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Below is the transcription of Episode 12: When none of your neighbors go to the neighborhood school. 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.

What’s the difference between a “good” school and a “bad” school, and are those perceptions based on reality? Or do those perceptions become reality?

Felix G. Botello Elementary in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas receives high marks from pretty much every school rating system that exists. But among families in Wynnewood North, who were rezoned to the school a few years ago, Botello isn’t well known and few families send their children there.

Becca Leonard, who is the “parent liaison” in the Wynnewood North neighborhood association, is looking to reverse this trend. Many parents follow their neighbors’ lead on school choices, so when it seems as though none of their neighbors are opting into the neighborhood school, that’s reason enough to forgo it. But what if several neighbors decided to join together and give it a try?

That’s what Becca is hoping will happen, and she has skin in the game. She wants to educate not only her neighbors but also herself about Botello, in hopes of sending her two young children to the school.

Keri Mitchell: You are the parent liaison for the neighborhood association.

Becca Leonard: I am.

Keri Mitchell: That is a really interesting name for a neighborhood association position. What does that actually mean?

Becca Leonard:When the neighborhood association was formed, the neighborhood, in general, did not have very many children in it and not very many parents, and so as the association continued on, there was the social chair committee person who needed help with family-related events, and so they brought on a parent liaison to really get parents and families involved in the neighborhood with events. It has grown into trying to develop a relationship with the neighborhood schools as a community. We have not really embraced the neighborhood school. We moved [were rezoned] from one elementary school to another in the past couple of years, and so my goal as the parent liaison, but not necessarily a goal of the neighborhood association, is to build a relationship with the elementary school and then educate the parents in our community about the opportunity there. We are now zoned to Botello Elementary.

Keri Mitchell: Botello Elementary, which, if I’m not mistaken, is a very good school in Dallas ISD.

Becca Leonard: It is. Botello has gotten — in the last couple of years, it has received awards. It’s received opportunities through the district that really, I think, will make it a very viable option for parents in our community to send their children to. We recently had a meeting with the principal and vice principal of Botello and a group of parents from our neighborhood who were really, really excited to hear of the opportunities there. [We talked about] what was going on there, the changes that they’re making within the school, and I think it’ll be good. I can’t say that it would have been an option in the past or that people would have even thought about our public school in our neighborhood. Everybody sort of leaves once children are school-age.

Keri Mitchell: So, they actually move out? It’s not that they’re necessarily there, and then going to private school or another charter school or another public school. They’re just leaving the neighborhood?

Becca Leonard: Rosemont Elementary’s very well known for being a very good elementary school, so if your child gets into dual language at Rosemont, it’s wonderful. If they don’t, they’re going to other magnet schools: Harry Stone [Montessori], Dealey [Montessori], the other schools around, or private schools.

Keri Mitchell: And so Botello, do you have a lot of families that have kids that are about to be in this school age?

Becca Leonard: Yes, I think so. I myself have a 3-year-old. He goes to the best school ever, in my opinion: Springhill Montessori, just a small [private] Montessori school. There are three families within a block of each other with boys all the same age. We love it. We love the community there. We joke that if they could go there for the rest of their lives, we’d be happy.

Keri Mitchell: How far does it go?

Becca Leonard: Kindergarten.

Keri Mitchell: Kindergarten, so that three-year Montessori thing. OK.

Becca Leonard: So, we are talking, and I’ve been in talks with these other families about what do we do next. Where do we go next? So, there is a crew of parents that are looking for places to place their children.

Keri Mitchell: So, that could very well happen within the next few years in Botello?

Becca Leonard: That’s definitely a hope.

Keri Mitchell: What are the challenges in terms of, what are the hang-ups? What are the, like, we want to go to our neighborhood school but … what are the buts?

Becca Leonard: I mean, if you look at — they do a third-grade reading level where children are. Botello didn’t rank very well on that. Not very many of our neighborhood schools did. So, I think that is concerning for parents. Brian [Davis] is our neighborhood association president, and he and I have talked a lot about it. Rosemont families, the families in the neighborhood of Winnetka Heights, embraced Rosemont. The marketing, I guess you could call it, around Rosemont was really solid. We felt really comfortable. I have a 13-year-old step-daughter, so when she moved in with us, she went straight into Rosemont. She went there for a year and a half and then got into the magnet programs. She went on to K.B Polk [Talented and Gifted School], and then is now at Irma Rangel [Young Women’s Leadership School]. We loved Rosemont, and I think there were no hang-ups because we knew families there. I think the hang-up for me with Botello is, I don’t know many families there.

