AT BRENTFIELD ELEMENTARY, KIDS WANT to visit principal Vaughn Gross’s office. The walls and furniture feature Native American motifs hand-painted in peach, magenta, and teal. A bowl of Hershey and Milky Way miniatures takes center stage on her desk, which appears to be a pricey slab of white marble. “I paid for that desk top myself,” she assures visitors—and then delivers the kicker: “Of course, the marble is really contact paper.” Such humor, self-sufficiency, and creativity are hallmarks of Brentfield, a campus of six hundred students on the north side of affluent Richardson. Many parents there could easily shell out private tuition for their kids, but thanks to Brentfield, they don’t need to. Brentfield offers an education equal to that of the most dedicated paro-chial academy. In minor ways too it deliberately resembles a private school—one T-shirt design bears an embroidered crest; the crossing guard wears a uniform—but Brentfield’s greatest riches are unquestionably academic: the school’s lowest overall passing score on the most recent TAAS test was a whopping 97.7 in reading.
Brentfield oozes with honors, from recycling kudos to statewide teaching awards. But the main reason it soars so high academically is the total devotion of its parents, teachers, and administrators. Each of the three groups lavishes praise on the other two. Last year, for example, 1,120 family members volunteered for a PTA project. Says one mother: “There aren’t really neighborhoods in the big city anymore. So, for a lot of us, the school is our neighborhood.”
The teachers are equally committed. Eighty-one percent have advanced degrees, and there is little turnover (except for retirement). They tutor students after hours, and several welcome spe cial-education students in their regular classes. “Teachers are in a very isolated profession—when they walk into class and shut the door, they’re on their own. So I encourage creativity and give them freedom,” says Gross. One teacher enlivens spelling by providing bridesmaid gowns so kids can play Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune ; another assigns restless preteens to play catch with inflatable globes (“Alternative social studies!” she jokes); a third won’t allow custodians to oil her squeaky closet door—so she can use the sound effects to turn herself into Viola Swamp, the horrid substitute teacher of James Marshall’s childhood classic, Miss Nelson Is Missing.
The principal, too, gets all A’s. “Her car is up here till eight or nine most nights,” says PTA president Sondra Dozier. “She’s amazingly dedicated. She’d get paid just as much to do a mediocre job.” Every six weeks, for example, Gross takes the time to scribble a note on each of the six hundred report cards. She pioneered a program for middle-of-the-class children, who all too often are overlooked amid the special attention given slow learners and gifted students. Called PAW (Pursuing Academic Wonders), it’s a weekly elective on such topics as mythology, mummies, and Monet. Slender, fiftyish, and blond, she is constantly on the move, drawing hugs and hellos from youngsters all over the school. In the intermediate building, she visits fifth-graders making Japanese kites in art class, listens to fourth-grade students plinking out “Clementine” on ukulele, and watches a counselor delivering a Chill Drill on how to handle anger. On the primary side, everyone in a first-grade class stretches out for a reading lesson. “Teacher on the floor—I love it,” says Gross.
Several other factors have helped put Brentfield on top of the educational heap. One is its divided campus, with two libraries, two cafeterias, two computer labs. Kindergarten through third grade occupy the half built in 1975; six years later the district added a second building for fourth through sixth. Yes, sixth; Richardson, unlike most Texas school districts, has never abandoned the classic elementary-school structure. Says Gross: “It gives the sixth-grader another year to be a child.” She applauds the district’s independent thinking: “We don’t hear a lot of ‘you can’t’s.’” And, she notes, the campus has few problems with discipline or crime.
But Gross doesn’t take Brentfield’s good fortune for granted. “There’s always room for improvement,” she says firmly. “Whether you’re a principal or a teacher or a parent, the bottom line is student achievement. We’re all accountable.”