In this episode of The Uninformed Parent, I spoke with Laura Corkery, mother to a 5-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy who currently attend private primary school Springhill Montessori together. Next year though, the siblings are parting ways, as her daughter will be attending Harry Stone Montessori, a public Dallas ISD school, for first grade. Choosing where to start her child’s education was far from an easy decision. Corkery did extensive research on schools in the Oak Cliff area, touring them and making “Google” her best friend. In our conversation, Corkery shares what she learned through the process.

Laura Corkery: So I’m Laura Corkery, the mother of two small children. We currently have both of them at a private Montessori School. It’s Springhill Montessori in Oak Cliff, and we’ve loved that experience, you know, everything about Montessori, the kind of focus on independence and creating the desire for lifelong learning. So it’s been a great fit for us. Thankfully, with all the kind of engaged parents that are at that school. I caught wind of the fact that we have to start making decisions for school, like for public school, very early on. 

Keri Mitchell: At what point did you realize, “Oh, we have to really start applying” and where does this come in?

Laura Corkery: The conversations started around 3 [years old] and I was like, “Oh my gosh.” I already felt behind. Turns out, I wasn’t behind. I was kind of just right on the right track in terms of timing. But you hear that and for me, I know I like to take a lot of time to make decisions that I feel like are big decisions, like where I want to send my child to start their education, which feels like the start of their life, you just can’t mess that up.

Keri Mitchell: I know. It feels like the biggest deal in the world.

Laura Corkery: It really does. And that’s when you’re like, “Wait, we’re just focusing on the walking in the talking and doing that at the same time without falling.” When I heard it from other people, that they were already deciding where to send their child, I was like, “OK, well, I need to get my act together.” So I realized that Dallas ISD does these school fairs. And so I was like, “Oh, this is great. I can go and see a whole bunch of them all at one time.” So it was great because as you move from table to table, they have their principal there, their counselors there. Some of the schools brought their students, so it was really cool because you could see them living some of the education that they had already received, right? They would tell you what they learned. So, I had a chance to go through and do that, which then helped me realize there are so many decisions that you could make. It’s really about understanding what’s going to be a good fit for you and your family and for your individual children. But from there, it was kind of then honing in on “OK, well, what’s important to me?” Is it doing dual language? Is it arts? Is it STEM? And you start to realize that’s a bit overwhelming, and how do I kind of filter through and try to identify what’s going to match up with my child? So even knowing that we were at Montessori — and so with magnet schools, you really need to apply for the pre-K level because they have mixed-age classrooms. Then you realize, “OK, that’s really when you have to get that done.” And so the timing on that is like the December prior to the fall when your child would be eligible to enroll. So if it’s, you know, 5 for kinder, right? Then you’d be looking at the December prior to that, but really, for those programs, you need to start at pre-K, which is like 4. So you’re really looking around 3, 3 and a half. Somewhere in there. So we went and we toured Dealey [Montessori]. And we went and we toured Harry Stone. We did their open house nights for both of the schools because we were very interested in Montessori. The experiences that you have when you tour the different schools can be very different. Sometimes it’s just how organized they may be around their open house, that doesn’t even necessarily give you a great indicator of how the school itself functions. It just lets you know how well organized they are around doing an open house. 

Keri Mitchell: Did you feel like you could compare the school against the open house. Did you feel like, “Ah they don’t seem to have it together with this. It makes me wonder if they have it together with XYZ.” 

