AS I TOURED THE NEW IRMA RANGEL Young Women’s Leadership School with Liza Lee, I felt a sense of cognitive dissonance. At 62, Lee is tiny, silver-haired, and, in her sensible pumps and robin-red blazer, a little old-money. She looks like what she was for the past fourteen years—the headmistress of Hockaday, the elite Dallas private school for girls. Her vowels are long and cultured, and when she gushes over the refurbished 1920’s elementary that has been converted into a middle school for inner-city girls in the funky Oak Lawn section of Dallas—“I just love their mission statement!”—the uninitiated might dismiss her as just another do-gooder who is visiting, between her book group and her bridge game. But Lee is no society matron; she is instead the avatar of a new kind of public school.
I had come to Irma Rangel, which is named after a late South Texas legislator who championed educational causes, because I have more than a passing interest in urban schools. My own son is an eighth-grader in a Houston public school, and over the years I have spent a great deal of time thinking about how his education might be made better. Lee has an answer—to make public schools more like private schools—and I had come to the first girls-only public school in the state to find out what she means. As an executive with a new educational foundation that was started by a former Hockaday parent and donor, she is trying, like so many before her, to find a way to properly educate the vast majority of children who remain in the public school system. Her idea is to pattern schools after the best attributes of places like Hockaday, which is to say small, exclusive, demanding, and above all, well funded. “The Dallas Independent School District,” Lee says, still a little surprised, “was amazingly welcome to the idea.”
Lee comes to this mission with sterling qualifications: When she retired from Hockaday last June, the Dallas Morning News gave her departure state-funeral coverage, and grateful parents and trustees threw multitudinous parties in her honor, squeezing every last penny from her reputation as a fund-raising phenom even as she was halfway out the door. (Lee increased the endowment at Hockaday 350 percent during her tenure, from $20 million to $90 million.)
Even though Lee is a native New Yorker, she quickly became a part of the Dallas narrative soon after her arrival, in 1990; without ever adopting the local coloration of big hair and big jewels, she managed to transform Hockaday from a finishing school into a place that currently ranks among the nation’s best private academic institutions. (“Give me Dallas women any day,” she was often heard to say, meaning that they know how to organize, and they know how to raise money.) She was also a subtle but forceful revolutionary: Lee pushed Dallas’s elite and their children to not only strive for academic excellence—12 of the 103 members of Hockaday’s 2004 senior class are National Merit Finalists—but also open the school’s doors to a far more diverse population. During her tenure, the number of students receiving financial aid went from 84 to 128, and the proportion of students of color went from 17 to 24 percent. In the process, Lee showed young Dallas women new ways of looking at themselves.
Still, after seeing one class all the way through from pre-K to graduation, Lee decided to look for something different. “I’d been there fourteen years, and that was the natural life cycle; I came in the same year the graduating seniors did,” she told me. She has been associated with private, single-sex institutions most of her life—mainly as a student, a teacher, and an administrator at Brearley, one of Manhattan’s best schools—but she quickly agreed when Lee Posey, the chairman of Palm Harbor Homes, asked her to join him in helping the DISD create a public school exclusively for girls. It would be modeled after a public leadership school started by philanthropists Ann and Andrew Tisch in New York. Posey wasn’t interested in founding a charter school—“That does nothing for the school district,” he told me. Instead, in honor of his mother, who never made it past the third grade, he and his wife, Sally, formed the Young Women’s Leadership Foundation of Texas to contribute up to $2,000 per girl per year for enhancements the district can’t provide, such as a college counselor, summer programs on college campuses, and leadership and wellness programs. Lee’s job is to serve as a consultant who will be the liaison for the foundation and other donors in dealing with the school and its teachers, administrators, and students. Whatever the school needs or wants—in line with DISD regulations, of course—she is charged with getting.
There really isn’t much mystery to improving the public schools. Lee’s suggestions follow a familiar catechism: smaller schools; smaller classes (at Irma Rangel, the limit is eighteen students, versus more than thirty in some of my son’s classes); management and entrepreneurial training for principals; uniforms, which eliminate a lot of economic and social competition; and—Lee’s favorite—single-sex schools, especially during the awkward middle-school years. “Twelve-year-old girls and twelve-year-old boys don’t benefit from being in the same class,” Lee says. “Puberty is such a dysfunctional time.”
Finally, like many private schools and a growing number of specialized public schools, Irma Rangel is selective. Its entrance requirements aren’t sky-high but do allow the school to weed out the unmotivated and the undisciplined: An applicant has to have a B average; she has to score at least 40 percent on standardized tests in math and reading; and she has to submit examples of her work, come for an interview, and complete an onsite writing assignment. To some extent, the requirements represent an admission of defeat: Irma Rangel and other specialized public schools are, in essence, saving the students with the best chance to succeed and leaving the rest to find their own way. Lee’s optimism, of course, would never allow her to see it that