The Kessler School
For more than four decades, The Kessler School has been the preschool and early elementary school of choice for generations of North Oak Cliff families. Founded as the Kessler Park United Methodist Church Day School in 1964 by beloved Oak Cliff educators Bertha Mae Cox and Betty Zumwalt, The Kessler School developed a strong reputation for early childhood education that continues to today.
Accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the former Day School was recast as The Kessler School in 1999 by a group of parents who loved the preschool and kindergarten education their children were receiving and wanted to expand its academic offerings. Today, Kessler offers programs ranging from half and full-day preschool through to Grade 4.
Ask the school’s director, Dr. Marsha Lilly, what makes The Kessler School different, and she’s quick to respond: its emphasis on music and visual arts. “We offer a unique alternative to public school,” she explains. “Many public schools offer arts programs later. We expose our children earlier… and we really seek to capture those wonder years.”
At The Kessler School, each child is given the opportunity to participate in violin and cello lessons as part of the provided curriculum, and to arrange, for a separate fee, to take piano instruction as part of the school day. The school also places heavy emphasis on its cross-curricular visual arts program, which gives students the chance to marry formal art instruction with work they’re undertaking in history and social science.
Lilly believes the school’s emphasis on the arts and creativity — and it’s markedly low student-teacher ratios — shape every aspect of the education at The Kessler School. “We’re fortunate here,” she enthuses. “This is a very special place. We give our teachers the freedom they need to teach. They’re not restricted by a mandated curriculum that’s tested. And our average child here is really creative — they all think outside the block. As a result, our children really look forward to the start of each school day,” she says. “Our attendance rate is really, really high.”
Many Oak Cliff parents share Lilly’s enthusiasm, citing the school’s small size, emphasis on diversity and its nurturing environment as key factors in their decision-making process. “We started at The Kessler School when my daughter was small, we stayed through her second-grade year, and I’m still on the board there, even though my daughter has moved on,” asserts Oak Cliff businesswoman and Kessler School board member Jane Weempe. “We love the arts program, the smaller class size and the family environment — and I keep sticking around because I believe so strongly that Oak Cliff needs a school like Kessler.”
Canterbury Episcopal School
At first glance, the Canterbury Episcopal School might seem like an odd choice for Oak Cliff parents, given that its campus is in DeSoto. The 20-minute drive, though, isn’t stopping more than 40 OC families from taking advantage of the school’s K-12 college-preparatory curriculum. What’s pulling them southward? “It starts with the quality of the academics,” explains Sheri Mathis, longtime CliffDweller and mother of three Canterbury students. “They’re one of the few schools that offer a true college preparatory environment south of the Trinity. Plus, they provide the same small-town, Mayberry feeling I get from living in Oak Cliff. The classes are small enough that your kids can’t fall through the cracks, even when they want to.”
That mix of family atmosphere and strong academics appears to be resonating with South Dallas. Founded in 1992 with just 12 students in a church basement, Canterbury this year is instructing nearly 300 students on a 37-acre campus. The school’s explosion doesn’t surprise its development director, Oak Cliff resident Melba Siebel, who attributes the school’s extraordinary growth to a combination of solid, college-preparatory curriculum, family values and an emphasis on diversity.
“The one thing that impresses people who come here most is the quality of graduates,” Siebel explains. “Thus far, we’ve had three graduating classes — three students in the first, eight in the second and 16 in the third. Thus far, every one of the seniors we’ve graduated has gone on to college, and our most recent class generated more than $2.1 million in college funding offers.”
With three state basketball and volleyball championships under its belt, the school also places a healthy emphasis on athletics but it’s an emphasis with a difference, Siebel explains. “We have a strong athletics program — and it’s getting stronger — but we’re successful in more ways than one,” she asserts. “Yes, Canterbury has won three state championships — but we did it with every player participating. On our teams, every kid who wants to play really gets to play. How many places can say that?”
Mathis also stresses the comfort she feels dropping her children off at the school, given its rural setting along 1708 N. Westmoreland. “It’s small and it’s in the country,” she explains. “I know they’re safe, and, again, I love the small size. My 9-year-old can go into any one of the buildings on campus and the kids know her, the teachers know her, the coaches know her. I’m not sure I could find that anywhere else.”
