Lake Highlands Finds the Secret to Great Public Schools: Getting Rid of Poor Kids

Erika Estrada never quite fit in with the moms of White Rock Valley.

"It's very Stepford," she says. Estrada got an inkling shortly after she and her husband, Rick, bought a spacious ranch-style house on Highedge Drive in 2004 and they were peppered with invitations to living-room Bible studies. She became certain once her son enrolled in White Rock Elementary, the neighborhood's coveted public school, well inside Dallas but operated by Richardson ISD, in the fall of 2005.

Estrada found the PTA to be cliquey, with coveted leadership posts and room-mom positions reserved for a selective in-crowd, and was uncomfortable with how the evangelical bent of the surrounding neighborhood seeped into the school in the form of after-school events including a Good News Club advertised on a banner draped on the White Rock Elementary's facade and a much-touted appearance by the "360 Man," who turned out to be the pastor of Watermark Church, a North Dallas megachurch that draws heavily from Lake Highlands.

Estrada has the upper-middle-class-mom thing down, working part-time so she can be with her kids after school, but she's decidedly not Stepford. Unlike the vast majority of White Rock Valley moms, she is Hispanic, Catholic and outspoken to the point of brashness. Her son didn't quite fit in at White Rock Elementary either. He grew increasingly anxious and depressed as he progressed through school, a shift Estrada attributes to bullying and ostracization from the popular, Stepford kids.

And so, Estrada spent much of her son's career at White Rock Elementary locked in a cycle of mutual antagonism with the dominant clique. Estrada made few friends, for instance, when she complained to the Freedom From Religion Foundation about the school's Good News Club. Years later, parents say Estrada's complaint forced White Rock Elementary to end all after-school activities on campus, up to and including the chess club.

(Those charges are off-base, RISD spokesman Tim Clark said in an email. He couldn't speak to whether the Freedom From Religion Foundation ever contacted White Rock Elementary about Estrada's complaint but said that it was the districtwide implementation of the PACE after-school program in 2008 that would have affected after-school activities. "Non-school groups are welcome to lease [White Rock Elementary] facilities for activities, but must wait until after 6 p.m. when the PACE program concludes and the facilities become available," Clark wrote. "For example, the Spring Valley Athletic Association leases WRE’s gymnasium for teams to practice, beginning at 6 pm.")

Estrada was enmeshed in many other smaller-scale disputes, often playing out in email chains and Facebook comment sections. One, centering on the choice of beneficiary for a student-led service project, escalated to the point where another mom's husband showed up on Estrada's doorstep one evening to dress her down for her intransigence.

The constant drama wore on Estrada. She debated pulling her son out of White Rock Elementary but worried about the stress of changing schools and ultimately decided to ride it out. By the time he moved on to junior high in 2012, however, she'd had it with the neighborhood. "There was a point where I said I couldn't take this any more. ... I felt like under a microscope. I feel like everybody's watching," she says.

It was a fortuitous time to move. White Rock Valley was in the midst of an unprecedented boom. Real estate prices were skyrocketing and incoming families were tearing down homes left and right and replacing them with mammoth, custom-built McMansions. She and Rick decided on a minimum selling price that would allow them to move comfortably into another Lake Highlands neighborhood with a cooler real estate market.

They reached out to New Leaf Custom Homes, a neighbor-run outfit handling much of the neighborhood's construction boom. Scott Powell, New Leaf's owner, had multiple buyers lined up who would pay a premium for the Estradas' perch on Highedge. "He offered us waaay more" than their minimum price, so they sold their home and moved across Audelia Road to the L Streets.

Their new home fed into Lake Highlands Elementary, but the Estradas weren't quite done with White Rock Valley. By the time they moved, their daughter had settled in at White Rock Elementary and was thriving in a way her brother never had. She was distraught at the thought of leaving her teachers and friends, so Estrada applied for a transfer. White Rock's principal signed off, as Estrada expected. "She scores higher than the white kids," Estrada laughs. "She's like their golden goose."

The drama was hardly over, though. White Rock Elementary was nearing capacity, and the space crunch was fueling heated discussions in the neighborhood about how to alleviate overcrowding. Shortly after the family moved to the L Streets, the Lake Highlands Advocate ran a blog post discussing overcrowding at White Rock Elementary. Perusing the 200-plus comments tacked that followed the story, Estrada was surprised to find herself being subtweeted in a discussion of White Rock Elementary transfers.

