Nobody likes change, expect a wet baby.

That’s what RISD Superintendent Vernon Johnson told an auditorium full of concerned parents last month when his staff presented its five-year Long Range Space Needs Recommended Plan to the school board.

But Lake Highlands doesn’t seem to have much to cry about. The plan calls for spending about $50 million on Lake Highlands schools – about 50 percent of RISD’s total projected expenditure.

While residents of the Pearce and Richardson high school attendance areas worry about changes in boundaries, feeder patterns, and the racial and economic balance in their schools, most Lake Highlands residents can breathe a sigh of relief.

If the school board approves the space needs plan (the vote is scheduled March 4), we will get most of what our principals and PTA members have spent years asking for – more classroom space and more instructional support – all with relatively minimal disruption to our children and our neighborhoods.

The only neighborhood issue still to be decided is who will attend the two new schools planned for Lake Highlands.

Our problems “can be solved with a checkbook,” says Anne Barab, Lake Highlands parent and school trustee.

“Lake Highlands needs have been addressed.”

The Plan

On Valentine’s Day, the RISD Administration Building was not the place to be if you were looking for love.

After three months of public hearings, RISD administrators made public their final solution to school overcrowding, which is faced by most of the district, and to school under-enrollment in the northwestern portion of the district.

Pearce, RISD’s northwestern portion, which is dominated by single-family homes, has little racial and economic diversity. While the rest of the district, which has a large concentration of apartment complexes, has experienced demographic changes and larger student populations.

Angry parents, mostly from the Pearce area, repeatedly interrupted the board meeting demanding an explanation for the proposed (and later abandoned) plan to convert Greenwood Hills Elementary into an alternative education center. They also wanted answers about changes in attendance zones that will move Richardson area students into the Pearce area a few miles away, improving the racial balance in Pearce and Richardson high schools and junior highs.

But little controversy surrounded proposed changes in Lake Highlands. That’s because the changes aren’t controversial, says Ted Moulton, Lake Highlands and Berkner area superintendent.

None of our neighborhood schools are under-enrolled; neither are Berkner’s. So moving students from one Lake Highlands school to another or to a Berkner school would be ineffective.

And busing neighborhood children from our overcrowded schools across the district to the Pearce area, where additional space is available, isn’t acceptable, RISD administrators say.

“Parents don’t want their little guys bused,” says Will Jacob, assistant superintendent for administrative services.

“People – it doesn’t matter what ethnic group they are or what demographic group they are – they want their neighborhood school.”

Construction, then, is the only option for Lake Highlands, Barab says.

“We need more,” Barab says. “It’s just a question of how much and where.”

If the board approves the space needs plan, every portable building at our elementary schools will be removed, Moulton says, and permanent additions will be built in their place. Common areas such as bathrooms, libraries and computer labs also will be expanded where needed, Moulton says.

Four rooms will be added to Aikin, 10 to Merriman Park, 10 to Moss Haven, four to Northlake, two to Skyview, 12 to Stults Road, eight to Wallace and four to White Rock.

A third junior high will be built to relieve overcrowding at Lake Highlands and Forest Meadow junior highs.

And a new elementary school at an as-yet undetermined location will be built to relieve schools that RISD projects will continue to suffer from overcrowding even after additions are built – specifically Aikin and Stults.

This new elementary school also will relieve overcrowding at two Berkner elementaries that border Lake Highlands, Forestridge and Richland. Administrators have proposed that both new schools be magnet schools.

Minority students in Lake Highlands and Berkner also will be allowed to voluntarily attend any of RISD’s under-enrolled Pearce area schools, with transportation to and from school provided by the district.

These changes depend on passage of a multi-million dollar fall bond issue, Jacob says.

The plan’s expected costs range from $86-$118 million, with approximately $45-$58 million earmarked for Lake Highlands.

The large range results from the unknown cost of land for new schools, Jacob says. (Two new elementary schools also have been proposed for the Coit-Spring Valley area in Richardson.)

“Lake Highlands represents a significant portion of the building expense, at least 50 percent of the total dollars,” Barab says.

“What this shows is a commitment to schools that are overcrowded and that are dealing with diversity.”

Additions vs. New Schools

The big decision in Lake Highlands was whether to add classrooms to existing schools or build new schools, Johnson says.

Prior to their final proposal, RISD administrators considered six other solution plans. One plan suggested building two new schools in Lake Highlands and two new schools in Berkner, rather than building additions in these areas.

This option was declined because it would have entailed completely redrawing attendance boundaries, Johnson says.

Instead, the district is proposing to build additions to our and Berkner’s elementaries to serve a target number of 600 children, resulting in four classes for each grade level. This option allows students to continue attending their neighborhood schools, rather than be bused to more-distant, new facilities, Johnson says.

Initially, neighborhood elementary schools were built to serve 500-600 students, Barab says. State requirements have filled classrooms where traditional subjects once were taught, Barab says.

Most Lake Highlands elementary schools already serve about 600 students, and RISD projects our student population will continue to grow.

