How Dallas Reverses Decades Of White Leaking From Its School System | dallas
This story about transformation schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Subscribe to the Hechinger newsletter.
When Lauren McKinnon learned that a new public elementary school was opening near her home in Dallas, it was good news. but when she learned that the school would offer an all-girls format of education with a focus on Stem, she was even more excited, knowing that inequalities often exist for girls – like her daughters – in math and science.
But something else stood out about the school that appealed to McKinnon: its potential for a student body that was more like Dallas as a whole.
The school, Solar Prep for Girls, opened in 2016 as a “school of transformation,” one of many ongoing efforts to reverse decades of white flight from the school system. The school district is currently 71 percent Hispanic, 21 percent black, and 5 percent white, and 86 percent of its students are eligible for federally subsidized lunches.
In contrast, the city of Dallas is more evenly divided racially and ethnically: it is 41% Hispanic, about 29% white, and 24% black.
Solar Prep and other transformation schools in Dallas have no attendance limits. Students are admitted by lottery, with some seats open to families who live outside the school district. But Solar Prep for Girls is one of 13 transformative schools that uses a special enrollment formula: Half of admitted students must live in one of Dallas’ socioeconomically disadvantaged census blocks, while the other half comes from richer areas. The district provides transportation for students within its boundaries.
As a group, these 50/50 schools attract thousands of applicants and have proven so popular that the district plans to open 11 more over the next three years, including two that will open when classes resume on August 15. .
“I’m Caucasian and I grew up in a lower socioeconomic group, so I know color doesn’t equal income, but in Dallas our assumption was that we were going to get some diversity,” said McKinnon said. “We were lucky with Solar and we haven’t looked back.”
The demographic breakdown at Solar Prep for Girls, where McKinnon’s daughters Elizabeth and Vivienne attend first and second grade, respectively, is 20% white, 17% black and 52% Hispanic.
The district sees this 50/50 enrollment approach as a way to eliminate pockets of concentrated poverty and slow the decline in enrollment.
“The city of Dallas is so segregated that by using the 50/50 model, we can easily create racially diverse schools,” said Nancy Bernardino, co-founder of Solar Prep for Girls. “We can’t admit by race, but this approach gave us that opportunity.”
Solar Prep for Girls was the district’s first 50/50 school. To achieve this diverse mix, the district uses the most recent census tract data available to create a socio-economic map, then places each of the city’s 827 census blocks into one of five compartments. The first bucket represents the wealthiest neighborhoods and the fifth represents the poorest.
The calculation used by the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) to determine economic status includes median income as well as other factors, such as parental education level, home ownership, and single parent status. Research shows that children from low-income and affluent families do better in school when they are in socio-economically mixed classes. Dallas school leaders find that these deliberately diverse schools are popular with parents at both ends of the spectrum.
Martha Castro, whose youngest daughter Sofia is in second grade at Solar Prep for Girls, said the school culture has made a noticeable difference in her daughter.
“She stands up for herself and speaks up when she doesn’t like something,” said Castro, a single parent who works as a cleaner.
Castro, who is Hispanic, likes the way teachers at the school encourage the girls to believe that they “can do whatever they want in life.” Castro and his daughters live 30 minutes away in Mesquite, a suburb east of Dallas.
“I’ve never seen her more confident,” Castro said. “I really believe it’s because of the school.”
Related: Academic revives argument for racial integration in schools
The district’s attempts to achieve a measure of integration while avoiding specific racial quotas received national attention.
“Many school districts that have very few white or middle-class students are dropping integration, which I think is a mistake,” said Richard Kahlenberg, director of K-12 equity and researcher. principal at the Century Foundation. “With DISD’s demographics, a lot of foreigners would say integration is irrelevant. Dallas fortunately proved them wrong because they looked at the metropolitan area, rather than just the existing school population, and thought more broadly about the possibilities.
Dallas is one of the most segregated major cities in the country. While North Dallas is predominantly white, most black Dallas residents live in South Dallas. Both East and West Dallas are deeply Hispanic.
Segregation concentrates black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools, said Sean Reardon, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. Using data from every school district across the country, Reardon tracks academic achievement, economic status and race.
As schools become more segregated, the gaps in learning rates widen, he said. Where achievement disparities exist, they can be explained by the fact that in segregated districts, black and Hispanic children typically attend high-poverty schools, while white students typically attend low-poverty schools, a Reardon said.
“There’s nothing magical about the whiteness of classmates in integrated schools that rubs off and improves test scores,” said Kahlenberg, of the Century Foundation. “It’s the concentrations of poverty that are troubling.
Related: Reconsidering the Benefits of Desegregation
But successful school integration, said Bernardino, the co-founder of Solar Prep for Girls, isn’t just about enrollment. Before opening the school five years ago, Bernardino visited socioeconomically diverse schools in other cities.
“When we went to visit these schools, they were diverse, but the practices were still very traditional,” Bernardino said. “Students were self-segregating and adults were always targeting certain children to come and talk. These leaders thought that doing the lottery would be enough.
During this year of planning, Bernardino and his co-founder, Jennifer Turner, worked hard to publicize the school, visiting all the Head Start programs and daycares they could. It was easy to fill seats for both socio-economic buckets in the first year. But once the two co-directors were busy running a new school and didn’t have time to do so much outreach, the number of applications from economically disadvantaged families dwindled. So the directors went back to the communities. They knocked on doors, set up booths at Cinco de Mayo and Martin Luther King Day events, and helped families fill out applications.
“Moms need to meet me and feel a connection with the director,” Bernardino said. “Letting their four-year-old travel around town and not knowing if they can join her if something happens is what they sacrifice. It was the biggest challenge.
Related: ‘We’re stronger than ever:’ Mississippi school district shows integrated schools pay off
District officials view student results, as well as teacher attendance and retention data, as indicators that they are on the right track. But more compelling than anything is the schools’ sheer popularity. Last year, the district received 25,000 applications for 5,800 seats in 50/50 schools. A third of these requests came from families whose children did not already attend a DISD school. While some of those requests were for kindergartens, many were for children who attended a private or charter school.
“Application data is one of the big indicators of our success,” said Angie Gaylord, deputy chief transformation and innovation officer for DISD. “It transforms the perception of a large urban neighborhood.”
While school demographics are important to the district, these issues fade into the background once children are inside schools.
Solar Prep School for Boys is located in North Dallas. Almost a third of the boys are white, 15% are black and 44% are Hispanic. Like all other 50/50 schools, Solar Prep for Boys is about half socio-economically disadvantaged.
“When we went to the meet-the-teachers night, I had a concern,” said Aschanti Williams, regional project manager for T-Mobile whose son Wesley is in second grade. “I was really worried that it would be very cliquey, that the rich kids were here and the poor kids were there. When we got there, you couldn’t tell the difference between a high-income parent and a low-income parent. We were all fused together, hanging out together.
One morning, as he parked in the school’s semi-circular driveway, Williams noticed that the car in front of him was battered. The colors of its doors didn’t match and it was belching smoke. Behind Williams was an all-new Chevrolet Escalade. Williams and her son were waiting in their Toyota Camry.
“In the outside world, the three owners of these vehicles would be treated differently,” he recalled. “But these kids come through the door and it all goes out the window.”