The cafeteria at Lake Highlands High School was packed to capacity – and it wasn’t for the lunch lady’s famous “chicken-fried unidentified” blue plate special. It was for a fireside chat with our own Councilman Alan Walne to discuss the Pride of Lakeridge Shopping Center – Heritage Academy.

There hadn’t been such a public display of interest since a similar town hall meeting to discuss the dreaded bingo parlor, which coincidentally occupied the same space before Heritage Academy moved in.

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A continuing curiosity to me is the rabid response by Lake Highlanders to bingo and schools (neither of which is socially repugnant on its face) versus the comatose attitude we have towards a strip joint (which has socially redeeming qualities). Perhaps if either the bingo caller had been topless or the school offered courses in the management of gentlemen’s clubs, there would be less neighborhood opposition.

Not only were all the neighbors at the meeting, but so were the students, parents and faculty of the controversial school. Public schools would have envied the student attendance at this meeting. It remains unexplained how the school was able to turn out in such force for our neighborhood meeting, when they had been just as unable to carry through on two of their own previously announced meetings. I guess it’s always easier to go to someone else’s party than to plan your own.

Councilman Walne calmly described the current situation: The school shouldn’t be in a shopping center. State Rep. Kenn George said charter schools are good and should be given a chance. State Sen. John Carona’s representative said they had been receiving a lot of complaints about the school. An attorney from the Texas Education Agency said a lot of nothing, effectively carrying out his role as a government bureaucrat. Dallas Police Chief Terrell Bolton said there was definitely a problem because his folks were having to respond to a lot of calls at the shopping center.

The neighbors had generally complained about having to listen to profane language and rude behavior by the students, but the first neighborhood spokesman proceeded to use profanity himself in describing the school. (Now there’s leading by example!) Another neighbor assured everyone that she wasn’t really against the school, she was merely concerned about the students’ safety in the event of a fire. (Sure.)

The students, on the other hand, largely accused everyone of racism, which apparently is not the rebuttal of choice when someone disagrees with you.

Del Cruz is the brand new CEO/Superintendent of Heritage Academy; his job is to make sure the school survives long enough to have a heritage. He told me that the school is committed to relocating by the end of the summer if: 1) they are released from their current leasae obligations (about $250,000); and 2) the proposed zoning change doesn’t prevent them from finding a new home. They are currently looking at the old YMCA property on Lochwood, which actually would make some sense as a location for a school.

The school currently has an 87 percent attendance record, and scored 68 percent and 53 percent on the TAAS reading and math tests, respectively – much better, sadly, than many public schools in the area. The school uses self-paced teaching to help otherwise at-risk students obtain their high school diplomas. Mr. Cruz’s tour of the school actually was quite impressive. These kids seem to be there because they want to learn.

Understandably, Lake Highlanders were incensed by the surprise arrival of a 450-student school in a shopping center, but as we help these kids find a better location, maybe we would be well-served to do so with an open hand rather than a clinched fist. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Lake Highlanders to fill up our empty shopping centers before the next controversial tenant arrives – such as a Hare Krishna barber shop.