Richardson Independent School District. While it doesn’t have the problems associated with some Dallas ISD schools, our neighborhood school district has its own issues, especially those associated with the high enrollment of transient students.

Says school board trustee Luke Davis: “We have an incredible spectrum of kids’ needs that we’re faced with – no place is that more evident than in Lake Highlands.”

Because of challenges such as these, many neighborhood families choose to send their kids to private school, particularly for elementary education.

To combat this, several neighborhood elementary schools are coming up with ways to attract young families moving into the neighborhood. And some neighborhood residents believe these efforts are making a difference.

“I think we’ve had more people choose White Rock [Elementary] over the last five years,” says Kathy Stewart, whose three children range from 9 years old to college age. “I think Wallace [Elementary] is also making some progress, and Lake Highlands Elementary seems to have pretty strong support of their homeowners.”

But the fact remains, says former RISD school board trustee and neighborhood resident Anne Barab, that many parents still choose private over public. They assume, she says, that:

  1. If they have to pay extra for private school, it must be better;
  2. Since public education is for the masses, it must be dumbed-down to fit everyone;
  3. As for the apartment issue, she says that some parents – though perhaps misguided – have a “natural desire to protect their children from the world at large and different types of people.”

For this month’s cover story, we interviewed a few neighborhood parents who, for their own reasons, decided to transfer their children from private to public schools.

Though their motivations varied, they all learned similar lessons:

  • That, by and large, our neighborhood schools are run by accountable administrators who hire caring, well-trained teachers.
  • That racial and ethnic diversity can be as important a lesson as math or language arts.
  • That public schools are filled with involved parents and often use the same textbooks and a curriculum that’s identical to what’s offered at many private schools.

They learned that RISD schools offer a place where their kids not only survive, but thrive. These are their stories.

Susie and Bill Ashbaugh make it clear their son, Matt, received exactly the kind of education they’d hoped he would in private school.

“We chose the private school that we felt would provide the most excellent academics, complement the spiritual and character training we were doing at home,” Susie Ashbaugh says.

It was probably this solid foundation that encouraged them to listen to Matt when, in the eighth grade, he started voicing a “strong desire” to go to Lake Highlands High School.

“He was interested in more extra-curricular opportunities than a small school could offer. He also wanted a broader spectrum of people than the larger private schools offered,” she says. “We had many discussions that year on the topic.”

And the Ashbaughs did their homework. They visited both the Freshman Center and high school and spoke with the principals. They talked to parents and students about the environment, classes, teachers and more.

The impression they came away with was that Matt would likely flourish in public school. And he has. When he graduated this past spring, he was valedictorian of his class, was a National Merit Scholar and had served as Student Council President. This year, he’s enrolled in two honors programs – liberal arts and business – at the University of Texas at Austin.

“LHHS was an excellent fit for Matt,” Ashbaugh says. “He thoroughly enjoyed his four years in the public high school. He had a number of good teachers, and several truly outstanding. He got to know different kinds of people and have his convictions tested. He also got to experience a lot of things that would not have been possible at a smaller school.”

Ashbaugh says their experience with RISD has left them impressed on many levels.

“Lake Highlands has been dealt some challenges – many apartments, Robin Hood funding – [and] rather than having a sense of bitterness or fleeing the district, many people in the school and community – parents, teachers and administrators and board members – have rolled up their sleeves to work in the midst of challenges,” she says.

“Their optimism and efforts in the face of such challenges are admirable.”

Cindy and Morris Gore followed much the same pattern as the Ashbaughs. They started their oldest daughter, Nicole, now 18, off at Skyview Elementary, but transferred her into private school in the second grade because, Cindy says, “she wasn’t being very challenged.”

Both Nicole and Natalie, 14, went to private elementary school, and Nicole went from there to another private school in the seventh and eighth grades.

But then the Gores decided to move both girls into public school for the very reasons that many Dallas parents avoid them: the diversity.

“I knew she was probably going to go to a larger university,” Gore says of Nicole, who started at the University of Oklahoma this fall.

“And I felt like she needed a larger environment and more outside influences while she was still living at home,” she says, “so when she faced difficult situations, she would be at home and have that support.”

The couple felt comfortable transferring Nicole into the Freshman Center, she says, because they’d “heard such wonderful things” about it.

As for the issue of diversity, Gore says: “I think it has been good for her, and she would say it has been beneficial. She has gotten out of the bubble into what she calls real life, and she never had a problem.”

And academically?

“I felt like she got – I don’t want to say a better education, because you can’t compare elementary school to high school,” Gore says. “But the high school had strong academics, she was challenged, and I don’t think she’s had a bad teacher.

“I really don’t have any complaints, and Nicole loved Lake Highlands.”

Kathy Stewart says she and husband Robb made the same mistake many parents do.

“One of the reasons we did private [school] was a lot of the misconception, a lot of believing stories that had been passed around, negative stories about public school in Lake Highlands struggling with diversity,” Stewart says.

“The fear is that where there’s diversity – whether it be race and socio-economics – that your child’s educational needs will not be met. That so much time and attention will be focused on the child who is not functioning at the same level as your child that yours will be left without the guidance and direction and challenge that they need.

“We accepted those stories,” she says, “without really checking things out for ourselves, and that’s one thing I regret.”

It was a regret that she soon corrected. After enrolling her oldest daughter, Cecelia, in a private school outside of the neighborhood for kindergarten, she quickly began to rethink the decision.

“I just think our experience, while it wasn’t terribly negative, it wasn’t feeling right to us,” she says. “It just felt like something was missing, and that kept us searching.”

So after talking with neighbors who had positive experiences with White Rock Elementary and checking the school out for themselves, they transferred Cecelia there. Today, she is a freshman at UT-Austin, majoring in communications. Her siblings, Robbie, 14, and Mary Claire, 9, are in public school.

Because she has now had a 10-plus year experience with RISD, Stewart has lots to say on the subject. She’s quick to praise the district’s teachers and curriculum, and also the “wide variety of different types of projects” the schools, at all levels, allow kids to be involved in.

She also loves the sense of community the schools provide in the neighborhood. It was one of the unexpected benefits, she says.

“They have a history, people know them, teachers know them. Their teacher might have had their older sibling,” she says. “That’s given them a real sense of connection and a sense that they belong somewhere. I don’t think I realized how important that was and how much I wanted to give that to my kids.”

She thinks the district is making more of an effort to reach out to the community, and she’d like to see more parents learn the lessons she did.

“Be proactive – go to the school, meet the principal, talk to the counselors.” she says. “There’s a lot you’re going to miss if you don’t go to the school and get to know other parents.”

Stewart takes this advice one step further, too, urging parents to rethink what’s important in choosing a school for their children.

“I think as parents we get over-analytical and we think, ‘If we can just put the right combination of numbers together, we can create this perfect learning environment for our kids,’” she says. “And there are just so many intangibles in life that can’t be charted on a graph or put into a code.

“People get so hung up on test scores and what level of degree the teachers have, when what it really comes down to is can that teacher excite your children and instill in them that love and desire of wanting to learn.”