As Trustees Will Learn, Fixing Dallas Schools Means Fixing Segregation

With so few affluent students, how high is DISD's ceiling?
With so few affluent students, how high is DISD's ceiling?
Stanton Stevens

On Thursday, Dallas ISD trustees will be confronted with some sobering statistics about the stark economic segregation that divides Dallas, more than almost anywhere else in the country, into silos of haves and have-nots.

According to a 2012 study from the Pew Research Center, 37 percent of low-income residents in the Dallas metro area lived in predominately poor neighborhoods in 2010, which is among the highest rates in the country and represents a jump of a third since 1980. The share of high-income residents living in predominately rich neighborhoods was 23 percent, more than twice what it was three decades earlier. Because of the close ties between race and class in America, this trend tracks closely with the resegregation of Dallas schools since U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders declared DISD desegregated in 1994.

The data isn't meant merely to depress, though it should probably have that effect given how corrosive segregation is for schoolchildren. Rather, Chief of Transformation and Innovation Mike Koprowski will offer it as part of his pitch to reshape the racial and economic geography of DISD through "schools of choice."

Part of this, as we highlighted when we profiled Koprowski and his team a couple of months ago, involves wooing middle-class families back to the district by offering programs (e.g., Montessori, dual-language, International Baccalaureate) attractive enough to out-compete the suburbs' and private schools. The other part involves establishing enrollment policies at those campuses that mix students by socioeconomic status, which includes not only family income but also less obvious factors like parents' educational achievement and the prevalence of single-parent households in a neighborhood.)  Since the Supreme Court barred districts from considering race nine years ago, SES has become the go-to, constitutionally acceptable tool for districts interested in promoting diversity.

Right now, the district is only taking baby steps. In August, DISD will open Solar Preparatory School for Girls, a K-8 STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) campus that represents the district's first attempt to mix students by socioeconomic status. As with DISD's other choice schools, Solar will be open to any student living within district boundaries, based on a lottery. The difference is that half the seats at Solar will be allocated to low-income students, half to those with higher incomes.

That's hardly enough to change a housing paradigm that's been nailed into place over many decades. Furthermore, any serious effort to uncouple school attendance from geography seems almost certain to precipitate a clash between macro questions of creating a healthier and more sustainable city and school district and micro concerns about the diminishment of neighborhood schools as backbones of their communities. But as DISD begins to toy with doing exactly that, it's worth keeping in mind that cities take their shape not due to some unseen and unknowable force but rather from an accumulation of decisions — on housing; on education; on infrastructure — made by the government. Which is distressing given what it says about past decisions but also, in a way, heartening, since dumb policies can always be replaced by smart ones.

The title of Koprowski's presentation, which you can read below, is "Housing Policy = School Policy." if you replace the equals sign with "Is," the title is identical to that of a 2010 paper published by the Century Foundation, which probably isn't by accident. The Century Foundation paper analyzes the Montgomery County school district in the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C., which as a side effect of uncommonly progressive county housing policies became a near-perfect laboratory for studying the impacts of socioeconomic integration on schools.

In the early 1970s, Montgomery County's housing commission, wary of large-scale housing projects, enacted a policy of inclusionary zoning, which required developers to set aside 12 to 15 percent of the new residential units they were building to be sold or rented at below-market rates. Between 1976 and 2010, this resulted in the production of some 12,000 moderately priced homes. Importantly, the policy also gave the housing commission the right to purchase up to a third of the set-asides in any given development for renting out to families on federal housing assistance.

Housing for the poor was thus scattered throughout Montgomery County, some of it in the middle of upscale subdivisions, some in neighborhoods with lower incomes; which one a family was assigned to was based on a lottery. By extension, because school attendance boundaries in Montgomery County, as in Dallas, are based on geography, this meant that some poor children were randomly assigned to affluent schools while others were assigned to poor schools.

Schwarz tracked the performance of 850 public housing students between 2001 and 2007. The students attended 131 different elementary schools. Half of them were on extremely low-poverty campuses, where fewer than 20 percent of their classmates qualified for free and reduced lunch. The other half attended moderate- to high-poverty campuses where the subsidized lunch rates reached as high as 72 percent.

It took time for differences to emerge, but after five to seven years, public-housing students in the low-poverty schools significantly outperformed their counterparts at higher poverty campuses. Furthermore, the yawning achievement gap with their wealthier peers shrunk  dramatically. In math it was cut in half, reading by a third, though the gains diminished as school affluence decreased.

What's more striking about the results is that in 2000, just before the period examined by the study, the school district began pouring extra resources into its 60 least advantaged elementary campuses, which it designated as "red zone" schools. Teachers at those schools received extra training, class sizes were reduced by a third, and high-needs students were given extra-intensive instruction, none of which was enough to match the positive impact of attending a school with low poverty.

Why economic integration is so powerful is complicated, but researchers attribute it to a host of factors. Some of the benefit is probably a side effect of having more high-achieving peers. Some comes from those kids' parents, who establish high expectations for teachers and administrators. A lot has to do with teachers, who for a host of reasons are more inclined to want to stick around at low-poverty schools than high-poverty schools.

Of course, Montgomery County isn't Dallas. The school systems are of comparable size, but Montgomery County's is richer, whiter and more suburban. Only a small handful of elementaries in Dallas have lower rates of subsidized lunch than the least advantaged campus in Montgomery County, while the median student in the Schwarz study attended a school with a subsidized lunch rate (20 percent) equivalent to Lakewood Elementary, DISD's most affluent campus. In other words, Dallas doesn't really have any rich schools to send poor kids to.

Another way to look at it, though, is that the 160,000 DISD students have more to gain from socioeconomic integration than their peers in Montgomery County and that every year spent in a high-poverty school is a lost opportunity. And if the situation was created by destructive policies carried out over decades, then it can be remedied by smart policies carried out over a similar timespan. The DISD board is only one player.

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