Build more pink towers

Photo Credit: Danny Fulgencio
Mother Jamie Laws
Daughter Caitlin Laws, 11
Daughter Caroline, 9

Parents all over Dallas ISD — and beyond — are clamoring to get their children into the district’s Montessori schools. More than 1,300 students applied this spring to attend either George Bannerman Dealey or Harry Stone, even though the two magnet Montessori schools had only 114 seats between them to offer.

Elsewhere, families are leaving traditional DISD schools in droves. District projections show that enrollment will drop from 156,000 this year to 153,000 next year. But popular magnets and Montessori schools not only are retaining their students but also attracting families who otherwise would choose private, charter or home schools. Even suburbanites go to great and, often, unethical lengths to claim DISD Montessori seats, bypassing board policy that reserves those sought-after spots for qualified DISD students.

DISD has opened two Montessori schools in recent years — Eduardo Mata Montessori in East Dallas and Lorenzo De Zavala Montessori in West Dallas — with two more proposed to open over the next couple of years.

The newer schools are different from Dealey or Harry Stone, which both were created when DISD was in the midst of court-ordered desegregation. They and other magnet schools developed an academic admission process to determine who among the district’s tens of thousands of students would be admitted. The newer schools, by contrast, employ a lottery admission system combined with a “priority radius.”

Parents pepper Jamie Laws with questions about Harry Stone Montessori all the time. Her two daughters, Caroline and Caitlin, are now in fourth and fifth grade and have attended Harry Stone since pre-K.

“You’ve heard of the parents that are camping out the night before to get their application in first,” Laws says. “It’s more like they want to know, ‘What are the tips and tricks to get my kid into the school?’ ”

Their stress is palpable, Laws says, even though many of them don’t really know what Montessori means. Then again, neither did she when she first sent Caitlin to a private Montessori preschool as a 2-year-old. For the first week, every day at pick-up, Caitlin’s teacher proudly reported that she had spent 20 minutes doing “sweeping work.”

“Finally, after several days of this, I said, ‘I’m not trying to be rude, I know I’m ignorant about Montessori, but at some point, am I supposed to stop being excited that she can sweep?’ ” Laws recalls. The teacher patiently responded, “ ‘Can you name one activity besides sleeping or watching TV that she will do for 20 minutes of concentrated effort?’ And I could think of nothing. I’d never thought about it like that. It’s not about sweeping beans; it’s about the process.

“So that’s when I learned, this is different. It’s about how the mind works, and by the time they’re school age, all of those skills help them grade-wise and doing the school work.”

It’s been a good fit for Laws’ daughters, but it hasn’t been without sacrifice. Harry Stone is near the VA Hospital in Oak Cliff, about 20-25 minutes away from Laws’ Winnetka Heights home. Her girls load the bus at 6:45 a.m. and don’t get home until 4 p.m. Trekking there and back for an evening PTA meeting feels burdensome.

Laws sometimes wonders how life would be different if she’d sent her daughters to Rosemont Elementary, her neighborhood school. She imagines it would have been a great experience for her girls, just as it has been for so many of her friends’ and neighbors’ children.

But Rosemont didn’t offer a pre-K class Caitlin could attend when she was 4, so Laws sent her to Harry Stone, and the great experiences year after year kept the family there.

Now, with Caitlin heading into sixth-grade, Laws is faced with a school choice once again — whether to keep her at Harry Stone, which offers an International Baccalaureate middle school; or send her to Greiner, her neighborhood middle school; or somewhere else entirely.

“I think the questions I’m asking now are different than when she was going into pre-K,” Laws says. “What’s the place where she can thrive and do her best work?”

“Also, I guess the difference is, considering her input is much greater than it was when she was 4 and didn’t know what was going on. Now she has an opinion.”