Laura Corkery: Yes, we had exactly that experience with Harry Stone. We applied to both Harry Stone and Dealey, and when you apply to both, really, you have to indicate which school you want. And because there is so great of an interest for those schools, really whichever one you say is your first preference, it’s almost like you’re only applying to that school. So you really kind of have to decide which one you’re applying to. But when we went to the Harry Stone open house, we had saw such a difference between the two kindergarten classrooms that they had on display with the two teachers that were present. One classroom was very structured and laid out. The teacher did a phenomenal job of addressing the parents when they came into the room, explaining Montessori, explaining the work. And then we went into the other classroom, where the teacher actually had a couple of students who were there doing work, so you could see how they interacted with the work. But the teacher didn’t address the parents at all except to say, “If you have questions, I’ll answer them.” The room setup itself felt very kind of cluttered, just didn’t really seem to have the same vibe. So it was very interesting because you’re like, “This is the two pre-K kinder classes at the same school literally across the hallway from each other, and it’s such a different experience and feel. So what’s the consistency factor here, right?” Because you can’t necessarily pick which teacher your kid is going to have. So at the pre-K age, that was a concern for me. So we opted to prioritize Dealey. So we got waitlisted at Dealey, and then we, you know, we went through another year at our school. I called each of the schools for this upcoming year to find out if they thought they might have openings at the kinder level, which is very rare. In order to have an opening at the kinder level, somebody has to leave. Most people don’t give up spots at their free magnet school that takes them up to, you know, eighth grade. When we found out that there were probably going to be some spots open at Stone for this year for kinder and Dealey couldn’t tell us if they thought there would be spots, we went back and we set up a tour during the day. And so we went and we had a counselor take us through the school and so we stopped in each of the classrooms. And the counselor had actually had her child at one point in the teacher’s classroom that I had concerns about that felt kind of cluttered. So she shared some things with me about, you know, the teacher had been there for an extended period of time, and, you know, that’s part of where all this material had accumulated. But she gave us a tour of not only that one classroom and the others in the area, but all the way up through the eighth-grade. So we started getting a chance to interact with the students that were, at the higher grade levels. They had almost, like, a liaison for the classroom so that as we walked up to one classroom, the student would come up and introduce themselves and tell us about what they were doing in that class that day. And so you could see the kind of progression through the school and you could hear about all the various programs they offered. It was like, “OK, this is pretty amazing.” We applied, and she got into Stone. So we’ll be going to Stone this fall. But also knowing that there’s no guarantees. There were only like 10 spots available, so we needed to make sure we had really understood if that didn’t work out, where else would we go?

Keri Mitchell: And where do you guys live in Oak Cliff?

Laura Corkery: We’re in Kessler Plaza so we’re zoned for Lida Hooe [Elementary], which is just around the corner. The idealistic part of me would have loved to be able to just go right around the corner to drop my child off, but as we started to find out what programs were in the area, Lida Hooe, at the time, didn’t have anything, you know, that they were kind of communicating was available, versus — I grew up in South Texas, in Harlingen, Texas, where it’s like 85% Hispanic and so, you know, I loved the multicultural aspect of where I lived and what it felt like to be, you know, a minority, in reality and the importance I think of that kind of lesson. I want that for my children. I want them to not feel like the privileged majority. I want them to be exposed to multiple cultures. So this, kind of, International Baccalaureate program, the IB program, that they offer at Dealey and Harry Stone and other middle schools in the area, I think is important. We’re in a global world, and I want my kids to understand the importance of valuing where everybody comes from. 

Keri Mitchell: So you looked at a lot of different places, right?

Laura Corkery: I did. So we looked at, as I mentioned, Harry Stone and Dealey. We looked at, of course, Lida Hooe. We looked at Rosemont Elementary. We looked at Botello. We looked at Hogg. We looked at Stevens Park. We looked at Reagan. And we also looked at Lumin, which is a charter school for Montessori. So it really starts to come down to, what are the things that you value? What are the things are important to you, because some of these things to consider, too, are school sizes, right? You hear that a lot. Some schools have volunteer hour requirements. Some schools don’t. Some schools have PTAs or PTOs, you know, parent-teacher organizations and some don’t. Again, you have to decide kind of what’s important to you, but the more information I think you have the better off you are when you’re making these decisions. The other thing, too, is, there’s different opinions about how important school testing is. You can look at that, but I would also say that doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Keri Mitchell: How did you know that? How did you come to believe that test scores weren’t everything?

