Staff Writer, Dallas Morning News

Published: 03 June 2013 11:03 PM

Updated: 03 June 2013 11:03 PM

Nestled in a northwest Dallas area with an abundance of private schools, a Dallas ISD campus is holding its own and thriving.

Harry C. Withers Elementary School, lovingly called “The Little School That Could,” enrolls about 400 students and has held the state’s two highest ratings in recent years. Its dual-language program is so popular that it has a lottery system and waiting list for enrollment.

Parents, alumni and neighborhood supporters have embraced the school on Northaven Road. A recent fundraiser brought in more than $95,000 — a decent take for a school where nearly 70 percent of students are considered “economically disadvantaged.”

The school hasn’t always flourished though.

In 1982, Withers closed after enrollment plummeted to about 80 students. The school reopened in 1990 when other families moved into the area.

The revitalization efforts kicked into high gear six years ago when a group of neighborhood parents decided to forgo private school and send their kids to Withers. Principal Andrea Cockrell said the key was recruiting parents to host neighborhood “coffees” in their homes. They persuaded other parents to give Withers a try, and the cycle repeated.

“It’s parents bringing in parents,” said Cockrell, who has led Withers for four years. “The neighborhood has really taken ownership of our school. I have just an amazing community and parents that just want to support our little school.”

Elizabeth Garrison remembers getting invitations for coffee six years ago when she and her husband were debating where to send their children. She went to a gathering and heard from then-principal Anita Hardwick, now a DISD executive director, who talked about a new dual-language program in which students would take classes in Spanish and English.

The couple decided to give the public school in walking distance of their home a try. They now have two children at Withers, which is named for a former Dallas Morning News executive whose newspaper career spanned more than a half-century.

The boundaries for the school extend for three miles south of Forest Lane, beyond the school’s immediate neighborhood, where the median-home value is $253,000. Parents used to complain that children from apartment complexes are bused to Withers. But those questions are no longer raised as often, said Garrison, a past PTA president.

Garrison tells concerned parents that students who ride the buses make the popular dual-language program work. Without their Spanish-speaking skills, she said, the program wouldn’t exist. Withers’ student population is 73 percent Hispanic, 24 percent white and 2 percent black, according to 2011-12 Texas Education Agency information.

Garrison and other volunteers are still giddy about a recent auction held at the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Dallas Love Field, called “Withers Takes Flight.” They raised more than $95,000 auctioning various items, such as paintings by local artists and restaurant gift certificates. In all, more than $400,000 has been raised in the past six years using various fundraising methods, including auctions, donations and grants, Garrison said.

“The sweet part is, it’s just your public school,” she said.

The money goes to classroom resources and student enrichment, staff training, technology and to help pay for a long-term capital project to renovate the school’s library, said Garrison, who is parent project leader for the library renovation.

The library will be gutted, with groundbreaking scheduled for this summer. The plan includes a new circulation desk, tables, chairs, shelving, carpet, desktops, an interactive whiteboard and an area for students to stretch out and read. The project would cost more than $100,000, but it will be done for about $75,000 with Dallas ISD paying for labor and the architectural work being done pro bono, said Garrison.

She said she reached out to Dallas architect Jeff Miller to work on the new library. “He called me back in 10 minutes and said, ‘Ms. Garrison, this is your lucky day. I’m a graduate of Withers.’”

Withers parent Stacie Wheelock Adams said there is much to tout about the school. But she believes what makes it exceptional is the high level of parent involvement.

“It is mind-boggling that a school where nearly 70 percent of students participate in a reduced- or free- lunch program could raise almost $100,000 in a single calendar year,” she said. “Withers did it. How, might you ask? By including every single family in our school’s vision to not accept the status quo, but push for what our kids deserve.”