Keri Mitchell: Right.

Becca Leonard: So, it’s hard to know.

Keri Mitchell: So, even if you looked at Rosemont’s scores and they were the same as Botello, let’s just say. I don’t actually know if they are. Let’s say they were. You could still feel more comfortable sending your son, daughter?

Becca Leonard: Daughter’s 13. Son is 3, and then baby.

Keri Mitchell: Oh, you have a baby, too! Wow, so many things. So, you would still feel more comfortable because, I at least know these families? I trust their, either, advice or experience, whereas you don’t have that. What is the demographic like at Botello. Do you know?

Becca Leonard: It is very high Hispanic population.

Keri Mitchell: And probably low socioeconomic?

Becca Leonard: Very low socioeconomic. We do have a family in the neighborhood. They live in Wynnewood North, and they were transferred into Rosemont. You have to apply every year. So, the application didn’t work out. They ended up not knowing what to do. They ran into Brian Davis. He said go to Botello. He is the only child in our neighborhood that I know that goes there. And they’ve had the best experience.

Keri Mitchell: Well then, that’s encouraging.

Becca Leonard: It’s so encouraging, and they’re the ones who hosted the meet-and-greet with the principal and vice principal, and they’re really trying to show other parents that this is a viable option.

Keri Mitchell: There you go. Knowing that there may not be that many families, if any, that start going to the school before you have a 3-year-old who then becomes a kindergartner or first-grader, what do you do? What do you need to know? What is it that you have to find out to feel like, “OK, I can make this decision”?

Becca Leonard: I think a relationship with the administration is important. When my step-daughter moved in with us and we started at Rosemont, we knew only parents. We didn’t know anybody in the administration, but getting to know somebody there. Somebody that I would feel comfortable saying, “This isn’t right or this is going well or that isn’t.” I think that would be important. I think it would be wonderful to have other parents in our grade that would go in with us, but some sort of familiarity and connection, I think, to the school would be important.

Keri Mitchell: If not Botello, what will you do?

Becca Leonard: So we’re in an interesting spot with Addison, who’s my oldest. She started at Rosemont and then we had time. She was approached by Polk to apply there. We applied there and so we’ve had a great experience with the magnet programs and DISD. So that would be a hope, but that’s a hard one because there are only so many spots for so many kids who are looking. So we would of course love to apply to Stone and Dealey, and maybe we would anyways. I mean, if we choose not to do Botello, I don’t want to do private schools and I don’t necessarily want to move out of my neighborhood. But I think both of those would have to be an option.

Keri Mitchell: That’s always a hard thing. It’s the, “I want to go to my neighborhood school,” but then there are the holdups. Do you see that there’s a good possibility of families kind-of — I’ve heard this analogy in other areas — kind-of linking arms and going into the school together? How possible is that? Like, what if you were going to rank that as a high percentage, low percentage, what percentage is that at this point, do you think?

Becca Leonard: So, I think that’s really interesting that you say that. I’ve just watched that happen with Hogg. I don’t know if you’ve been in connection with any of those families. Those kids go to Spring Hill and went to Spring Hill where we are, and they have linked up and embraced Hogg as a school. They are all going in together, and I think that’s a wonderful thing, but the percentage of us going and linking arms with neighborhood families, I’d put it at 75 [percent]. I think that’s me being willing. I don’t know how willing they are, but if other families would be willing, I think it would be a good option. We’ve heard such high things about the school, and I have to say, I grew up in Dallas. I have always been such a public school proponent. It’s hard when you have your own kids. It is very hard, and it’s something I didn’t anticipate. I thought, you know, you raise your kids a certain way, you have a certain expectation, and then they go to the public school and it’s OK. We haven’t always seen that as the case.

Keri Mitchell: What if your son was the only one who lived in a home in Wynnewood North that was going to the school. What would your, kind-of, fears or concerns be for your son?

Becca Leonard: For sure. We were at Rosemont and everything was was good. She, my step-daughter, was not in the dual language program, and she didn’t feel as challenged and didn’t receive, I guess, the attention that I thought she deserved because she’s getting such high grades. The class sizes were really large. Managing a class of that size with the range of educational level is hard. I worry about them being bored. That’s one. And then on the social side, of course, if he’s bullied, if he can’t find a group of friends that he can connect with, that would be a fear.