Laura Corkery: Well, I have family who are teachers, you know, so I’ve heard I think over the years about kind of the challenge of the testing environment, and more and more evolving to teaching only to the test as opposed to really kind of the lifelong learning approach. And so I think, for me, personally, I just netted out in that regard, you know? And especially when you hear things like, “This particular school is great,” and then you go and you look up their test scores, and you’re like, “Ooh, this is the one that everybody wants to go to, but the test scores are really not that great when you compare them to some of the places, you know, some other places.” So I think it again, it kind of depends. And you have to factor in that in some cases, you’ve got the magnet schools where people are getting pulled, you know, from multiple areas of the district all together. And in other cases where you have students from multiple different kinds of backgrounds who are coming together. All those things impact test scores, right? You know, how much funding a location has, how tenured their teachers are, and that can play in your favor and against your favor. Something I heard from multiple parents going into this journey was, “Well, really, it comes down to what is the vibe that you get when you go and visit the school.” And for me, that sounded a little open. How do you how do you quantify the vibe, right? Like how do I measure this when I’m trying to rack and stack these schools? But the reality is, there’s some truth to that. I forgot to mention, we also toured over at Solar, the new all-girls school. They’re opening up the Solar boys. So you know, how do you vet that or how do you test that when it’s the brand-new something, right? So even that can be really hard in terms of making a decision in that in that regard. But that’s where, with my child being in a private school already, we wanted to go to public, again, because I want her to have that experience. For me, I think, ultimately, where we’re going to be, I feel pretty confident we’re going to be pretty happy with it because it reflects those things for us. 

Keri Mitchell: You do not sound like a parent that’s prepping for kindergarten. You sound like somebody who has middle schoolers or high schoolers. Are you research by background? I mean, where does this come from? 

Laura Corkery: No. So I’m a supply chain senior manager. So controlling chaos is something I enjoy doing. And I guess to some extent, it can feel like that when you’re raising a kid. 

Keri Mitchell: Yeah, yeah. 

Laura Corkery: It’s, how do you step in and start to control some level of that chaos? And I will say that, while you’re, you know, starting early on, with this feeling of, you know, thinking all the way through the process, it becomes a piece of: What am I building as their foundation? And where do we go from here? And yes, hearing all of that, it almost sounds like, “I can’t mess this up.” So you’re not setting the chart, you know, or the course you for your kid’s life at 5. But you know, it is a matter of, what are the values and the concepts that are important to me to impart to them? And how can I immerse them in that experience early on and understand that different people have different challenges. So how can you create an environment that’s representative of that because, even in the business world, everybody is working to make that shift of understanding that the more voices you have at the table, the more diverse your solution will be, the more, you know, people you can reach. So I want my kids being able to think like that as early on as possible.

Keri Mitchell: That makes sense. I’m interested that you took so many tours or tried to take so many tours. Obviously you feel strongly about that. What do you see on a tour at a school? Or what are maybe some things you saw on a tour school that you could never have figured out from the website.

Laura Corkery: The fact that you can see their classroom work as you’re walking down the hallways, in some cases is an indication of where things are at. It’s also the artwork that they have put up. So, what mediums are they working in? What are they exposed to? One of the things you see is, do they do kind of these specialty programs, like coding, or do they have computers in all the classrooms? I personally wasn’t necessarily a fan of technology in the classroom at 5. I personally had some reservations around that. But I also heard things that made me feel confident that the DISD schools are really getting into some, you know, uncharted territory. Things like the kind of compassion and empathy and how to relate to each other …

Keri Mitchell: Social-emotional learning.

Laura Corkery: The focus on feelings and being able to, you know, speak to what they’re feeling and identify what they’re feeling. Again, kind of speaking to, what’s the most well-rounded, broad experience I can give my kid? Because the reality is, so many of us these days, as parents, have less and less time available to provide those experiences for our children. A lot of people come from dual-income households. 

Keri Mitchell: So we are relying on schools more and more for those kinds of things.

Laura Corkery: We are very reliant on schools for that, and that’s a challenge too, right? So how do you stay engaged, knowing the amount of things that we’re putting on our schools and our teachers? They need our help. Some teachers are paying for supplies out of their own pockets. The range of community needs are so great that the more that you can understand about what’s happening in your neighborhood, what the schools are doing, and what their needs are, and how you can kind of help meet that need or close that gap, knowing that it’s really a partnership between you as parents and the schools and the community to bring our kids along and turn them into the future generation we need them to be.

