KM: Nearly two decades ago, Amy Tawil’s oldest child started attending Rosemont Elementary in Oak Cliff as a kindergartner. She sent all three of her children to their neighborhood public school, and by the time her youngest entered Rosemont, she began substitute teaching there. Soon she was there full-time. We sat down to talk to Amy during her eighth year as a Rosemont teacher and listened to the story of the school’s evolution through the lens of her experiences, first as a parent and then as a staff member. Both perspectives provide her with plenty of advice for families contemplating how they will choose a school for their children.
KM: So you had a kindergartner in 2000, is that right? You were zoned to Rosemont?
KM: And so what were you thinking about? Was this kind of your only option at the time?
AT: I was comfortable at Rosemont. I had a few friends who already had kids at Rosemont, little older than my kids. So I did want to get involved that year before just to make sure this would be okay for my first kid.
KM: You’re right. It’s very fragile.
AT: Yeah. So I was comfortable here and so we started at Rosemont.
KM: You said dual language came up after your kindergartner started?
AT: So my first and my second child, my sons, we’re just in general education here at Rosemont before we had dual language.
KM: How did that come about? Who saw that need and how did it all happen?
AT: It was very interesting. A great group of parents worked with the then principal wanted Rosemont to have a draw that was more than just the typical neighborhood school draw. Dual language just started being talked about, you know, in Dallas and around the country. And she was pretty forward thinking. All the parents, everybody on the committee were very excited about the possibility of having…we use the word bicultural, biliterate students. The model was let’s say your class size is 22. You’d have 11 native English and 11 native Spanish working together in a buddy system to all become bilingual. And so parents saw a lot of value in that. There’s a lot of data that says that it can really push higher order thinking. In the younger grades like this campus, there can be a dip in your learning and your grades and your test taking, but once you get to about fourth grade, they outpace kids not in a dual language program. So, there was that. That’s always attractive to parents.
KM: At the time, was Rosemont struggling to attract families?
AT: I would say we weren’t struggling, we wanted to regain the middle class in public education, so that was kind of our push. This was how we were going to do it. We were going to market this dual language program as something very different that you couldn’t get in any of the area private schools. Rosemont’s population was† at capacity or close to capacity, but we weren’t necessarily serving all the demographics within the boundaries.
KM: So the school was pretty full in other words, but it wasn’t necessarily because the kids zoned to this school were all coming here. There were probably a lot of transfers at that point as well as today.
AT: And at that time we were also looking forward to this campus. So we were thinking we’re increasing our size, the size of the school. So, let’s capture boundary kids that we’re not getting right now that might have gone to private school or magnet schools or somewhere else.
KM: Did that work, do you think?
AT: Absolutely. We got to a point to where a third of our population was transfers. So, not only did we get our boundary kids, but we got just a slew of people wanting to come to the dual language program. Now at the time, we were the very first dual language program in the ISD. Now today almost every school around us is also a dual language program. So it’s very different now. It’s very different, but we absolutely would say we reclaimed a good section of the middle class.
KM: Your youngest went through dual languages, right? That’s correct, yes? How did that turn out for all of your kids? Do you see any differences?
AT: My daughter definitely has a very strong Spanish background where my boys had their first foreign language at middle school. She has had it since Pre-K, so I think there’s an advantage there.
KM: Was the middle school around when your kids had gone through Rosemont or not?
AT: Yes, it was. It was pretty in its infancy stage when my daughter was in fifth grade. We did end up going to private school. That was really because I didn’t want my kid being a guinea pig. I say that as parent. I believed in the program. They worked very hard. The same core group that worked on starting dual language was also the core group that started the middle school.
KM: Are there a lot of kids that still stay after fifth grade in the program?
AT: There are a lot of kids who stay, but one reason the middle school is so much smaller is that most of the schools around us their whole school is a dual language school. We still offer two pathways right now, a general education and the dual language. So the population kind of decreases with kids after middle school.
KM: Where are they going after? Where did your kids go to?
AT: After Rosemont, all of my kids went to Bishop Dunn.
KM: So, in general, for a long time it hasn’t been a “I’m going to go to my public middle school then private high school” kind of thing?
AT: No, and I will say middle school is just a scary, scary time for all kids. I mean, whether you’re in private or public I think that’s one reason some people are really advocating for Pre-K through 8th schools. It gives you a real longevity, a real family to buy into a school. I still think we’re growing our middle school here at Rosemont. I still think we can draw more. We just added the third language, German. It’s an elective, so they can choose to take it.
KM: So how has Rosemont changed? What has happened in the last I guess it’s 17 years now that you’ve been a parent or a teacher or a substitute, right?
AT: Well it’s been a really good ride. During the time that we were developing dual language all the way through developing middle school was a very exciting times. There was a lot going on. A lot of attention on Rosemont, positive attention. But now we’ve reached a point with the gentrification of the neighborhood that we’re looking at another change. We’ve done a parent survey asking what are your most important aspects/academic priorities that you want in the future for Rosemont. And parents overwhelmingly said they definitely wanted to keep the language focus. With the gentrification of the neighborhood, our native speaking Spanish population has decreased greatly and quite quickly in the last three years. You know, we had several apartment complexes around here that really fed into the school. Now, we have Country Glen, which is the last apartment complex. So it changes our model. It can make it difficult to implement the model if that balances isn’t there. As we look into the future, we’re looking at different ways to keep our language, and it might not be in the dual language form. I’m sure you know the history of Rosemont, but dual language lottery can get very frenzied and very competitive and people are worried about their numbers. It’s crazy. So that’s the exciting thing. We’re still in the stage of figuring out what our options are, but to me this would open up that second language to anyone coming to Rosemont and to every student coming to Rosemont.