First came the anonymous proposal to rid the school of students living outside the school's attendance boundaries:
This was followed by a mistaken assertion that transfers had been stopped, which was promptly shot down by an anonymous someone resentful of an unnamed former neighbor on Highedge — a clear reference to Estrada — for "cash[ing] out."
Later, on an RISD Facebook forum, a White Rock Elementary mom upset at comments Estrada had made about the school and parents, called out Estrada's daughter as a transfer by name. In a bitter email exchange that followed, first Estrada, then her husband objected to their child's name being used. "By you referencing the status of my child you have brought the potential for others to do the same and I pray not worse," Rick Estrada wrote.

"I'm not sure why you are so terrified about people finding out the transfer status of your daughter. Unless you are hiding behind something," the mom wrote, adding "I hope the worse [sic] doesn't happen for your child's sake."

On the one hand, the comments are anomalous. Even cloaked in anonymity and seething over a bitter, long-running feud, dragging someone else's elementary-age children into online debate is a line the vast majority of parents don't cross. At the same time, the comments about Estrada capture the ugly id of White Rock Valley, an idyllic but insular place whose residents are currently fighting to protect their affluent, white bubble from poor, minority elementary school students.

Aquarter century ago, future Mayor Laura Miller wrote about White Rock Elementary for D Magazine. In the early 1980s, she writes, it was "the Norman Rockwell of neighborhood schools" — almost uniformly white, middle class and high-achieving.

Then, a sagging economy and new Federal Housing Administration regulations forced the adults-only apartments along Skillman Road to begin leasing to families with children. The resulting influx of "apartment kids" transformed the campus almost overnight from one that for all practical purposes was poverty-free to one in which one out of every four kids qualified as low income.

The White Rock Elementary bubble was pierced; the moms of White Rock Valley circa 1990 had no clue how to respond.

Fast-forward 15 years. The influx of apartment kids Miller wrote about grew for several more years but eventually things eventually stabilized and the neighborhood adapted. Throughout the early 2000s, the percentage of low-income students at White Rock Elementary hovered in the low 40s.

Even among campuses fed by well-off, single-family neighborhoods, White Rock was relatively affluent by Lake Highlands standards. As of the 2005-06 school year, it had a significantly lower rate of economic disadvantage than Skyview (88 percent), Northlake (86 percent), Wallace (68 percent) and Lake Highlands Elementary (63 percent), but it was comparable to Merriman Park (49 percent) and Moss Haven (38 percent) and was quite close to the median rate for all RISD campuses, which was 50 percent.

But then the city of Dallas and RISD teamed up to build the Lake Highlands Town Center, an ambitious, mixed-use development at Skillman Road and Walnut Hill Lane that required the demolition of some 1,400 low-rent apartment units that fed into White Rock Elementary.

If Lake Highlands Town Center was meant to be the dense, transformative urban hub it was sold as, the project has been a disaster. The investment of dozen years and tens of millions of dollars in public subsidy has yielded little more than a single, boxy apartment complex and plans for a suburban-style strip mall.

If, however, Lake Highlands Town Center was designed to test how the abrupt removal of a couple of hundred poor kids from a neighborhood elementary school affects the surrounding real estate market, it has been a resounding success.

The impact on White Rock Elementary's demographics was the reverse of what happened when the apartment complexes on Skillman Avenue started accepting kids in the late 1980s. In 2005-06, it enrolled 270 low-income students. Four years later, the number was down to 96, making White Rock Elementary one of the half-dozen most affluent schools in RISD. During the same time period, the black student population dropped from 205 to 68 while the Hispanic population dropped from 110 to 68.

As soon as the poor, minority students began to disappear, affluent, white students began to pour in. One can almost see the bubble settling back atop White Rock Valley.

"When they tore down all those apartments ... the school got a lot better," says Scott Powell, the builder the Estradas sold their home to and a resident of the neighborhood.

And White Rock Elementary did get better, at least on paper. Between 2006 and 2009, the percentage of students passing state standardized tests jumped from 87 to 97, more than any other Lake Highlands campus. The percentage of students who scored high enough to be "commended" made an even larger leap, from 24 to 57, which dwarfed surrounding campuses.