Keri Mitchell: OK. So now, it’s interesting — you’re almost doing this 10 years later in a different neighborhood with a different school. You’ve got some perspective from your former experience, but then this is kind of a whole new ballgame.

Becca Leonard: It is. And I think Brian — I mean, Brian and I were talking the night we met with the administration at Botello about, the perception of Rosemont is so different than the perception of Botello.

Keri Mitchell:Why do you think that is?

Becca Leonard: I think the neighborhood families really embraced it in the way that the families are embracing Hogg. And I think that becomes more comfortable for a parent to send a child to a school that, you know, we know this. We knew a teacher there who also had her children there and she was really helpful. She met me at a RECPTA, which is the Rosemont Early Childhood PTA organization, and said, “Come see the school. Come meet some people.” [She] really got us linked in a way that made things more comfortable.

Keri Mitchell: Sure. And you mentioned the social aspect. There is that. Clearly people who are of different demographics who send their kids to Botello think very highly of it, but it’s a different kind of social perception and those are always challenges. How do we get past the perception? And sometimes perception is reality. It sounds like what’s happening in Wynnewood North is, you guys are hoping to kind of change some of those perceptions. How do you do that?

Becca Leonard: The family whose son is already there, and their experience, has been really helpful. I think the next step I’m planning on taking is touring the school [and] really getting comfortable with who is there, what does it look like, what is happening there. We did that when we went to K.B Polk, and that is a really diverse school. Loved that school and loved the program that Addie went through there. But I think just becoming familiar with something that is not necessarily familiar, is part of it.

Keri Mitchell: You clearly have been down this path, so you know how to take these steps. Do you find that parents with young kids know what they need to know? Do they know how to get that information?

Becca Leonard: No. It really was a little bit disheartening for me when we went through this with Addie, because I really felt like we had resources, we had knowledge, we had the education that it took to really advocate for our kid, and I don’t know that everybody has that. So, personally I want to do that on behalf of the kids whose parents can’t and who don’t feel comfortable doing that and showing up at the school. I love the visualization of the families linking arms to really embrace the neighborhood school, because that’s what I would love to do.

Keri Mitchell: Well, and that’s the parent liaison position, which you are in. When you have skin in the game, when you have a 3-year-old that may be going to this school and you know, talking to their families, that’s, that makes a big difference about doing something like this. Are you seeing more and more families moving into Wynnewood North?

Becca Leonard: We had just our family happy hour this last Thursday night, and I met two other families with young girls that are 2 and a half years old. The neighborhood is getting much more family-oriented and more family-friendly, and so I think it’s a really exciting time. Sometimes I wish we weren’t the ones leading the way. It’s hard to be the pioneer. It’s OK, too. I do fear, though, with families moving into the neighborhood. I worry that it’s a higher socioeconomic class, and I wonder if many of them move into the neighborhood with plans to go to private school. I think that will be interesting to see. I know some of the families I spoke to this last week said that their plan is going straight to the Catholic private schools, and that’s a great option, but it doesn’t push forward the public schools in the way that I’d love.

Keri Mitchell: What, if anything will be the tipping point for Botello for all of these different neighborhood schools where you’ve got families that might come and stay and go? The example might be in East Dallas where you have had, historically, a couple of schools that everybody goes to. We all go to Lakewood. We all go to Stonewall Jackson [now Mockingbird]. Now you’ve got other schools — Hexter, Sanger, Lee [now Geneva Heights], Lipscomb — where parents are going, “Hey, we need to go here, too.” Then, the Rosemont phenomenon for however long. And I just wonder, what will be the tipping point for Oak Cliff?

Becca Leonard: I really agree. I wonder sometimes if Rosemont has done that for surrounding areas because of the transfer-in option. With that as an option, I don’t think families embrace their neighborhood school because they didn’t have to. They already felt like they were contributing to the public schools by going to Rosemont. Rosemont is packed. Rosemont is very full. So, I think it’s time that we start looking at the other neighborhood schools with really good opportunities for our families.

Thanks for listening to The Uninformed Parent. Next week, we’ll join Becca Leonard as she tours Botello Elementary.

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