The Learning Lab: Inside the Effort to Re-imagine Dallas Schools

Zachary Akins is small for his age. He’s 15 and slightly built, with nerdy-chic horn-rimmed glasses that swallow half his face. He prefers playing video games to sports and keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer on his desk at school. He’s also into art. When we met at a Starbucks near his apartment, his mother, Stacy, produced her phone to show off one of his recent paintings, an impressionistic street scene executed with striking competence. He recently wrote a poem for class describing his pet peeve, “loud people.”

At the moment, Zachary’s favorite subject is algebra, but it’s a tepid endorsement. As a teenager, he approaches school with resigned indifference. Not so for his mom. “For me, my son’s education is really important,” she says. “When I look at where we’re living, I always look at the schools, [at] what’s going to be next on the list.” She’s always asking herself, “How can I give my child an edge when they’re getting ready for college and getting ready for life?”

Zachary attended kindergarten in DeSoto at what Akins describes as a “terrible, terrible school.” The next year, she enrolled him in a DeSoto private school. Four years later, after her older daughter graduated from high school, Akins and Zachary moved to an apartment in Far North Dallas, which was closer to Stacy’s job as an executive assistant in Addison. Prior to the move, Stacy researched the area’s schools and made sure their new home fed into Junkins Elementary, a Dallas ISD campus in Carrollton, only to discover after the move that DISD was in the process of redrawing attendance boundaries to fill the newly constructed George H.W. Bush Elementary. Stacy was disappointed that her careful planning had been meaningless and was hesitant to send Zachary to an untested campus, but it proved to be a good fit. In recent years, Bush Elementary has been among DISD’s top handful of neighborhood elementaries. Next came E.D. Walker Middle School, which is also among DISD’s top-rated schools.

Zachary survived middle school, though E.D. Walker was teeming with loud people. He expected high school to be even worse, and he spent the spring of his eighth-grade year dreading his pending entry into W.T. White. His mother was dreading the transition as well. Despite solid performance on state assessments, the school does poorly on DISD’s school-quality metric.

Akins contemplated private school, but as a single mom with a decent but hardly lucrative job, tuition would have been a struggle. Instead, as the fall of Zachary’s eighth-grade year gave way to spring, she began leaning toward a move to Richardson so Zachary could attend J.J. Pearce High School.

Dallas — the school district but also the city — has been shaped over the past century by hundreds of thousands of individual decisions like this one, made by families seeking the best education for their kids.

It has not gone well for Dallas. Those with the means have almost uniformly opted out of DISD, moving to the suburbs or sending kids to private or charter schools. White families fled the district en masse in the decades following desegregation. Middle-class black and Hispanic families weren’t far behind.

The result is that DISD is one of the poorest and most segregated urban school districts in the country. According to a 2014 UCLA study examining the resegregation of America’s schools, the average black student in DISD goes to a school that is 3.1 percent white, a figure that’s lower than every other large urban school district except Washington, D.C. The average Hispanic student attends a school that is 3.9 percent white, tied for the lowest with a district in suburban Atlanta.

Dallas schools aren’t just racially homogeneous; they’re also overwhelmingly poor. Today, 90 percent of the district’s students are classified as economically disadvantaged, which, given the link between concentrated poverty and poor educational outcomes, is disastrously poor.

But then in April, as Akins was still wrestling with the decision, she received a robocall from DISD inviting her to an information session for a new high school, the Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurship Academy at James W. Fannin, aka IDEA.

The concept intrigued her. It would be one of the district’s first true “choice schools,” which operate a bit like DISD’s highly regarded magnets, in that they have specialized programs that draw students from throughout the district, but they lack the academic- and performance-based admissions requirements that keep most families out of the district’s top campuses. IDEA would also offer one of the district’s first forays into “personalized learning,” a voguish educational model in which instruction is shaped according to the needs and interests of individual students. There would also be a heavy emphasis on preparing kids for professional life, pairing them with a mentor from the business community and grooming them for an internship by their senior year. Even more appealing was the size of the new campus. The school would launch with barely 100 ninth-graders.

The only issue was whether Zachary would be able to get in. IDEA would enroll students from throughout the district, but admission would be decided by lottery, with families living within a three-mile radius of the Ross Avenue campus — a circle that stops about nine miles shy of the Akins’ apartment — given better odds. Further complicating matters was time. Families wouldn’t find out if they’d been accepted until the end of the school year, which didn’t leave a lot of room for a backup plan.

“My first backup — and this is crazy, this is my life right now — our apartment is right across the freeway from Addison. I had it lined up where my lease was going to be up in July, which meant that if he didn’t get in we were going to try to find a place [in Richardson].”