During the next five years, RISD expects several of our elementary schools to exceed 600 students by 30 to 100 children. Comparatively, Berkner’s Richland and Forestridge are projected to exceed this number by 300 students. This overflow is the reason for the magnet elementary, Johnson says.

The Magnet Concept

Lake Highlands parents are asking for more choice in education, Moulton says. Magnet schools provide it, he says.

Magnet schools develop a curriculum around a theme, such as science and technology or the arts. As in any school, traditional subjects are taught in the magnet, but the theme is incorporated throughout the curriculum, Moulton says.

RISD administrators often refer to magnet schools as “schools of choice,” with students voluntarily electing to attend magnets rather than their neighborhood schools.

Thus, Moulton says, the two proposed Lake Highlands magnets could draw students from throughout our neighborhood and relieve overcrowding at several elementaries and at both junior highs without forcing anyone to change schools. Except for some overflow from Berkner, enrollment in these new schools will be limited to Lake Highlands students, Moulton says.

Nevertheless, in practice, the best magnet schools have a home-base student population, which would require some boundary changes, Johnson says. Without reassigning some students to the magnets, RISD can’t ensure the existing schools most in need of overcrowding relief will receive help, Johnson says.

Magnets, however, provide the least amount of neighborhood disruption, Johnson says. If the new junior high doesn’t become a magnet, RISD will have to change feeder patterns throughout Lake Highlands, Johnson says.

No boundary changes have been decided, Barab says. A bond issue has to pass first, she says.

“We’re very sensitive to the fact that we must not weaken our existing schools,” Barab says. “We’ll be very careful about the population at the third junior high to keep all three of our junior highs demographically strong. It’s critically important to keep a balance.”

Beyond Buildings

RISD administrators acknowledge that additional classrooms alone aren’t enough to meet the challenges Lake Highlands schools are facing.

More space is only a first step, they say.

Three of nine Lake Highlands area elementaries – Northlake, Stults and Skyview – are among 10 schools RISD has identified as “priority.” Two others, Aikin and Lake Highlands Elementary, are among a handful of schools considered to be at risk of making the “priority” list.

“Priority” schools have undergone significant demographic change during a short period of time, says Darryl Cross, RISD’s director of teaching support services.

To identify priority schools, Cross says RISD analyzes student performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Standards, the percentage of students on the free and reduced lunch program, the percentage of students who speak limited to no English, and the stability of the student population.

“Just adding buildings doesn’t do it in some cases,” Barab says. “You have to realize that all groups of 600 students are not the same as far as their needs.”

Increased financial support and extra staff is required to help priority schools, Barab says. The bond issue and RISD’s 1996/97 budget, which is up for board approval in August, will include such allocations, Johnson says.

“I can’t control where people live, but I can control the resources a school gets,” Johnson says.

Juggling Demographics

The Federal Fair Housing Act passed by Congress in 1988, which made it illegal for apartment owners to discriminate against children, changed demographics in our neighborhood.

Lake Highlands apartment complexes that had once allowed adults-only became popular housing choices for families (many headed by single parents) looking for an affordable place to live, Barab says. Many of these families moved to RISD in order to enroll their children into what the families saw as high-quality schools, Barab says.

“The very same things that appeal to homeowners in this neighborhood appeal to apartment dwellers,” Barab says. “People want the best for their families.”

Compared to other neighborhoods, Lake Highlands has one of the largest concentrations of apartment complexes in Dallas. The Fair Housing Act caused student populations to rise abruptly and to a level RISD could not have predicted, Moulton says.

This rise not only overcrowded our schools, but changed the racial and economic complexion of our neighborhood, bringing more minority, economically disadvantaged and non-English speaking students into classrooms. Some teachers see different faces every week, as families move from one apartment to another, making it difficult to maintain achievement levels, Barab says.

For years, Barab and other parents asked RISD administrators for additional help as they watched their neighbors turn to private schools, but their pleas went unanswered, Barab says.

Finally, help is arriving, Cross says. The district already is soliciting grants and providing instructional associates to help priority schools establish improvement programs, he says. The space needs plan will expand this assistance.

Examples of possible programs include math initiatives, such as one being developed at Skyview to raise student achievement levels, and learning labs, which consolidate instructional materials into designated study and support areas for students who need extra help.

The biggest challenge priority schools face is fighting negative perceptions, Moulton says.

Negative perceptions often form before a parent steps into a school, says Barab, whose three children attended Skyview during the time urbanization began to take hold of that school. Parents need to research their public schools and see what is being taught in the classrooms before passing judgment, she says.

“Schools in RISD have broken the code,” Barab says. “They’ve figured out how to deliver quality education to groups of highly diverse students. We’re learning new ways to teach children no matter which strata they come from.

“People who are fearful and leaving are a fact of life, but we’re depending on those people who want to stay and fight for their neighborhood schools. The reason I stayed at Skyview is because what was going on in my children’s classrooms was good.

“If we sit on our hands and do nothing, it’s inevitable that our schools will decline. It’s a time for taking bold leadership.”