A principal’s take on how to find the right school for your child

Advocate Media’s podcast, The Uninformed Parent, now makes the transcripts of its audio available so that subscribers can either listen or read (or both), depending on their preference.

Below is the transcription of Episode 8: What Do Parents Mean When They Ask If a School Is ‘Safe’? Listen to this episode on our website or using the podcast app of your choice, and please subscribe to The Uninformed Parent to support this podcast production and be the first to be notified of new episodes.

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Editor’s note: This podcast episode was recorded during the 2017-18 school year, so references are not applicable to the present. 

Keri Mitchell: Rachel Moon is accustomed to working with parents. She spent five years at Rosemont Elementary in Oak Cliff — two of them as assistant principal and three as principal — working with one of the more engaged communities of parents in Dallas ISD. Before that, she spent years at the school district’s administrative offices focusing on parent involvement.

After she led the Smith family around Rosemont for a school tour, we sat down and asked her about the questions parents ask — and about what they should be asking.

Keri Mitchell: Do a lot of people come in and just know nothing about Rosemont? Is that fairly common?

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Rachel Moon: I think if they’re new parents, they don’t know where to start. They don’t know, oh, there’s a Dallas ISD website or, oh, you have a school website? Or oh, there’s a Rosemont schools Facebook page? Do all schools have Facebook?  So how can I, where do I even start to learn about a school, besides asking someone who may or may not know, or ‘I didn’t know y’all had RECPTA! I’ve heard about it, but I never put the R to Rosemont.’ So I think it’s it’s how to navigate the process, too, as a new parent. Where do you start? What questions do you ask? Do all schools give tours? When do they give tours? Is it on their website?

Keri Mitchell: What do you think they really want to know when they come in? I mean, there’s a lot of the logistics, and there’s the, what does it look like, what does it feel like, but what are they looking for?

Rachel Moon: And every parent is different, and I think it helps to go on a tour. I really do. Because you’ve got to trust your gut. That sense of, ‘I can see my child here. I can see myself here.’ That they get a good positive feeling from the school, from the interactions. It’s genuine. Hey, let me introduce Ms. Tawil. She was walking somewhere, I stopped her, and she was like. ‘Oh, hey, I’ll take questions!’ We walk into Ms. Cianciulli’s class. Oh my gosh, that was interrupting her class, with the stroller, like, ‘Come on in, bring the family!’ And you know, hey, let me stop and tell you what we’re learning. You get a sense of, kids are really learning, and they’re using academic language, too. You see evidence of learning, and you see that kids are engaged, and you see that activities are the student work, that kids are making the connection from the school to to the city. Just everyday things.  I mean, my kids are here too, so …

Keri Mitchell:  Your kids are here, too? How old are they?

Rachel Moon: They are third and second [grades].

Keri Mitchell: I find that to be a really good endorsement of a school when staff has their kids at a school.

Rachel Moon: Actually a lot of our staff have their own kids here. Ms. Delgado, the one when we went into her classroom, one was her child; the other was another kinder teacher’s kid. So they hang out there after school until it’s time, and she’s getting things done, but yeah, I think every staff member have their kids here. It’s something that I endorse because our teachers are here 8-plus hours a day.  What a comfort. And a perk, too, to know that not only, you know, is my child going to have a great education, but they know the staff, and it’s part of building school culture. So that makes me feel good that  it’s not just about convenience or like, ‘Oh, can I have my kids here?’ Because really if it was a struggling school, if it was a school that you knew, my child may not be safe, or you question the education or teachers, chances are you wouldn’t want your child here.

Keri Mitchell: So that says a lot.

Rachel Moon: It does. And so I think, as a parent, I would want to feel the school, and feel the energy of the school. That’s one thing I would look for. I mean, obviously, academics, but even in specials. You get the idea, like, OK, of course kids are going to learn, but then you go into a specials class …  I didn’t tell Ms. Cianciulli to speak Spanish.

Keri Mitchell: I don’t think she did that on purpose. There was a child that she asked a question of that needed to respond and she could tell, ‘You need to respond in Spanish.’

Rachel Moon: Does she speak Spanish? You know, broken, but hey, you know what, she is going to do her best. Did I show you the word wall in dance class? So you know that we’re really focusing on all types of learners. You really see that commitment is not just because you’re in the dual language program. Every kid can be exposed to Spanish here. You see words in English and in Spanish everywhere. It’s part of culture. It’s part of learning a language or being exposed to language. I think as a parent, you just want to know, are my kids safe? Do you get that genuine feeling that there’s processes in place or you get the feeling like, they’re going to take care of my child here.

