With headlines about DISD’s credit-card-abuse scandals, TAKS-test questions, and printing-contract disputes, it’s easy to see why some Oak Cliff parents are looking into private schools. Ink the contract before meeting newly-minted DISD graduate Mary Katherine McElroy, though, and you’ll definitely be acting without a complete picture.

McElroy graduated second in her class at The School for the Talented and Gifted at Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center, which was named by Newsweek as the best high school in the nation for 2006. That’s no mean feat, clearly, but she is, at turns, self-deprecating (“I take issue with class rank”) and modest (“I test inordinately well”) about her achievement.

Bound for Vermont’s Middlebury College, McElroy instead credits her academic success to the family environment fostered by the teachers and staff at TAG. She points to its unusually low student-teacher ratio, the diversity of both its teaching staff and student body, and its rigorous curriculum. “For me, it was only TAG — ever,” she says. “I looked into one private school here in Oak Cliff,” she explains, “but, at the time, they weren’t ready. It was private, but it was just an average high school in many respects. TAG was the clear choice.”

McElroy, whose favorite high-school subject was art history, stresses the role that community plays in successful public education. “When I was going to Rosemont, everybody looked out for everybody else,” she says. “Sometimes your mother would pick you up, some days somebody else’s mother would give you a ride. Somehow it all worked out, and we’d all end up in the right place at the right time,” she states. “That was Oak Cliff — and that kind of comfort is rare.”

She says that same community spirit helped make Rosemont the pride of North Oak Cliff. “When I started school, Rosemont was one of the best two or three elementary schools in the city,” she asserts. “Thanks to the Rosemont PTA, the Rosemont Early Childhood PTA, and the teachers who did so much grant writing, we had resources that even the Vanguard system didn’t. When our Rosemont parents lobbied the district for something, they used to sit outside the DISD administration offices with crying babies.”

When it came time for high school, McElroy actively sought the same kind of environment. “The best thing about my school is the fact that we’re a family,” she explains. McElroy cites the dedication of teachers who get up early to drive in from towns like Forney, Waxahachie and Rowlett — and students who provide ad hoc babysitting services for working teachers — as some of the things that helped make TAG special during her four years there.

The real decision-making factor for McElroy, however, was the TAG teaching staff and its unwavering focus on academics. TAG’s curriculum is, to McElroy’s way of thinking, unparalleled in Dallas — and she urges Oak Cliff’s students and parents to look beyond the public/private labels and assess each school on its own merits. “If you do your homework and you find a DISD school that fits you, it’s just as rewarding as any private school,” she says. “I loved my experience within the magnet system, and I would not have been happier at a private school.”