Northlake Elementary PTA President Lauren Solomon and husband, Ben, have an infectious enthusiasm about starting the school year. It’s a good time to be a Northlake Wildcat, they say.
The Solomons joined the “Let’s Back Northlake” effort, founded by LH realtor Amy Timmerman and other parents to boost neighborhood enrollment and community support of the school, shortly after it began in 2012 – long before their daughter, Riley, was ready Kindergarten-ready.
Back then, Northlake homeowner enrollment remained at or near zero, despite academic ratings of “recognized” or “exemplary” year-after-year.
Richardson ISD has examined solutions for attracting families to Northlake over the years – especially over the last 18 months as they sought to handle overcrowding in the nearby White Rock area. RISD considered changing boundaries to pull WRE students north of Walnut Hill (specifically the ABCDE streets) to Northlake and designating Northlake a magnet school but opted instead to expand WRE. The district continues to examine a magnet option, but the Solomons say they, and other involved Northlake parents, aren’t waiting for top-down solutions.
I sat down with Lauren and Ben, and with their charming preschoolers Caden and Bailey, to hear about Northlake’s challenges and how engaged parents, teachers and community members are overcoming them. (Riley, set to begin second grade August 21st, was away at Granny Camp.)
How can a school in the heart of Lake Highlands, in a neighborhood full of young children, have such trouble attracting homeowner families?
Ben: Five years ago, if you lived in the Northlake feeder pattern, you could transfer to any school you wanted. You were supposed to have a qualifying reason, but it might be, “I don’t want my kids to cross Audelia.” As Lake Highlands elementary schools have grown 25% in the last 5 years and filled up, it’s getting harder. When we joined Let’s Back Northlake, we knew it would take years of work before it would be a school we’d be excited about sending our kids to.
Lauren: Years of getting families involved, of getting the school on board, of starting up Paw Prints – our program for preschool families. We have 6 or 7 events per year to get families into the school and build community. We were finding that people were choosing to take their children elsewhere without even stepping into the school.
Ben: Let’s Back Northlake has dissolved into Paw Prints and the PTA, and today’s Kindergarten class will have 12-15 homeowner kids – which doesn’t sound like much, but when you have 15 years of zero, it’s a big improvement. For the first time in 20 years, the Kindergarten class of Northlake will look a lot, demographically, like LH overall. We’ve got white kids, Hispanic kids, African-American kids, Burmese refugees kids – that’s what we’re excited about.
That hasn’t been the case in a while.
Ben: Right. The school overall is 96% minority. And the next class, Caden’s class, has 15-20, and each successive grade builds. I think we are right on the edge of the tipping point of the community coming back and attending the school.
When families abandon Northlake, where do they go?
Ben: They enroll in private schools, they move to a house in other feeder patterns and they ask for transfers. The problem with 15 years of loose transfer policies is that there are something like 120 kids now who are supposed to be at Northlake but are instead at LHE, Wallace or White Rock, and if your oldest kid got in at one of those schools, then you are grandfathered in for your whole family. So we’re going to be dealing with that for another 5 or 10 years. There are families who would feel comfortable now enrolling their 3rd kid at Northlake, but they are already connected elsewhere.
What has changed, now that more families are actively involved?
Before, we didn’t have a PTA, we didn’t have corporate sponsors, our teacher’s lounge was run-down, our playground was run-down. One teacher told us she felt forgotten at Northlake. We’ve got this affluent community around us and no one was supporting the school. Now, in addition to the PTA and Paw Prints effort to get kids coming back, several community groups are investing in programs, including Forerunner Mentoring, HOAs and 100 Women of Lake Highlands. Watermark Community Church, which is donating, mentoring and tutoring through their School Impact program, redid our teachers’ lounge, and Hoops in the Highlands funds paid for a new playground. We had kids in the Exchange Club Fourth of July parade and 42 teams in Hoops in the Highlands. We still have teachers buying school supplies and coaching teams and running field day, where at other school s that is 100% parent-run, but things are improving.
Lauren: RISD gives us a lot of support in the classroom, and it’s a Title 1 school, so it gets extra [U.S. Department of Education] funding for academics. What we’re trying to build is the enrichment – the afterschool, clubs, talent show, multicultural night – extracurriculars. It’s the social aspect – bridging some gaps that people might be uncomfortable with.
Is it ever tempting to say, “We give up. We’ll move/transfer/go to private?”
Ben: Our street is the dividing line, so kids across the street go to Wallace, but we intentionally bought this house in Northlake. Between [my job with] AVID and [our volunteer work with] Young Life and urban ministry, we feel like we were put here for a purpose.
Lauren: Northlake has brought us so many blessings. The families and teachers are so incredible.
Ben: Riley’s best friends are a Burmese refugee girl and a Hispanic girl. She calls them family. You don’t get that at a school without diversity.
Lauren: I grew up with diversity going to Skyview. That’s part of the story of my mom [former RISD trustee Anne Barab]. She began as a PTA volunteer who said, “We’ve got to be leaders where we are.”
Lots of people say they appreciate LH’s diversity, then ask for a transfer. Is that frustrating?
Lauren: Yeah, kind of, but I’ve learned that you can’t project what you are passionate about onto others. Everyone wants to do what is best for their child. What’s hard is when people don’t even investigate the school.
Ben: Five years ago, we had people tell us, “Northlake? No, you just don’t go there.” I think the narrative has now switched.
Lauren: Once you are in Northlake, you love it. You love the families, the kids are so sweet, the administration is supportive. It’s perception versus reality.
Ben and Lauren’s answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
If you’d like to back Northlake, you may follow them on Facebook, make a donation via Paypal here to support their fall carnival and other programs, or email Lauren at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.