Located at 3900 Rugged Drive, Bishop Dunne lies well and truly in the heart of Oak Cliff. That seems particularly appropriate, given that Dunne — a D Magazine Best Buy winner — is by far, the most well-established, and one of the most beloved, private schools south of the Trinity.
Originally founded in 1901 as Our Lady of Good Counsel, an all-girls institution, Dunne was combined with an all-boys school and restructured as a co-educational campus in 1961. This year, the school has 675 students enrolled in Grades 7-12, and boasts an exemplary rating from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the South’s premier private-school rating agency. That rating is reflected in the fact that, according to Admissions Director Richard Mullin, 100% of Dunne’s class of 2006 went on to college — 40% of those to schools outside the state.
Mullin relishes the school’s long and rich history, but wants to make sure parents understand that its 105-year track record doesn’t mean it dwells in the past. “We’re a terrific college-prep school, and we’re available to anybody who makes the commitment,” Mullin explains. “We don’t have the large campus some schools have. We don’t have the gymnasiums others do. Where we are top notch is, of course, technology.”
“Top notch” may be being modest. Dunne, which this year began issuing video iPods to its ninth-graders for use as a classroom instructional tool, was recently named as an Intel-Scholastic “21st Century School of Distinction” for its innovative use of technology to facilitate instruction. Dunne was also selected as a Blue-Ribbon School of Excellence Lighthouse School in 2004, again for its creative use of technology. “At Bishop Dunne, it’s not just the technology we employ, but how we integrate it into the curriculum,” Mullin states. “We’re podcasting all of our ninth-grade classes,
and we audio and visually record almost all of our classes. [Students] use the iPods in class, they’re assigned lectures to review and, because they subscribe to our podcasts, when they get home at night, the iPod comes in with all the material they need.”
Only the fourth school in the nation to issue iPods to all incoming high-school students, Dunne already sees signs that the move is paying off with increased learning. “We debated issuing laptops, but we realized that there was a better chance that the iPod would go with them everywhere,” Mullin asserts. “We’re not foolish enough to believe they’re going to be doing homework 24/7, but if they spend that 10 minutes in the car with mom just two mornings a week reviewing classroom content, we’re already winning. If the iPods help us deliver an extra hour a week of instruction, we’re already way ahead of the game.”
Mullin stresses, though, that Dunne’s emphasis on technology isn’t taking the place of a more personal touch. “We offer every student a model class size and personal attention,” he says. “We move at a quick pace, but we provide tutoring, and it’s all free. In fact, every faculty member is available for tutoring before and after class every day, at no extra cost to the parent.”
Dr. Harriet Boorhem, Executive Director of Oak Cliff’s Promise House and a Dunne parent, agrees with Mullin. Boorhem and her daughter, sophomore Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson, both love the school. “It’s just a very rich environment for her,” Boorhem asserts. “Since we’ve been there, what’s impressed me the most is how advanced their technology programs are, and how supportive the teachers are there. They really encourage the kids to succeed — and I’m amazed at the fact that every teacher sets aside formal tutoring time each day.”
Tyler Street Christian Academy
Drive down Tyler Street most mornings, and you’re likely to encounter a sea of uniformed children tromping happily down the sidewalk on Ninth Street, heading into another Oak Cliff institution, the Tyler Street Christian Academy. It’s a Pre-K-12 school that’s served three generations of CliffDwellers well, educating thousands of students and graduating more than 700 seniors over the years.
Like many private schools, Tyler Street Christian Academy — ranked as a Top 15 private school by D Magazine — offers its enrollees a college-preparatory curriculum, a small student-teacher ratio and a racially and economically diverse student population. What sets the school apart, however, is its strong emphasis on faith. “The most important thing we give our families is a loving, nurturing Christian environment,” states Tyler Street Superintendent Karen Egger. “I say that not just from my perspective as an educator, but as the parent of three children who have gone through here, from Pre-K through 12. Parents love the fact that, when they come here, their child is not just taught, but cared for — and they always have fun.”
A strong sense of mission drives almost every aspect of the school, from its financial-aid programs to its weekly chapel services to classroom content. It’s that mission that clearly appeals to the families enrolled at Tyler Street — the vast majority of which are people of faith. “Eighty-five to 90 percent of our families are church-attending families somewhere,” says Egger, who began her career at the school as a teacher 29 years ago. “Our Tyler Street families go to more than 100 churches throughout the Metroplex.”
