By Harriet P. Gross
I recently heard Dallas ISD Superintendent Mike Miles (he vastly prefers that folksy title to “Dr. Miles”) address an audience made up primarily of local literacy organizations and their volunteers. Actually, “address” is too formal a term for this man who embraces simplicity and getting down to basics.
Today’s definition of literacy is the ability of a person to read and write at the fourth-grade level. Mike called those who toil in this elementary vineyard “hope givers.” Also down-to-the-bone simple is his belief that Dallas’ public education is determined primarily by the quality of its classroom teachers.
He has some ambitions for DISD improvement, given a number of today’s depressing statistics. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how our Jewish community may have contributed to the current sad state of the city’s public schools.
I’ve lived here for exactly 32 years. Today recalls my move into a new marriage in a new-to-me city. The house I moved into was the one my husband had picked out three years earlier, when he came to Dallas, because, although it was physically within the city, it was also in the Richardson school district. He had been advised, back in 1977, not to enroll his only child in a city school.
I’ve always been interested in education, so I started looking around to find out more about this and about the decisions of Dallas Jewish community parents concerning their children’s education. The number of synagogues was very small then (only seven, as I remember), and their “supplemental” programs (read: Sunday school) were thriving. In the Reform community, confirmation classes were very large while bar and bat mitzvahs were rare, often just big birthday parties without much religious content.
Orthodox institutions used the old melamed (tutor) system, virtually assuring that boys would achieve bimah “manhood” by reading Hebrew texts they had mastered only through rote memorization. It was the fledgling Modern Orthodox and Conservative leaders who saw the need for Jewish day schools, and made Akiba Academy and the Solomon Schechter school that’s now Ann and Nate Levine Academy happen.
This is oversimplification, of course, but true on base. Here’s more: I remember how, in those 30-plus years ago, our Reform Jews were prime backers of the Dallas public schools. Groups and yard signs of support for them flourished.
In the coming year, our Dallas Jewish Historical Society will salute this bit of educational history with a tribute to “Hebrew High,” which of course means Hillcrest. But the number of Jews in that institution has virtually dried up. What happened?
Private schools are expensive, and as the quality of public education plummeted, many families who could afford to do so went that route. Others began, and later joined, the growing Jewish migration north, at first to Plano, or — like my husband-to-be — into that part of Dallas served by Richardson schools. Both were excellent choices for good, free education.
Many more years ago than 32, I was a day-camp counselor for the JCC in the city of my birth. There were no Orthodox children attending and only one boy, a first-grader, went to a Jewish school. He was ashamed of this. He’d never refer to his school by its name, which was Hebrew; instead, he called it JPS — Jewish Parochial School. He was too young to have made this up, so it must have come from his parents.
So Jewish parents, many of them members of Reform temples, fueled the “back to public school” attempts, because their most potent rabbis of the time insisted that the movement’s duty was to blend in with, not stand out from, the majority population. The results? Failure of the sole Reform Jewish day school ever started in Dallas, growth of Orthodox schools to serve that growing community and the flowering of Yavneh, Mesorah, Texas Torah Institute and ATID as high school opportunities for all local Jewish high-schoolers.
Today, Dallas’ majority population is very different than it was those three decades ago. Miles remarked, during the course of that evening, that he wants DISD’s schools to help today’s African American and Hispanic children realize their dreams, too. And he added that the toughest job he ever had in his long career was “first-year teacher.”
I’m sending this encouragingly empathetic word to my grandson Robert, a newly minted music teacher now charged with building, from scratch, the band and choral programs of a large Chicago high school. He got this, his first job, not only because of his training and skills, but because he is fluent in Spanish, the primary language spoken by 96 percent of his students.