Whether White Rock Elementary actually got better at educating students is a trickier question. Given that socioeconomic status is the strongest single predictor of student achievement, it appears that the spike in test scores was the result of replacing poor kids with affluent ones. At the same time, decades of research suggests that high-poverty schools have a corrosive effect on the achievement of even higher-income students. Pinning down exactly what point rising school poverty begins to have a measurable impact on the achievement of higher-income kids is trickier, but research suggests that the threshold is around 40 percent.

So, maybe the affluent students at White Rock Elementary got a marginally better education once the percentage of low-income students dropped from 44 to 17 percent. Maybe not. But for the real estate market, reality didn't matter half as much as perception, and the demographic shift led a lot of people to perceive that the school had improved significantly.

Powell says the influx started around 2006 with an uptick in young families buying and moving into the neighborhood's abundant stock of 50-year-old, 2,500-square-foot homes. Families continued trickling in through the 2008 recession and the early years of recovery. "When the economy started to pick back up again in 2011, 2012, things really started to blow up," Powell says. 

The market shifted. Many of the newcomers came from Lakewood and the Park Cities, and they weren't looking to live in the homes they were buying for a half million dollars so much as gut them or tear them down to replace them with something much newer and larger. To them, Lake Highlands real estate prices are a bargain.

Among Lake Highlands neighborhoods, the hot real-estate market and tear-down phenomenon isn't quite unique to White Rock Valley. The L Streets and the neighborhood feeding into Wallace Elementary have each had a half dozen tear-downs since the start of 2013, according to city building and demolition permits. But the market in White Rock Valley is an order of magnitude hotter, with 24 tear-downs plus dozens more renovations and rebuilds.

As a result, the campus was soon bursting at the seams. Enrollment had reached 608 students in 2006, then dipped as the apartment complexes began to fall. By 2012, affluent students had more than filled the space vacated by the apartment kids, and enrollment reached 630, surpassing the previous peak. The school continued to grow, forcing RISD to add six additional classrooms in 2014. The extra space was immediately filled as enrollment surged past 800. It's projected to exceed its 912-student capacity next year, requiring the installation of portables.

White Rock wasn't the only Lake Highlands school nearing capacity. Five other elementary campuses — Aikin, Forest Lane, Skyview, Stults Road and Wallace — are also almost full, though the growth in those schools have been different.

Wallace, too, has experienced a surge in white, affluent students, but most of its growth has come from Burmese refugees settling into nearby apartment complexes. Its rate of economic disadvantage has been in the mid-60s for a decade. The other four campuses are all overwhelmingly poor (79 to 90 percent economically disadvantaged) and have small white populations (1.1 to 12.5 percent), and they have all gotten poorer and (with the exception of Stults Road) less white as they've grown.

Among overcrowded Lake Highlands schools, White Rock Elementary is an extreme outlier.

RISD has badly fumbled the Lake Highlands overcrowding issue. Its demographic projections failed to predict the surge in students, particularly at White Rock Elementary, and it was slow to respond as it became clear over the last couple of years that existing facilities were inadequate. It wasn't until late last fall, fairly late in its planning for its $437 million bond package, that district officials launched a Lake Highlands listening tour, which ultimately led them to carve out $41 million to deal with school overcrowding in the area.

Even then, the district had no idea how it was going to fix overcrowding. The simplest and cheapest solution — dramatically redrawing attendance lines to balance enrollment — was guaranteed to be met with intense opposition.

Building a new school or adding on to existing campuses seemed to have broader support, but here, too, feelings ran strong. In White Rock Valley, families were concerned that another expansion of White Rock Elementary, which would push capacity well past 1,000 students, would result in an institution that was simply too big, which was closely related to the fear — the reverse Field of Dreams, if you will— that "If it's built, it will be filled."

White Rock Valley was also intensely skeptical of plans to build a new school on a 4-acre parcel on White Rock Trail that RISD recently acquired. Neighbors feared both that the new school would inundate the area with traffic and would likely include part of White Rock Valley in its attendance zone.

In the rest of Lake Highlands, meanwhile, there was growing resentment that White Rock Valley had hijacked what should have been a broader discussion about equity, fairness and how best to educate all area children and focused it on their own parochial interests. The more diplomatic among them concede that families have a lot of their net worth wrapped up in their new McMansions and say they can understand why they'd be suspicious of school changes that might negatively impact their property values. The less charitable dismiss White Rock Valley as a bunch of smug racists.