Keri Mitchell: I’m intrigued — a lot of the schools that you mentioned, are schools that parents in Oak Cliff don’t seem to necessarily be gravitating to. The names that you mentioned, aren’t the names that are bubbling up to the surface of, “Oh, everybody’s going to this school.”

Laura Corkery: Right. 

Keri Mitchell: Why did you look at those schools? Why was that important to you?

Laura Corkery: Well, some of it came out of the fact that I went on that DISD fair and stopped at all these tables because sometimes the energy of the principal or the enthusiasm or the vision that they had that was like, “Oh, man, I had no idea there was so much energy.” I love the idea of staying connected to my community and going where my tax dollars are going. And making sure that if I have concerns about where they’re going and how they’re being used, that I can be a part of that process. I absolutely did not move to my neighborhood and go, “Which school are we zoned for?” We were five years prior to having children at that point in time. In retrospect, I’ve realized, as I’ve gotten to know more people in the community, again, just how much work is going back into the community and into the community schools. As I talked to other parents in the area and heard about the things that were going on at the schools, I was like, “We just need to start going and looking. We need to just put boots on the ground, and go from school to school, to ask all the questions under the sun we could possibly come up with to figure out where we want to go.” Because sometimes it was very practical things that factored in for us, like, “Do they have an after school program?” My husband’s a police officer. I work full time, for a large organization as well, and I don’t live close. So I have a commute I have to factor into that. Sometimes it comes down to something that practical.

Keri Mitchell: Yeah, you kind of have to mix both. It’s the ideals and the pragmatism of, does it check all the boxes that I need in terms of just how we live our lives? Things like that are almost things you have to figure out and then go from there in terms of programming and curriculum and vibe. 

Laura Corkery: Yes. [laughs]

Keri Mitchell: No, I totally agree with you, though, about vibe. I mean, it’s the funniest thing, because I’m not really one of those, “What’s the vibe?” kind of people either. But there is … you kind of have this gut, I don’t know, something.

Laura Corkery: I like to view it as intuition. 

Keri Mitchell: Yeah.

Laura Corkery: So the vibe piece of it is the feel for it. But it’s all those things you can’t explain when you walk into a space.

Keri Mitchell: Right? I’ve had reactions where I later found out, “Oh, that’s why I had that reaction.” Where it doesn’t really make sense right then, but it does later. And you do kind of have to trust that at least a little bit.

Laura Corkery: Absolutely. I completely agree. And that’s where, you know, again, there are certain things you have to evaluate for yourself. Because even when I consider Harry Stone, and for me personally, clutter can be the cause of anxiety.

Keri Mitchell: This is someone who controls chaos for a living.

Laura Corkery: Exactly, I’m like, “I want to start to go through and purge here.”

Keri Mitchell: Honestly, it amuses me a little bit that you’re a Montessori parent. I know that it’s not all about clutter and chaos, but there are some classrooms that look very organized and then there’s — and it’s not exactly an all nicely put together thing all the time.

Laura Corkery: It isn’t, and that’s why it’s so important to ask questions and understand. So yes, I actually had gone through Montessori as a kid as well.

Keri Mitchell: Wow. 

Laura Corkery: So I was familiar with it from having done it. So for a parent who is very interested in controlling your surroundings, you’re like, “OK, they are using tweezers to pick up beads and move them from, you know, one bowl to another, how is that ‘work’?” And you then you understand things like, it’s helping with your gross motor skills. It’s helping with concentration. But if you see all this, then you feel like, “Well, they’re talking to each other. It’s not quiet. It’s not somebody standing up at the front of the room imbuing knowledge, onto the kids.” But that’s where our willingness to look at things differently and reimagine classrooms, that needs to change. It’s important to ask a lot of questions, because you never know, to some extent, what unconscious bias you may have about something, or what you aren’t picking up on because you’re not asking questions. And I’ve said this to other parents in the Montessori environment that, a lot of the time, it’s about teaching us as parents, as opposed to teaching our children. The Montessori piece is around breeding independence in your child, and independence in your child is not convenient as a parent. Letting them sit there and put on their shoes themselves or pick out their clothes for the day, these things don’t resonate for you. But that’s where you understand the importance of, if I’m intervening in a space that I don’t need to be intervening in, one, I’m telling my kid, to some extent, that I don’t trust them to do it. And so if I’m always there to catch them every time that they may be potentially about to trip up on something, then where am I giving them the space to learn and grow.

