Lake Highlands resident Jim Richardson recently announced he’ll retire at the end of the school year as headmaster for Dallas Academy after 34 years. The school, located on the banks of White Rock Lake, is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary and serves 200 1st-12th graders with learning differences.
I sat down with Richardson to learn how he’s changed the school over the years, and how the school has changed him.
“Before I came to Dallas Academy, I was a special education teacher at Skyline High School and then I was an administrator in the Dallas schools,” Richardson told me. “I didn’t like the direction we were headed, and a Skyline counselor told me, ‘you know, there’s a little school over in East Dallas, looking for someone to take over.’”
Dallas Academy quickly hired the energetic, enthusiastic Richardson.
“We had 30 kids and 7 teachers at that time, and the building was falling apart. We only did 7th through 12 grades, and our budget was $230,000 a year. It was a struggle, to say the least, that first year.”
Richardson could see the great work being done at DA, but he believed there was something missing.
“John Albers was the CEO of Dr. Pepper and he had a daughter here. I immediately went to him and said, ‘we’ve got to have an athletic center here.’”
Albers donated funds for DA to build a new state-of-the-art athletic center.
“These kids have to have an outlet to get all that energy out, and we had nothing – we had a dirt parking lot. We’d have the windows open, and when the wind would blow, I’d have to run down the halls and holler, ‘shut your windows!’ We needed an athletic center to let these kids have team sports and run and play. I’m an old coach and I’ve always loved team sports. Coaches will say, ‘this kid made something of himself from the lessons he learned playing on a team.’ We lost a lot, but it still gave these kids a chance to be a part of a team and work together and learn how to get along. It also gave them a chance to take pride in their school. We had letter jackets and sports banquets, and they talked about it in the halls. And getting that going brought more kids to the school.”
When Jim arrived in 1983, DA held classes in one small brick building, purchased from St. John’s Episcopal Church in 1977.
“We used every closet, every space, until we outgrew that building 8 or 9 years ago. Then I went to the board and said, ‘We love East Dallas, we love Lake Highlands, we love this whole area. We don’t want to move.’ So we bought the whole block.”
Once four neighboring homes were purchased and demolished, architects realized the gem DA was sitting on. They suggested a school built mostly of glass.
“It’s fantastic – the kids don’t feel all hemmed up. Every 50 minutes, when they change classes, they can go out into the hall and see the seasons come in and the trees changing – it’s just beautiful.”
Listening to Richardson gush about his school the way a father might brag about his child makes it difficult to imagine him leaving the place.
“Oh, I’m not going anywhere. I’m not moving to Seattle. If they need me, I’m available to help. But I’m not going to step on the toes of the new person. I’m making a clean break. I’m looking forward to walking at the Arboretum in the mornings and playing golf and going to my farm and playing with my grandkids. I’ll have plenty to do.”
Richardson estimates he’s led more than 5,000 students over the years, and those students – and their parents – often return to the school’s annual Homecoming festivities to watch the football game and shake the hand of their former headmaster.
“Jim has the kindest and gentlest spirit,” said Ashli Robertson, whose daughter Kate attends DA. “He loves those kids like they are his own. Although he knows so well the struggles that these kids face on a daily basis, he doesn’t have a child himself who struggles so will not ever fully understand the difference he is making in our lives. Going to Dallas Academy was life changing for my daughter and our entire family. The energy at DA trickles down directly from Jim. He is adored by the entire school population and is leaving behind a legacy that will reach decades in to the future. We are so happy for him but heartbroken at the same time.”
“Mr. Richardson is the kind of person who always puts the needs of students before anything else,” said DA alum Parker Johnson, now a student at UTD. “Every Friday night when we had a home game, you could find him in the press box announcing the game for the whole crowd. I learned a lot from his leadership and the example he set for all of us.”
Parker’s dad agreed.
“The thing that struck me most during the years our son attended Dallas Academy,” recalled Russell Johnson, “was the passion and enthusiasm Jim Richardson had for the students and for the future development and growth of a school that touched so many lives. I also remember our friendship working in the press box together at DA football games, just two men acting like boys and enjoying the game and each other’s company.”
Richardson loves hearing success stories, especially since he recalls the look of defeat when many student first showed up on the DA doorstep.
“Most kids come to us from public school, and when they arrive here, they are beaten down. They’ve lost their self confidence – many are depressed and many are on meds. We put them in small classes and back off on the meds. Then we back off on the homework from 4 hours to one hour and do a lot of work here at school. Their grades start coming up, then they are able to participate in all the activities we have, which are all the same things the public schools have, except in a big school, these kids have a hard time being on the football team or the cheer squad or in drama or on student council. Here they can do it. Parents call and say, ‘my kid beats me to the car every day, wanting to go to school.’ Last year, we had 100% of graduates go to a 2 year or a 4 year university, and this year it looks like we’ll hit 100% again.”
I asked Richardson what he’ll miss after retirement.
“Every year at Halloween, each class decorates their pumpkin and we have Mr. R’s Pumpkin Chunkin. All the kids gather around a tree while I throw the pumpkins down. We don’t have one kid miss school that day.”
Another thing he’ll miss is Future City.
“Future City is a contest sponsored by the engineering department at the University of Texas at Arlington, and 220 schools from throughout the state enter. Our students build a city 200 years in the future with a computer simulation and a written paper. We take our model to UTA and our kids have to present it and defend it in front of a panel of engineers. Last year, our 7th grade came in 3rd and our 8th grade came in 4th, and that’s kids with learning issues competing against regular schools from around the state.”
Richardson also reminded me about the time, back in 2009, when his girls’ basketball team lost to Covenant School 100-0. That story was covered by press outlets around the globe, winning respect for his girls worldwide. Nike adopted the team, taking them on an all-expenses paid trip to see the NBA All-Star game.
“I don’t know of another headmaster willing to coach the teams, drive the bus, chaperone the dances and conduct the tours,” said Sarah Jayroe, public relations director at DA. “He’s been the face of the school for all these years. His will be tough shoes to fill.”
After graduation, you’ll find Richardson spending time with his wife, Meg, his daughter Meghan Riney, a Lake Highlands High School graduate in 2000, and Meghan’s husband and 3 sons.