KM: So dual language, when it started, was a response to what our community looks like?What could we offer that maybe no one else can or very few others can? And that was the response. Now you’re looking at the same thing. Who are we now? What does our community look like? And then therefore, what can we offer that serves our community that either makes us distinct or at least works in the, for lack of a better phrase, gifts of our community kind of thing. Is that accurate?
AT: In every school around us now, there’s a dual language school, so we’re not so special anymore. So, even if we change our model, we will have a component of dual language always because legally we have to service native Spanish speakers. I’m sure we will always have some native Spanish speakers, so that will continue in some way.
KM: And as you mentioned, there are other schools now that are changing and adding things. There are more options. Do you hear people talking about “oh well what if I try this or that or the other?” What’s happening in Oak Cliff right now?
AT: I was born and raised in Oak Cliff. I keep aware of all that’s going on, but yes. And as a matter of fact, I’ve talked with our early childhood PTA, which is RECEPTA. It’s one of the largest early childhood PTAs. It’s the oldest early childhood PTA in Texas. So I had this thought and others had the same thought is that let’s teach other schools how to start their own early childhood PTAs. So Rosemont could like scholarship or give seed money, however you want to put it, to whoever around us. Because what happens is you get invested in the organization that you’re fundraising and working for. And then, that’s when your kids are babies, and then it’s time to go to school and you’re like “oh, you know, well maybe I want to go with not just my kids’ friends, but my adult friends. I want to be there with them.” Rosemont has always been very gifted with support at Rosemont. We’ve been so successful because we have had a massive buy-in from parents. And I think there’s a real opportunity if we could get that early childhood component in there to really build some stronger schools so people do have more options, you know? I think for a long time people felt like their only option was Rosemont around here, even though we have, you know, five schools practically within walking distance.
KM: Sure, but that also requires that schools and administration have that kind of buy-in with the parents, the openness. I’ve seen it happen without that and it doesn’t work out right. So it almost requires a different skill set on the part of the principal and the administration.
AT: Absolutely. You have to be a real, a community oriented person. One reason I think, you know, you never hear about elementary school principals being around for like 15 years, which was what Anna was. And part of it was she lived in this neighborhood. She had a real vision. She thought, you know, that this was what she was meant to do: grow this school. And Ms. Moon lives here around here as well and so do I. I do know where other principals are driving from, you know, suburbs or somewhere and not that that doesn’t make them not invested, but there’s just, I don’t know, there’s a real sense of community. I think if you’re just kinda coming in doing your job, you know, status quo, that’s not going to make it at Rosemont just because this community expects more. They expect something different, something great, which is what’s kept everybody on their toes.
KM: As a parent, because you’ve put three kids through school now, when people are thinking about school and what should I be basing my decisions on, what should they be thinking about that they might not be thinking about?
AT: My first word of advice is remember this decision doesn’t have to be forever, because parents do look at education like “I’m going to be at that school for seven years Pre-K through 5th¨ you know? You don’t have to stay in one place and things change. They have a really gifted kid or their needs change, so it doesn’t have to be a forever decision. I like to look at if it’s a test prep school or is it a higher order thinking school and there’s a big difference there. Rosemont has pushed back really hard on becoming a test prep school, you know, wanting to really educate the whole child, not wanting to teach to any type of test and really develop strong thinkers. You have to gauge it by your kid and some parents don’t do that. Is your kid happy? Is your kid coming home talking about school excited about it or are they complaining? Because a lot of times parents put their anxiety on their kid, or they come to their teacher and the teacher says “The kid’s great. He’s happy in class. He’s playing on the playground “so you have to kind of gauge your kids.
KM: I a lot of conversations with parents are technical. It’s “well, how are they learning?” There’s a lot of high level, like you said, class sizes or data. And at the end of the day, what the gut check thing is important. Is my kid happy here? Does he want to go to school? Does my kid come home spouting off new things that I think “Where did you get that?Because you didn’t get it for me.” I don’t know if it goes with your question or not. If and when people leave, are they leaving because they’re leaving or are they leaving because they’re going somewhere else? What do you see happening?
AT: Okay. When I left, I was a little nervous about middle school because middle school is that horrible age. So I was kind of looking long term and I was thinking I’m okay. I wonder what a middle school is like that’s connected to an elementary school, you know? Do you still feel like you’re in elementary school? When I looked at Bishop Dunn, that’s a middle school connected to a high school. So in the end for my kids, I decided to go that direction. I do think there’s a different mentality in a middle school that’s connected to an elementary and a middle school that’s connected to a high school. It’s just that the expectation is more of a high school expectation. Although I love the Pre-K through 8th model, it didn’t work out my boys. They wanted sports so, so I needed to get them to a place where they could also have sports along with their academics.
KM: It comes to that for a lot of people. Yeah. What’s the biggest difference between being a parent and being a teacher here?
AT: That’s an interesting question to ask me because I’m still very much of the parent mindset.
So, my background was in hotel management and then I was a stay at home mom. So I’m very much management and parent oriented in my teaching and dealing with education in general. My knee jerk reaction to anything is what a parent would do, you know. So it’s very interesting. I’ve probably gotten in trouble a time or two.
KM: Thanks for listening to The Uninformed Parent. In the next episode, we’ll talk to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath about how he chose a school for his daughter. Then, we’ll talk to a mother who transferred her son to Rosemont but ultimately wound up at her neighborhood school, Botello. This podcast is a production of Advocate magazines with music by HookSounds.