Akins submitted an application to IDEA in late April. Then, there was nothing to do but cross her fingers and wait.
Zachary’s educational fate was decided in a sparsely furnished room on the ground floor of DISD’s Ross Avenue headquarters, where staffers with the district’s months-old Office of Transformation and Innovation were spending long nights frenziedly inputting applications into databases. The plans for IDEA had been in the works for more than a year, but it didn’t have a home until the end of March 2015, when the school board passed a $127 million package of school upgrades that gave IDEA formal approval to move into the vacant Fannin Elementary. Hence the rush.

The office is usually more relaxed. On a recent Tuesday morning, OTI chief Mike Koprowski, 31 and boyish despite a stubbly beard, slides behind his desk at 9 a.m., just in time for the weekly team meeting. Khloe Scurry, who handles OTI’s outreach and marketing, congratulates him for wearing “regular pants.” “They give me shit [because] I wear pleated pants a lot,” Koprowski explains. “They think it’s bad; I like the comfort and the space.”

Also present are: Debra Martinez, the administrative assistant; Jennifer Turner, the assistant principal of the future Solar Preparatory School for Girls, who has traded her office chair for a red exercise ball with a fading Gold’s Gym logo; and Mohammed Choudhury, the resident educational theorist, who has tattoos snaking up both forearms. Tricia Baumer, who functions something like a project manager for DISD’s choice schools, is a few minutes late but arrives bearing a Tupperware container filled with muffins.

The looseness is intentional. Koprowski spent time in the military and felt that the rigid chain of command stifled frank discussions and prevented good ideas from percolating up. But informality and a lack of seriousness aren’t the same thing, and the meeting, once it begins, is purposeful and brisk. Koprowski presses Scurry on the timing of 200,000 mass mailers, which he wants to arrive in mailboxes before a January press conference featuring Mayor Mike Rawlings and Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. He then leads the team through a test drive of the online application, which reveals a small glitch: Users who enter nearby DeSoto addresses are allowed to apply for admission to Hulcy STEAM, a southwest Dallas middle school campus that reopened last year with a focus on science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (hence the acronym) after being mothballed for three years.

Koprowski and the rest are temporarily stumped by the question of how the application for Solar Prep, the all-girls school Turner will help lead, should handle the category of sex. Having checkboxes for both “male” and “female” would seem redundant, but having just one, or doing away with the section entirely, wouldn’t capture the complexities of gender identity. “There is a world in which you have the non-binary student, right? The student that identifies as male but they were born female.” Or, Turner offers, “there could be someone who’s male but identifies as female.”

It’s Scurry who finally breaks the stalemate. “Maybe at this point you just put ‘gender’ instead of ‘sex.’ Because sex is biological and gender is [about personal identification].” She punctuates this with a verbal mic drop: “BOOM!”

DISD is one of the poorest and most segregated urban school districts in the country.

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Watching them wrestle with the proper arrangement of checkboxes on an application, it’s easy to lose sight of just how radical OTI’s mission is. In a sense, Koprowski and his team are out to reshape the geography of education in Dallas.

It’s hard to overstate how damaging the poverty and segregation of Dallas schools is to educational outcomes. Research dating to the landmark Coleman Report in 1966 has established a tight link between a student’s socioeconomic status and academic achievement. As a general rule, rich kids tend to do better in school than poor kids, not because they are smarter but because they enjoy myriad tiny advantages growing up.

A related body of research also shows that poor students perform much better in schools with high proportions of wealthier students than they do in schools of concentrated poverty. That holds true even when the poor schools are loaded with extra resources. The best way to boost the achievement of poor students is to put them in schools with wealthier peers.

That kind of mixing won’t happen organically in Dallas. School enrollment is still mostly based on the neighborhood a kid lives in, and Dallas’ neighborhoods are highly segregated by race and income. And that’s where Koprowski comes in.

Koprowski grew up in South Florida and attended college at Notre Dame where, inspired by 9/11, he joined the Air Force ROTC. He entered the Air Force upon graduation, planning to be a member of a flight team, but a month into his service he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer. He fully recovered, but he was reclassified and spent four years as an intelligence officer, deployed to Afghanistan, where he was attached to a fighter squadron.

While still in the Air Force, he earned a master’s in international relations from Duke University. “I finished it up and I decided that education was going to be my thing,” he says. He used the G.I. Bill to finance a second master’s, this one from Harvard, in educational policy and management, then applied for a residency at the Broad Center, a kind of finishing school for reform-minded education leaders.

He landed at DISD in July 2014 as Superintendent Mike Miles’ chief of transformation and innovation and began assembling his core team. Baumer, a native of the Philippines, was a teacher and administrator in Florida for several years. This taught her the ins and outs of business. In addition to her job with Koprowski, she is finishing her Ph.D. at SMU and raising three children. Her oldest just turned 4.

Choudhury is a native Angeleno who spent seven years as a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District before being drawn into the district’s administration to work on school redesign, which entails delving into educational research in order to create really good schools from scratch.

