Going Public

What Liza Lee learned as the headmistress at Hockaday—and how it could help kids, in Dallas and elsewhere, who can't afford to go to private school.

February 2005By Comments

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 way. “We’re trying to break big schools down into smaller schools,” she says, adding, “It’s not that inner-city kids don’t have motivation. It’s that they and their parents don’t have any hope. If you’re living in poverty, you feel you’re at the bottom and doomed to be there. That’s not very motivating.”

Lee’s ideas contrast sharply with the current political mantra that accountability, as measured by standardized tests, is the best way to improve urban schools. She believes children should be held to high standards (“Low standards breed a sense of hopelessness: ‘I’m not any good or they’d ask more of me’”), but she is not a fan of Bush-era education initiatives, in Texas and around the nation, including the No Child Left Behind Act. “The principles behind it are well intended, but it won’t change things,” she says. “Last year there was no class-size component, no faculty training. There’s nothing wrong with being measured, but we’ve added a whole layer of bureaucracy that will just slow everyone down.”

Lee and Posey believe that hope comes not in the form of educational platitudes but in the form of cold, hard cash. “What tuition buys in private schools is a kind of access,” she says, sounding less like Miss Jean Brodie than Harvard Business School. For poorer kids, “Money buys access to cultural programs and institutions. To technology. And it can buy you access to college because it can buy you a college counselor. It can buy you college prep classes.” Posey’s money buys students access to the larger world, so that a voyage to college won’t seem as inconceivable as a visit to another planet. “Our commitment is that every girl who graduates and is accepted to a four-year college will have the financial support she needs,” he says. Money, in other words, can end the social isolation of poor children and help bridge the ever-widening gaps in American society.

It is fashionable among education conservatives to insist that, too often, money is wasted on the public schools. They point to cosmetic changes, like a brand-new gym, as doing nothing to improve education. What really matters, they say, is personnel: good principals who can get the most out of good teachers who will in turn inspire their students. What I’ve seen in many Houston schools, however, is that the teachers are often very good and very committed but lack the incentive to stay, at their school and in their profession. It isn’t just their low salaries but the time-consuming, state-mandated test prep, the deteriorating condition of the schools, and the overcrowded classrooms, all of which make teaching and learning difficult if not impossible. Even worse, teachers are the ones charged with socializing kids who have often seen nothing outside their own neighborhoods besides a ritzy shopping mall. Lee and Posey’s plan might be expensive—smaller classes create the need for more teachers—but that seems to be a price worth paying to develop a workforce that otherwise will continue to diminish in intellectual curiosity and cognitive ability.

The truth is that today even public schools in good neighborhoods are strapped. Thanks to government cuts, the Robin Hood school finance law, and taxpayer indifference, more and more school districts are having to form private foundations; prestigious Highland Park has had one for twenty years. The constant, desperate search for funding is now another way that public schools are aping their private counterparts. Lee’s vision of her job at Irma Rangel, then, is basically to serve as a development director, which she hopes to do for other schools throughout urban Texas that would be backed by Posey’s foundation. “These administrators have plenty to do without scrounging for money,” she says. “Let me scrounge for money.” In essence, she gives her kids access to what their fellow students in posh private schools have always had: rich, well-connected adults.

It’s far too soon, of course, to determine how successful Irma Rangel will be, though Lee has begun collecting anecdotal evidence with typical efficiency. Her favorite story involves a parent whose child was rejected by Hockaday and so chose Irma Rangel. This mother has no plans to reapply to private school. “Can you tell me the difference?” she asked Lee, at the end of her daughter’s first semester.

“Not right now,” Lee was able to tell her.

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