Keely Smith, an officer in White Rock Elementary's PTA, says she is aware of the whispers from other neighborhoods. "I take huge offense to that," she says. White Rock Elementary has been the focus of the debate because it's the campus with the most pressing space issues. "Our need is immediate," she says. Next year, White Rock Elementary will have to put kids in portables. Other crowded campuses still have a few years before they are projected to reach capacity.

The charge White Rock isn't carrying its fair share of Lake Highlands poverty also isn't fair, Smith says. "We're not in charge of attendance lines."

In February, two months before the start of early voting, still with no real plan, RISD punted substantive debate to the newly created Lake Highlands Reflector Committee. The group, which had an unwieldy 48 members representing 14 campuses, was tasked with sorting through the competing interests and making a non-binding recommendation to RISD's board of trustees.

And the committee did ultimately come up with a recommendation, sort of. At its sixth and final meeting, 56 percent of members voted in favor of moving all fifth- and sixth-graders to a pair of standalone, upper-elementary centers that would be built at each of RISD's two Lake Highlands junior highs.

But the outcome was muddled. The fifth- and sixth-grade campus had high negatives, with many committee members staunchly opposed to the idea, and there was also strong support on the committee for building a new K-6 campus, though there was no agreement on where to build it. The committee was lukewarm on the White Rock Trail property as well as a proposal floated by Lake Highlands resident and Dallas City Councilman Adam McGough to build a new elementary right next to Lake Highlands High School.

Other ideas were even more divisive. One plan, backed by White Rock Elementary parents, would have made room for a new elementary school by razing aging apartments along Walnut Hill Lane, which just so happens to be heavily populated by Burmese refugees who now compose about a quarter of the Wallace Elementary population.

"You had Wallace parents crying because of that," says Ben Solomon, a Northlake parent and member of the reflector committee.

Northlake is one of Lake Highlands' high-poverty elementary schools, long ago abandoned by the upper-middle-class neighborhood that feeds into it. Historically, almost to a person, the white families in the neighborhood have secured transfers to other Lake Highlands campuses or enrolled their kids in private schools. But Solomon and his wife are public-school diehards; he spent seven years as a teacher and now works for a program helping low-income kids get into college. His wife, Lauren, attended Skyview and is the daughter of a former RISD trustee.

When the time came to enroll their daughter in kindergarten, they didn't flinch at the school's 86 percent poverty rate. Rather, they are excited to be on the leading edge of a movement to bring the middle-class back to Northlake.

Solomon has been dismayed by the divisiveness of the Lake Highlands schools debate. It's been approached by a lot of people as a zero-sum game, Solomon says, with inevitable winners and losers. "It doesn't have to be like that." If Lake Highlands' upper-middle-class neighborhoods can put aside their differences and broaden their perspective, they can craft a solution that benefits all kids.

That's easier said than done. On May 2, a contingent of White Rock Elementary parents stepped to the microphone at the RISD board meeting, the last before the bond vote. (The bond would pass easily. White Rock Valley was one of a tiny handful of RISD precincts to vote against it.) One parent expressed worry that a fifth- and sixth-grade campus would unnecessarily disrupt kids' education; another was OK with a fifth- and sixth-grade campus as long as it served White Rock Elementary kids only.

But all the parents had a consistent message. Whatever RISD decides to do, it shouldn't touch White Rock Valley.

"I'm just a mom," one woman told trustees, opening an impassioned, three-minute monologue. "I'm also a teacher." She went on to describe her experience teaching in Midland ISD. "We had various forms of solutions to fit every socioeconomic background, and it just didn't work."
At White Rock Elementary, by contrast, the White Rock Valley neighborhood and RISD had built something special. "I wish you could walk your kids to school along with my kids. The sidewalks aren't big enough to handle the strollers and all of the dogs and all of the baby strollers because all the little brothers and sisters are pushing their baby dolls along the way, there's just not enough room. Where in Dallas does that happen?"

She didn't advocate for a specific course of action but merely emphasized that RISD shouldn't meddle with the status quo in White Rock Valley. "I want the world to be as amazing as our neighborhood, but, gosh there is going to be somehow, somewhere — it's gonna get better. It just will. But don't destroy what we already have that's so amazing. ... I don't want to make people jealous, but, gosh, we've got something good, and I can't help it if they are jealous."
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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson