DISD's Best Neighborhood School Is in ... South Dallas?

According to DISD's metrics, Charles Rice Learning Center in South Dallas is the best neighborhood elementary school in Dallas.
According to DISD's metrics, Charles Rice Learning Center in South Dallas is the best neighborhood elementary school in Dallas.
Dallas ISD

The popularity of Lakewood Elementary has effectively warped the East Dallas real-estate market as upper-middle-class-to-rich families outbid one another for homes within the school's attendance boundaries. This makes a certain amount of sense, as Lakewood is a really good school that the surrounding community is heavily invested in, but it's also not entirely rational. As we pointed out last week, Lakewood is one of six neighborhood elementary schools in DISD to earn all five possible distinctions from the Texas Education Agency. Half of those schools are in neighborhoods well within the reach of the middle class.

Of course, picking a school based solely on TEA accountability ratings also isn't entirely rational. A failing grade ("Improvement Required") is a pretty good signal to stay away, but the alternative ("Met Standard") communicates only a very basic level of competence. The distinctions, which replaced the exemplary/recognized designations about five years ago, provide additional information, but those are mostly weighted toward measuring absolute performance. Put another way, it can be hard to determine whether a distinction has more to do with the quality of students or the quality of education. A school like Lakewood, with five designations, is clearly more effective than a school with none, but the the line between, say, four and five distinctions is less distinct and can vary from year to year.

For the past quarter century or so, DISD has been using an in-house measure for assessing the overall quality of a campus. Called the School Effectiveness Index, or SEI, it assigns a score of 0-100 every year to every school in the district. Like the state's ratings, it is based on performance on standardized tests, mainly the state-mandated STAAR tests and district-mandated ACP. Compared with the state ratings, however, SEI is much more focused on measuring relative performance and student growth.

Cecilia Oakley, DISD's assistant superintendent of evaluation and assessment, describes it as a "method of measuring student performance in relationship to the performance of other similar district students." To vastly oversimplify, it takes a student and compares her performance with the average of a group of peers who scored similarly on previous tests and have roughly equivalent racial, socioeconomic and linguistic backgrounds. So a Hispanic third-grade girl who scored a 50 on her English test in second grade will be measured against other Hispanic third-grade girls who scored a 50 on their second-grade English tests. In this way, the district seeks to isolate the impact of the school from the myriad other factors that might impact student achievement.

Using SEI rather than state accountability ratings, the discussion about DISD's top schools changes dramatically. Lakewood still stands out, earning the top SEI in 2015. Second comes Hexter, which earned four of five possible distinctions. Third comes Pershing Elementary, which abuts George W. Bush's street in Preston Hollow but earned just three of five distinctions. Extend the time frame to three years, thus ironing out any anomalous bumps or dips, and the picture changes still more.

DISD Elementaries — 2013-15 School Effectiveness Index

  1. Charles Rice Learning Center - 59
  2. Lakewood Elementary - 57.7
  3. John J. Pershing Elementary - 57.6
  4. Victor H. Hexter Elementary - 56.1
  5. Richard Lagow Elementary - 55.7
  6. George H.W. Bush Elementary - 55.5
  7. Walnut Hill Elementary - 55.2
  8. Jill Stone Elementary - 55.2
  9. Harry C. Withers Elementary - 55
  10. Jimmy Tyler Brashear Elementary - 54.9

These shouldn't, it should be noted, be read like test scores. A score of 50 — or, really, anything between 47.5 and 52.5 — represents an average DISD school. Anything above that represents a school that is significantly outperforming other campuses. "I think definitely at the upper end and the lower end, and especially [with] consistency," the SEI offers a pretty good glimpse of schools that are really knocking it out of the park.

The schools with all five TEA distinctions do well by this metric. Lakewood, George H.W. Bush and Withers all make the top 10, Stonewall comes in at number 11. The two others, Arcadia Park and F.P. Caillet, are in the top fifth. The top spot, however, belongs to a school with three of five TEA distinctions: South Dallas' Charles Rice Learning Center.

This is no secret to families in the neighborhood, who regard Charles Rice as a local gem, but its reputation for quality doesn't extend much further than that. This is only partly because the rest of the city tends to shun South Dallas. The school is overwhelmingly poor, with 98 percent of students designated as economically disadvantaged, which is dauntingly high even by the standards of DISD. As a result (the link between socioeconomic status and academic achievement is well established), Rice's raw test scores, while solid, don't exactly jump off the page. But the numbers suggest that Rice is doing what a neighborhood school is supposed to do, which is to take the kids its attendance zone provides and give them a good education.

So what about middle schools? Dallas has two neighborhood middle schools — E.D. Walker and Quintanilla — that received six of the seven possible TEA distinctions available to middle schools. They rank third and fourth based on a three-year average of SEI.

DISD Middle Schools - 2013-15 School Effectiveness Index

  1. John B. Hood Middle School - 56.4
  2. Benjamin Franklin Middle School - 55.2
  3. E.D. Walker Middle School - 54.8
  4. Raul Quintanilla, Sr. Middle School - 52.9
  5. L.V. Stockard Middle School - 52.5

DISD had two neighborhood high schools — Hillcrest and Woodrow — that earned all seven TEA distinctions, but Hillcrest sags according to SEI, with an average score of 47.4, which is on the cusp between average and significantly below average. In general, DISD's high schools have lower SEI scores than other campuses.

DISD High Schools - 2013-15 School Effectiveness Index

  1. Woodrow Wilson High School - 54.8
  2. H. Grady Spruce High School - 51.0
  3. A. Maceo Smith New Tech High School - 50.8
  4. Justin F. Kimball High School - 50.7

And then there are the magnets which, under SEI as under basically every other way of measuring educational quality, tend to kill it.

DISD Magnet Schools - 2013-15 School Effectiveness Index

  1. School of Science & Engineering at Townview - 65.0
  2. Irma L. Rangel Young Women's Leadership Academy - 60.5
  3. W.E. Greiner Exploratory Arts Academy - 58.9
  4. School for the Talented & Gifted at Townview - 58.8
  5. Trinidad Garza Early College High School - 58.5
  6. William B. Travis Academy for Talented and Gifted - 58.0
  7. W.L. Lassiter, Jr. Early College High School - 57.7
  8. George B. Dealey Montessori Academy - 57.5
  9. Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy - 57.5
  10. Dallas Environmental Science Academy - 55.8

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