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