Keri Mitchell: There’s also this kind of elusive “best” that we deal with as parents, that there is somehow a best choice out there that of the 20 schools around you, or maybe 100 schools (I think there’s maybe more like 200 elementary schools in DISD), is that somehow we can find the best thing when they’re 5.

Laura Corkery: Yeah, my personal belief is there’s no such thing as the best, right? Because it all comes down to your child and you. That’s why even when you look at me, like Newsweek, and all these other magazines that put out these lists and these rankings of what’s best, the most important thing to understand about that is what their criteria for evaluating is because that may not be your criteria. People talk about this at the college level, right? Like, well, it doesn’t matter if you’re graduating last in your class at Harvard, you still have a Harvard degree. Yeah, but a couple years past that, not that many people care about where you got your degree from. What they care about is what your work ethic is, you know, how you’ve led, you know, and what successes you’ve had. So, those things, I would argue even at an elementary, kindergarten level, that there really is no particular best that you can roll up. It becomes, what’s the most important fit for you, your child and ultimately, the school itself, right? And something I also look at is, is there something here? Is there a role that I can play at this school, too? Because when you look at some of the schools, especially things like this Solar boys program that’s just starting out, well, if you have more time to invest and engage in something, then that could be a great fit for you. If you know that you’re not going to really have time and you’re not sure about a school that’s just starting out, then you probably want to look for a more established program. So it all comes down to you and your spouse and what you guys value.

Keri Mitchell: I agree completely. One more quick question. As we look into the future of public schools in Oak Cliff and there continue to be more families, continue to be people having more babies and figuring out where do I go to school, where do you see the momentum going in terms of the schools that people are choosing? Are we going to start seeing more schools kind of be named the cream of the crop or rise to the top?

Laura Corkery: So I would call it “buzz” when you talk about, are other schools going to start having buzz? In reality, the answer to that is yes. I think we’re in the initial stages of buzz for a lot of other schools, right? Solar Prep, great example. The two Montessori magnet schools have had a lot of buzz for a long time. Rosemont Elementary, lots of buzz around that school. But you’re starting to hear more from other programs, and again, as DISD puts their toe in the water around these other types of programs and brings these other new concepts to the schools, absolutely. I think that that will continue to shift. I think the important thing for every one of us as parents and just community members, especially if you don’t even have a kid yet, is, we help create that buzz, right? We help change the tide of the community. So if you’re looking around in your area, and you don’t see any kind of specialized approach happening in your area, and you would like to see something happen, get involved now. Be the change you want to see, because so much of the time, I have found that when there is buzz about something, sometimes it’s warranted and sometimes it’s not. So I would say even when you hear buzz about an individual school, do your own research, ask other parents who go to school there and not just one or two. Ask as many as you can. Crowdsource that information. Google is a great tool. You can find a lot of things out there, and parents I have found are always willing to give their opinion and provide some input about what their experience has been — the good and the bad.

Keri Mitchell: And yet — I agree. Google is a great tool — but it seems like from your experience, correct me if I’m wrong, there’s nothing like actually seeing it for yourself.

Laura Corkery: That is absolutely my opinion. Do your own evaluating. I like to consider it as, you can hear what other people have to say, and that again is another data point. But ultimately, I think the most effective way to evaluate something is to go into the school to see, you know, the situation there because context is everything. And the more input you have, the more data you have, the better decision you can make.

Keri Mitchell: Great, thanks so much for talking to us. 

Lauren Corkery: Absolutely.

Thanks for listening to the Uninformed Parent. In the next episode, we’ll return to Denise Rappmund, the parent with whom we launched this podcast series, and talk about what she’s learned during her son’s kindergarten year. 

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