Has Dallas ISD Finally Stopped Hemorrhaging the Middle Class?
Students at D.A. Hulcy STEAM school in Southeast Dallas, one of DISD's original choice schools.
Of Dallas ISD's 227 schools, eight are reasonably affluent, meaning half or less of their student populations are poor. Even then, to get to eight, one must count William B. Travis Academy (fourth and fifth grades) separately from William B. Travis Vanguard (sixth through eighth) even though they share a campus and principal. Ditto for George Bannerman Dealey Montessori Academy (pre-K through fifth) and George Bannerman Dealey International Vanguard.
Next year, when DISD opens Solar Prep at the former James Bonham Elementary, the number will jump to nine. Last year, DISD's Office of Transformation and Innovation announced that exactly half the seats at the all-girls, K-8 school focused science, technology, engineering, arts and math would be set aside for students whose family income qualifies them for free or reduced-priced lunch (which kicks in at 185 percent of the poverty line, or $44,863 for a family of four). The other half would go to more affluent students. Admission, open to anyone in the district with no regard to attendance boundaries, would be determined by two parallel lotteries and two parallel waiting lists: one low-income, one not.
Striking the desired balance depended on persuading a enough families from both groups to apply. DISD recently finished the lottery process, and Mike Koprowski, DISD's chief of transformation and innovation, is declaring success. The district fielded 360 applications for 198 seats in kindergarten to second grade. (Older grades will be added as the initial cohort moves up.) The school — indeed, every grade level — will be split 50/50 by income.
Koprowski's team has gone a bit further than that. Eligibility for federally subsidized lunch is an incredibly blunt instrument for measuring socioeconomic disadvantage. There's a yawning gap between a two-parent family making $44,000 and living in a small North Dallas apartment and a single, unemployed mom living in a blighted corner of South Dallas. To better differentiate between the two, the Office of Transformation and Innovation has assigned DISD neighborhoods into one of four socioeconomic blocks based on an area's median income, homeownership rate the prevalence of single-parent households, and adult educational attainment.
Currently, DISD's highest-income schools draw few students from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Lakewood and Stonewall Jackson Elementary, where admission is effectively based on one's ability to afford a half-million dollar home, each draw 4 percent of their population from the bottom socioeconomic half of DISD neighborhoods. For the low-poverty magnets, the number ranges from 7.6 percent (Travis Vanguard) to 17.6 percent (Dealey International Vanguard).
"Choice schools" like Solar Prep (think magnets, except without admissions requirements) draw at least a quarter of their students from those neighborhoods. At Solar Prep, the figure will be 33 percent. At Hulcy STEAM in Southeast Dallas, it's 48 percent. At Mata Montessori, it's 47 percent.
If a campus doesn't reach the 25-percent threshold through the lottery process, then the Office of Transformation and Innovation intervenes, picking students from the lower-income neighborhoods to fill any slots that are vacated. That's what happened for the incoming class at Mata, where students from the very poorest neighborhoods were initially underrepresented.
All of this is a big deal. On a micro level, it gives lower-income students the rare opportunity to go to a mixed-income DISD school. Up to a certain point, which research tends to peg in the 40-50 percent range but is hard to pin down precisely, an increase in low-income students has minimal impact on overall educational quality.
Go too far beyond that — and the vast majority of DISD schools are far past the threshold — and student achievement suffers. Which isn't to say that higher-poverty schools can't be successful (South Dallas' Charles Rice Learning Center is arguably DISD's best elementary despite crushing poverty) or that it's futile to try to improve them, just that poor kids tend to benefit when they can rub elbows with middle-class classmates.
On a macro level, Solar Prep and its fellow "schools of choice" represent one of the more promising strategies for wooing the middle class back to DISD.
For decades, ever since the courts belatedly got around to forcing the schools to desegregate, DISD has been locked in a vicious circle. As middle-class families have abandoned the district for private schools, charters and the suburbs, academic performance has sagged, which has only encouraged more middle-class families to flee.
DISD was already disastrously poor in the late 1990s, when 7 in 10 students were classified as economically disadvantaged, but it grew poorer still over the next decade and a half. By 2014, 9 in 10 DISD students were low income.
The result is that tens of thousands of students are trapped in schools of desperate poverty. And for all the rhetoric from the mayor and other civic leaders about how educating those students is a moral imperative, it's hard to fathom how DISD can find sustainable fixes without widespread buy-in from the middle class. Choice schools alone won't reverse the trend, but they're a start.