Scurry is the only Dallas native on the team. Growing up in DeSoto, the region’s stark racial and economic segregation was, he says, “something I’ve noticed since I was 12, 13, 14.” Eager to get out of Texas, she attended Boston College planning to follow her mother into finance, but she changed course midway through and became a sociology major, with a focus on race, class and gender. “Essentially I went to college to learn about myself,” she says. After college, she signed up for Teach for America and taught for two years at Uplift Hampton, a charter school. From there, she joined OTI.

Koprowski still cringes at the bombast of the “chief of transformation and innovation” title, but he was smitten by the job itself, which involved essentially building an in-house laboratory for testing out new ideas in DISD. The biggest idea OTI is testing right now is school choice.

In Koprowski’s mind, to fully address the failures of big urban school districts like Dallas, you need to do something about concentrated poverty. To do something about concentrated poverty in DISD, you need to do two things: find a way to bring the middle class back to DISD and a way to persuade the middle class to send their children to school with poor kids.

He’s betting that school choice can do both of those things.
The phrase “school choice” conjures thoughts of vouchers and charter schools, both of which have their roots in the writings of economist Milton Friedman, who viewed the government’s monopoly on education as a perversion of the free-market ideal. Vouchers, in which the state pays to enroll students at private schools, and charters, which are publicly funded but privately managed, both divert resources from public schools, and both are extremely controversial.

The model being pursued by Koprowski and his team, dubbed “public school choice,” is a bit different. Like other flavors of school choice, the movement embraces the idea that public schools exist in a competitive marketplace, fighting for students with private schools, charters and other school districts. Unlike the others, public school choice aims to keep students — and the state education dollars that follow them — within public schools by letting parents choose among different schools and programs.

This concept isn’t new. DISD’s been flirting with giving parents a say in which school their kids attend since at least 1970, when it opened its first magnet at Skyline High School. At the time, 88 percent of DISD’s campuses were dominated (90 percent of students or more) by a single race. Rather than a tool for achieving fairness and equity, however, DISD’s initial school-choice efforts were designed to make the district’s glacial integration as painless as possible for white families.

In 1971, 17 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education holding that segregated schools were unconstitutional and 16 years after the same court, in Brown v. Board of Education (II), wrote that districts must desegregate “with all deliberate speed,” U.S. District Judge William Taylor decided that, despite the district’s claims to the contrary, this included Dallas.

Rather than force whites to be bused to black schools, however, Taylor relied on a voluntary “majority to minority” transfer system to achieve integration. Under the regime, any black student at a majority black school or white student at a majority white school could transfer to any campus where their race was in the minority. White students hardly jumped at the opportunity. A subsequent examination of the program revealed that 97 percent of the students being bused were black.

(Incredibly, the majority-to-minority transfer plan wasn’t the most half-baked element of Taylor’s initial desegregation order. Instead of physically integrating elementary schools, Taylor called for linking black and white classrooms with a closed-circuit TV feed. To cement the cross-racial bond, there would be a weekly, three-hour field trip to the partner campus. “How better could lines of communication be established than by saying ‘I saw you on TV yesterday,’ and, besides that, television is much cheaper than busing and a lot faster and safer,” Taylor wrote. The idea was promptly thrown out on appeal.)

Magnet campuses like Skyline were another way Dallas school officials could take modest steps toward integration without actually integrating. Around the time Taylor’s TV idea was being tossed out of court, Superintendent Nolan Estes floated a plan for several super-magnet high schools, including one at Love Field and one on the bottom floor of a new downtown office tower. Estes’ proposal failed, but magnet schools ultimately became a key component of DISD’s desegregation plan. For a long time, the magnets were about it when it came to school choice in DISD. Then, in the fall of 2014, the district launched Mata Montessori.

Mata is what OTI’s Choudhury calls DISD’s “O.G. choice school.” The three-story brick-and-teal edifice, situated near where Garland Road turns into Grand Avenue just south of White Rock Lake, was built in the late ’90s. For several years it housed about 600 students in grades four through six, but enrollment dropped precipitously after J.L. Long Middle School absorbed the sixth-graders in 2007 and Lipscomb Elementary siphoned off some of its fourth-graders the following year. By 2013, enrollment was in the 200s and the school was two-thirds empty.

On paper, Mata was easy enough to fill; the district need only tweak the attendance boundaries for Lakewood or Stonewall Jackson Elementary, which are both severely overcrowded. But Lakewood and Stonewall families are notoriously protective of their investment in the campus. Redrawing attendance lines would come at the cost of alienating the one affluent area that has fully bought into DISD, at least for elementary school.

