School’s success a lesson in idealism; E. Dallas institution has basic approach: Start young, involve family

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Ask Terry Ford, founder of the East Dallas Community School, what tuition is at her 87-student private school. She’ll surprise you.

“You know, I’m not sure,” she’ll say. “I’ll have to check on it.”

It’s hard to imagine many private school heads not knowing such a basic number. But EDCS isn’t just any private school. Its mission is far more idealistic than getting kids into the Ivy League. Terry Ford wants nothing less than to break the cycle of urban poverty.

“It shouldn’t take wealth for a child to get access to a quality education,” she said.

With the East Dallas Community School, she’s taken quite a step – proving that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds can be pushed into superior performance.

“These children get all the love and attention and mental stimulation that they need,” said Ross Perot, the former presidential candidate who has been a major EDCS backer for two decades. “If they don’t get it at home, they get it at school.”

Ms. Ford’s story begins with the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Growing up “in a white, Republican family” in Prairie Village, Kan., she watched the great marches on television and was mystified by the racism.

“I was righteously incensed by it,” Ms. Ford said. “I know that sounds corny, but it’s true.”

In 1974, she graduated from SMU and knew what she wanted to do: teach children in the inner city. Flush with idealism, she started out at Mount Auburn Elementary, making $80 a week to teach in a 36-child classroom.

She moved into the school’s East Dallas neighborhood. She made home visits, telling parents she was available to talk or help at any time. But Ms. Ford could see that even her good students weren’t always developing well after they left her classroom

“They were falling into bad patterns, falling behind academically, getting hostile attitudes,” she said.

She started talking with some neighborhood parents; they wanted her to start a school. Parents wanted their children to get a good education. Ms. Ford had grander goals: “To show we could stop poverty from leading kids to fail in school.”

In 1978, she quit Mount Auburn and found a local minister to donate space in a run-down church building. The East Dallas Community School’s total budget that first year: about $9,000.

“My big plan was just to survive,” she said.

Philosophy for learning

But early on, Ms. Ford decided on what she now calls the two pillars of her educational philosophy:

• Start young. By the time a child reaches kindergarten, she’s already a product of her environment. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds need to be stimulated by their surroundings.

• Involve parents. Schools have access to a child 40 hours a week. The rest of the time, she’s with mom or dad. If parents aren’t coordinating their efforts with teachers, it’s a lost opportunity.

“They’re very good about training parents on the concept,” said Cafea Harrell, mother of 6-year-old Kenya.

Ms. Ford decided to adopt the Montessori approach. Classrooms aren’t broken down by year; students ages 3 to 6 share a classroom, as do children ages 6 to 9.

“This school is very attuned to where children are developmentally,” said Gaylin Bonner, an EDCS teacher for 11 years.

The Montessori model argues that getting children excited in what they’re doing is more important than structuring and scheduling their days. Classrooms are hives of activity: one child labeling breeds of bird, another writing his name, another learning how to clean his shoes.

Children connect to EDCS before they’re born. One of the school’s programs involves teachers going to the homes of pregnant women to discuss stages of brain development and how prenatal choices can impact a child’s future. There’s an infant/toddler program for 1- and 2-year-olds. Children enroll in classes at age three.

To keep parental involvement high, a student’s family get discounts on tuition based on how many hours they volunteer. The school’s tuition is theoretically $5,000, but only a handful of families pay the full amount. Most pay less than $1,000 a year.

How it has helped

As the school has grown, so has the mountain of evidence showing that Ms. Ford’s model works.

In a neighborhood where perhaps half of all students end up graduating from high school, 95 percent of EDCS students do. Sixty-five percent go on to college. Students consistently score above the national average on standardized tests.

When kids graduate from EDCS, they usually go to Dallas public schools, most often in the district’s magnet schools. Last year, 78 percent of the school’s graduates applied for entry to Dallas’ gifted and talented programs. Every last one was accepted.

“I think our culture underestimates children and what they can accomplish,” said teacher Alice Savage.

There are more than 400 children on the school’s waiting list.

In part to bring that number down – and in part to prove a point – EDCS is spreading its message with taxpayer dollars. It has plans to open a chain of publicly funded charter schools, based on Ms. Ford’s model.

State officials have granted EDCS a charter to open up to six schools, funded with public money. The first, Lindsley Park Community School, opened a few blocks from EDCS in 1999.

Since charter schools are by design exempt from many state regulations, Lindsley Park operates almost exactly as EDCS does.

“The daily life of our children does not follow the format in other public schools,” said Lindsley Park’s director, Tom Loew.

Montessori schools aren’t known for being big on standardized tests. So school officials weren’t sure what to expect when Lindsley Park’s third-graders took the reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills last month.

But when the results came in, the school’s passing rate was a perfect 100 percent.

“It was really pretty easy,” said Frances Desmond, 8, who said being at a regular public school “would be really boring.”

Ms. Ford is hesitant to say when more charters will open; she wants to make sure Lindsley Park is financially strong before opening another. But for the last 25 years, her optimism has consistently been turned into reality.

“I really planned on teaching first grade for 99 years,” she said. “But this just felt right.”