Garcia, who has the patience of Job and the kindness of Mother Teresa, to the four second grade teachers that worked together to craft a schedule for him in first grade so he could do reading and social studies in English and still stay with his friends for math and science when it became clear that Spanish Immersion wasn’t a good fit with his sensory issues, to his loving second-grade teacher, Ms. Torabi, that taught him how to meditate and center himself when he felt overwhelmed, giving him yet another tool in his toolkit to help him not only know his body and what helps him, but also how to advocate for himself.
His third-grade teacher, Ms. Smith, and Chapel Hill have a lot to live up to. But so far, they’ve far exceeded our expectations. They carved out time last year to give us a tour of the place, from the calm room with a fountain and yoga mats to the heavy-work room where kids can get sensory input they might need to help them focus, to the learning gardens and the bright, cheerful rooms, we knew this was the place for Tiny.
And personalized learning (which Chapel Hill has been doing for five years now) is a dream scenario for a kid like Tiny, who can have an abundance of focus one day, but then have a bad sleep, or a itchy shirt, or a bumpy sock, and the next day’s focus is less robust.
Foster and Chapel Hill are both neighborhood schools. So is Walnut Hill (a prospective Blue Ribbon School). So is Birdie Alexander. So is Hogg Elementary. So is Kramer, and Jack Lowe (another potential Blue Ribbon School), and Charles Rice, and Titche (who went from Improvement Required to an A grade), and Withers, and so many more that do wonderful things every single day.
My point in writing about this isn’t to get an atta girl. If anything, it’s gratitude that drove me to the keyboard — not a day goes by that I don’t realize how far Dallas ISD has come, and how my family has reaped the benefits from those improvements.
Yes, we could afford to send our differently-abled son to a private school. We have the means to. We’re not rich, but we are frugal enough to do it.
But we don’t need to. And again, we don’t do this for some kind of gold star — we do this because the educational opportunities at Dallas ISD are so robust that there is no need to go elsewhere.
And no, no school is perfect (even the magnet schools). Yes, there are schools that did not meet state standard this year — but you should ask about the plan for that (or wait until later this week, when I talk about what that is). And no, Dallas ISD isn’t perfect — I don’t know an urban district that could ever be (although they should aspire to it).
But I often think that in the discussions (even among my acquaintances) regarding whether families will consider the district as a viable choice for education, without any real research, the answer is often, “Well, we might try to get into one of the magnets, but if we don’t get in, then it will be (insert private school here).”
As I said to several friends earlier this week, it’s easy to say you’ll go to Dallas ISD if your child gets into a magnet school. There’s an understanding there that it’s “just as good” as private. And don’t think I’m knocking people that aim for magnet — I applaud anyone who sees the opportunities that are often ignored.
But your neighborhood schools are often phenomenal too. Don’t write off Dallas ISD just because your kid doesn’t get into a magnet school. There are tons of great neighborhood schools where a child can flourish, and they make phenomenal backup plans for that magnet aspiration (although I personally feel they make a great Plan A, too).
I write about these great neighborhood treasures very week and, every day, a prime example of what they can do opens the back door of my car, gets in, and tells me about his day.
Bethany Erickson is the education and public policy writer for CandysDirt.com. She is also the Director of Audience Engagement for Candy’s Media. She is a member of the Online News Association, the Education Writers Association, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, and the Society of Professional Journalists, and is the 2018 NAREE Gold winner for best series and a 2018 Dallas Press Club Hugh Aynsworth Award winner. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.