Egger is obviously proud of the legacy of the school, which she credits for making “real and lasting changes” to the families that attend there. “We have several students taking the AP exam this year whose parents never attended high school,” she explains. “Even more of our students come from families whose parents have not attended college. More than half of our students,” she says, “anywhere from 50 to 60 percent receive some form of financial aid to attend here. If you ask me what I’m proud of here at Tyler Street, I’m proudest of the differences we make in the lives of these kids.”
The focus of the school, which inhabits a recently constructed facility featuring state-of-the-art science labs, doesn’t stop at faith. Under Eggers’ leadership, the school has developed a strong, college-preparatory curriculum that includes an honors program, AP classes and, at the upper levels, classes that offer dual credit at Tyler Street and Mountain View Community College. “At least half of our students take advantage of our dual-credit courses,” Egger states. “We get kids in here whose families never dreamed they’d go to college. They start getting college credits, and it’s a real motivator.”
Tyler Street’s combination of strong faith and strong academics has the added benefit of creating “legacy” families — parents who attended the school and then bring in their kids. Terri Polachek and her son, Karsten Hays, are Exhibit A. Polachek attended Tyler Street for K-2, returning for Grades 6-12. When it was time for Karsten to begin school, she knew exactly where she wanted him to enroll. “It’s a good school with small classes, it’s close to home, and I love the fact that he’s safe,” she says. “I know from personal experience that it’s a great school, particularly for the elementary kids.”
St. Elizabeth of Hungary
A lot of things have changed since St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic School opened its doors in 1958. Forty-eight years later, the school has grown from 27 to 369 students, moved from portable buildings to an attractive campus at 4019 S. Hampton, and shifted traditional chalkboards to electronic smartboards. One thing that’s stayed the same? “When the kids walk down the halls, they’re smiling,” reports Christina Clem, the school’s principal.
Home to three decades of Oak Cliff students, St. Elizabeth’s — a Pre-K-8 school — prides itself on its nurturing, Christian environment; the strength of its academics; and its ethnic and economic diversity. “I rank our diversity first,” asserts Clem. “I’ve been working here since 1986 and, even then, our student body mirrored the surrounding community. Our kids here get a realistic view of the world . . . learning to get past a fear of the unknown and interact with different kinds of people.”
Elizabeth Belew, the school’s director of development and the parent of a St. Elizabeth student, also points to diversity as one of the school’s top selling points. “This is definitely an Oak Cliff school,” she states. “My son has gone here from the beginning, and I think he’s color blind.”
The school, which has been recognized as a national exemplary school and cited by the Texas Catholic Conference Education Department as a “model school for Catholic education,” places just as strong an emphasis on academics. “We set our standards high, and then we work to help our kids meet them,” Clem explains. “We know we’re doing something right, because our students go on to do well in some of Dallas’ top high schools and [then on to] strong universities.”
Nearly 80 percent of St. Elizabeth students go on to enroll at Bishop Dunne. The other 20 percent matriculate at schools ranging from Jesuit, Ursuline — “just about everywhere,” Clem say
s. “We keep up with our former students, and we’ve had valedictorians, salutatorians and National Merit Scholars. Our kids do well in college, so we know we’re giving them a very solid foundation.”
St. Elizabeth’s also offers a strong arts program, comprising music, arts and drama, and a broad variety of weekly after-school electives for its junior-high students. “Over the years, we’ve offered electives in guitar, mosaics, ‘building-a-mousetrap-car’ with the science teachers, Hispanic art, journalism, cooking, dancing. You name it,” Clem says. “We’ve had a music-and-the-movies class, and a ‘John Wayne v. Clint Eastwood’ movie criticism class. The kids really love them.”
The school also prides itself on its strong athletic program, built largely over the last two decades. Last year, the school was named All Sports Lower-School Champions by the Dallas Parochial League. And Clem flags another award they’re just as proud of: “We were also named the friendliest gym in the diocese.”
Must be all those hallway smiles.
Editor’s Note: In compiling this story, we spoke with a broad range of Oak Cliff parents whose children are enrolled in private schools. In this issue, we’re highlighting five of the area schools relied upon by many families in the Cliff. This is by no means an exhaustive examination of area private schools, nor will it be our last. We love hearing from you, so drop us a note at email@example.com to tell us about your family’s private school.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Oak Cliff.