Keri Mitchell: And that word ‘safe’ — that’s come up a lot as I’ve done this series, and it doesn’t just mean, is the buzzer working on the front door? Which it was, by the way. We could not get in. So there’s that, there’s that aspect, but there’s also just the feeling of security. Is that what you’re talking about?

Rachel Moon: Right, whether it’s security, but also the feelings, the heart. So yeah, the physical safety, but the emotional safety. The way you heard teachers talk to students. That’s one way.  The way you hear adults interact with each other. That’s another indicator of, this is a place that respects each other. So I think …

Keri Mitchell: So it’s kind of like a comfortability, a general mood of a place.

Rachel Moon: Yeah, and you can only get that if you schedule a time to go in.

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Keri Mitchell: People have asked a lot, is Rosemont at capacity? Are you guys at capacity?

Rachel Moon: We are at capacity. Here at Lower, not so much. I think we do have some empty classrooms, and a lot of that is due to enrollment. I mean, 550 is quite a bit, but there was a time when we were at 600, 625. Our student-teacher ratios are like 1:22,  where other schools are at 1:17 …

Keri Mitchell: Eleven at Hogg.

Rachel Moon: Yeah, so you know 11 is …

Keri Mitchell: Eleven is, you can’t pay private school tuition to get that kind of ratio, but how do you even … ?

Rachel Moon: I will share, a lot of the schools have redesigned themselves repurpose themselves. Botello is now personalized learning. Hogg and Reagan became dual language schools as well, so kind of alleviated a lot of our, took a lot of our students — which is good since we’re not the only school on the block or in the area that offer dual language — and then we’re looking at our changing demographics. I mean, the homes across the street are well over $350,000 to $450,000. I mean, they’re astronomical. Real estate in the Bishop Arts District and in Oak Cliff is becoming more and more high dollar, and so that’s where we’re having conversations now. So for example, we used to have nine teachers in kindergarten. We’re down to seven. We used to have six sections of dual language; now we’re down to four. And that’s been the two-year trend. Last year we were down one section; this year we’re down two sections in dual language. So part of the dual language program and the 50/50 model is, you have half of the Spanish speakers and half English speakers.

Keri Mitchell: Who are you having trouble finding?

Rachel Moon: Our Spanish. Our Spanish speakers. If they want to transfer in, that be great.

Keri Mitchell: So those are more of the transfers that you’re taking.

Rachel Moon: Yeah, well, actually we’re taking a lot more English transfers. I mean, that’s, you know …

Keri Mitchell: That’s the demand.

Rachel Moon: Yeah, that’s the demand, but we can’t offer more dual language classes because we don’t have Spanish speakers. So …

Keri Mitchell: That’s where you’re going down in sections, too.

Rachel Moon: Now granted, we still have to serve our population. If Spanish is their home language, we still have to provide instruction in Spanish, but what will that look like in another two years?

Keri Mitchell: That’s a question.

Rachel Moon: So those are the conversations we’re having internally, and we’re looking at, how will Rosemont continue? As far as, maybe we should offer Spanish for all. Maybe we should introduce another third language as part of  staying attractive. You know, Winnetka is bursting at the seams, and they have a dual language program, but they also don’t have $350,000 apartments being built across the street from the school, and they don’t also have some new developments over here off of Kings Highway.

Keri Mitchell: You’ve got the factor of, there’s new development coming in, which might be replacing older homes, older apartments, that kind of thing. There’s that population shift. But then you also have, who is moving into those homes, and are they coming to the neighborhood public schools? What’s your assessment of that over the past couple of years?

Rachel Moon: I know we have one family across the street. It’s one family that I know of.

Keri Mitchell: I think there’s this assumption that everybody who lives in Rosemont’s zone goes to Rosemont, and that’s definitely not the case.

Rachel Moon: I don’t think that’s the case. I know some of the families that live around here that go to Kessler, but then we also get a lot of Kessler kids that come here, which is wonderful because those are also some good families. But I think that’s the assumption, and I think most of them do come here, but they’re not all Spanish speakers.

Keri Mitchell: Right and so that changing demographic …

Rachel Moon: So that’s the changing demographics of our program, or the curriculum. How is that going to impact? So those are the just the early conversations we’re having. I think we’ll always have a dual-language program. We have to because we have to serve our Spanish-speaking students. No matter how many we have, even if it’s one class, but you know, is Spanish enough to be, perhaps, a special? And we repurpose a teacher? I mean the district isn’t going to give us a teacher because we want one. We have to look internally to say, OK, is there a position that already exists that we can repurpose?

Keri Mitchell: What I saw when we walked through the school — whether it was the English-Spanish words in the dance room, or whatever it might be — was an intention to reflect the community that we’re serving. And so your question as principal is, how do we continue to do that, not quite yet knowing what the community might look like next year? Two years? Five years? That’s a tough one.

Rachel Moon: And it is, but you know, I think the community is giving us plenty of hints. One, every day I walk to my car, I see, oh, they already started building the other one. You know, and then phase two is down here, revamping Bishop Arts. There’s a home in that Sunset neighborhood, and it had a pool. And I’m like, oh my gosh!  My boys really want a pool. The next house will be a pool. And it’s, maybe, I don’t know what the backyard looks like, but the front is a small home. I know it’s been redone, but three bedrooms and $400,000. And I’m like, for that tiny thing?  No. There is no way.

Keri Mitchell: So that changes things.

Rachel Moon: Yeah, you know, it is. It is changing. Our demographics are changing. We know it, and we’re planning ahead.  We’re taking a survey, did an informal survey at the end of the last year. What are you looking for in a school?

Keri Mitchell: What did you find out from that?

Rachel Moon: A lot of academics. Academics, parent involvement. It was eye-opening. Some of them, they want to continue with dual language. They’re here for dual language. They love our fine arts program. That’s something that we don’t advertise a lot. We’ve got fantastic dance teachers art teachers, and Mr. Fisher was awarded dance teacher for the state of Texas

Keri Mitchell: I remember that now. OK, I just now put that together.

Rachel Moon: Yeah, that’s him, and they go perform everywhere.

Keri Mitchell: The gentrification of Oak Cliff and how things are changing, this is a microcosm of that.

Rachel Moon: But look, you know, how it changed Botello. Look how it changed Hogg and Reagan, and how different schools are beginning to ask themselves the hard questions: How can we bring students here?  How can we convince parents that our school is competitive? And I think that’s something that is a hard question to ask. I mean, even for ourselves, we’re working on our distinctions. We’ve got a lot of great things, but it’s about the substance, and are we competitive with the other schools? And so that’s my focus is, we’ve gotta focus on academics — and we do. And we’ve gotta bring parents on board — and they are. And it’s, how are we digging deeper to make sure that we deliver quality instruction every day, for every student, and what does that look like?

Keri Mitchell: Test scores is something you hear, not so much from parents who are already at a school but from parents who are looking at schools. They are constantly looking at, well, how are schools doing test score-wise, distinction — I mean, if they understand that language — distinction-wise. What would you tell a prospective parent about how to interpret that for their own kid, for their own family?

Rachel Moon: You know I think when you’re looking at a school, you gotta look at the big picture, and academics has to be, I think, by far, the most important criteria because that is also a reflection of the commitment to excellence. That you see it — like there really is, that teachers are striving to be the very best and that we can’t — as I tell my teacherss — we can’t take it for granted because “we’re Rosemont” that people are going to come. Not if we’re a failing school. Not if we’re an [Improvement Required] school. They’re going to think twice about, well, I love that y’all have parent involvement but you’re a … you know, there’s something that is happening in the school, and it’s making those adjustments. I can say for the last three years, we’ve improved. When we looked at our schools that we’re compared with in the state of Texas, the last two years specifically, we’ve seen growth — incremental growth. It hasn’t shot up, which is good because they say any time there’s change or anytime there’s growth, if you shoot up too quickly then you’re expected like, OK, and now you gotta stay there, but incremental growth is, hey, we’ve started the process; we’re fine tuning the process. We’re getting smarter at what we do. We’re getting better at what we do, which is educating kids. We’re having conversations about “all” and what does “all” mean, even in an elective class? When you have people here for 15, 20 years, you just have to slowly change and ask yourself the “why?” And having that philosophy change of well, let’s look at who’s in your class. Let’s look at your customers, the people you’re servicing every day. And then let’s look at how we look at our common assessments. So to your question, what do you say to parents? Yes, academics are important, but what you want to see is their growth. You may not see the distinctions or the five stars. Don’t get caught up in the stars. Get caught up in, are we seeing growth in the school, and then is the school focused on the whole child? And what does that look like when you come into a building? That you can see evidence of fun but making learning fun, and then feeling safe that, oh, my kid’s going to be safe here because I felt safe when I saw the way administrators reacted and conversed with their teachers. Or I saw the way teachers reacted to visitors in the building. They weren’t put off. We do tours all the time.

Keri Mitchell: It’s part of the culture.

Rachel Moon: Yeah, it’s like, hey, how’s it going? Or hey, see a visitor introduce yourself or ask can you help ’em. That’s what I would look for at a good school.

Keri Mitchell: Good. That’s really helpful. That’s really helpful.

Thanks for listening to The Uninformed Parent. In the next episode, we sit down with longtime Rosemont parent and now teacher Amy Tawil about how Rosemont became Rosemont. Then we’ll talk to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath about how he chose a school for his daughter.

This podcast is a production of Advocate magazines with music by HookSounds.

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