Instead, DISD trustees voted to reconfigure Mata and its sister campus, Mount Auburn Elementary. Mount Auburn would continue as a neighborhood elementary school, only now with the fourth- and fifth-graders who previously would have matriculated to Mata. Mata, meanwhile, would become a Montessori elementary campus open to any student in the district, though enrollment would be tiered to give preference to students zoned for Mount Auburn, followed by the rest of the Woodrow Wilson High School feeder pattern, then the rest of the district. The school had no academic admissions requirements.

IDEA, where Stacy Akins hoped to send Zachary, came next. Its principal, Sarah Ritsema, and assistant principal, Courtney Egelston, met five years ago while teaching at A. Maceo Smith New Tech High School, which had recently been restructured by the state after several years of subpar performance. There, they bonded over a shared dissatisfaction with the traditional high school model, which they felt did a poor job of preparing kids for the professional workplace. “You’re seeing kids who aren’t learning as much as you want them to learn, and you’re frustrated,” Ritsema says. “You’re an educator and you want everyone [to succeed] and you’re losing sleep over it.”

In early 2014, DISD won a grant from the Gates Foundation to expand personalized learning. The district put out a request for proposals, and Ritsema and Egelston, now working at different high schools, put together the plan for IDEA.

Their concept was selected around the same time Koprowski showed up to form OTI. “Choice was happening organically already, but it was happening one-off,” Koprowski says. In addition to Mata and IDEA, there was a smattering of smaller-scale choice programs at neighborhood campuses, like the International Baccalaureate program at Woodrow Wilson High School, but progress toward Miles’ stated goal of opening 35 schools of choice by 2020 was halting. “It was like ‘OK, are we going to keep doing these one-offs where one trustee sponsors it and fights with the other trustees?’”

Koprowski set about formalizing the process. In October 2014, his office produced a draft plan outlining how school choice would work in DISD. There would be two types of choice schools: transformation schools, which would be entirely new schools, and innovation schools, which would have specialized programs but continue to operate like a typical neighborhood campus.

OTI’s efforts have met moderate opposition. Shortly after being hired at a salary of $165,000 per year, Koprowski was singled out in a Dallas Morning News piece on the growing number of young reformers making six-figure salaries in Miles’ administration. The resistance, though, is more nuanced than outrage over high pay.

Bolstering neighborhood schools long ago became the focus of the fight for educational equity in Dallas as white flight all but ended hope for physical integration. In the mid-1980s, with DISD’s white population less than half of the 60-plus percent it had been when desegregation began in earnest in 1970, U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders effectively ended forced busing in favor of magnets and well-funded learning centers to serve students in South Dallas and other heavily minority communities.

A robust program of choice schools would weaken neighborhood schools by pulling families away. At an early discussion of school choice, former trustee Carla Ranger worried that the district needed to be careful not to “caus[e] our neighborhood schools to be diminished.”

“They are anchors in the community, and as students leave, as parents leave — and those are generally the very involved parents who choose another school … they’re taking themselves out of the equation.” Similar concerns were echoed by opponents of a successful $1.6 billion bond package that went before voters in November, including in an uncharacteristically slanted League of Women Voters of Dallas flier that effectively painted choice schools as an effort to drain resources from poor students.

Even so, the debate has been muted compared with other controversies that regularly roil DISD politics, and school choice has so far cleared all major political obstacles, consistently winning the support of a majority of trustees.

That’s allowed OTI to focus on implementation. It launched its search for new choice schools — Public School Choice 1.0 — in October 2014, inviting any team of DISD educators to submit a plan for a new campus. At the time, Turner was an instructional coach at Pleasant Grove’s John Quincy Adams Elementary who often daydreamed about opening her own school. As a fifth-grade teacher, she’d observed that the girls in her classes tended to be overshadowed. “Boys are often more in your face,” she says. “They might not be able to tell you what their needs are, but you know there’s a need, whereas girls, you don’t always know.”

She also drew on her experience as a journalism major, a path she’d chosen because it required only one watered-down math class. “I was told all my life I couldn’t do math and science,” she says. That mindset “put me on a path that I didn’t really want to go down, and so I look back and think, what if my schooling would have been different?”

When OTI began seeking proposals, Turner teamed up with her principal at John Quincy Adams, Nancy Bernadino, and came up with the plan for an all-girls STEAM school. They chose a non-traditional, K-8 grade configuration because Turner had found her students’ parents to be generally terrified of sending their kids to middle school. They had good reason to be afraid: Research has established that middle school is objectively awful.

Overall, OTI received 23 proposals, two of which made the final cut: Solar Prep and Bryan Adams High School, where the administration proposed to add a leadership program. Hulcy STEAM, the southwest Dallas middle school, was added later in response to community demand.

Solar represents a new phase of experimentation for OTI. The enrollment lotteries for Hulcy, IDEA and Mata are all weighted based on geography, with priority given to those in a certain feeder pattern or within a certain radius of the school. At Solar, geography will have no bearing on enrollment, which is based instead on socioeconomic status. Half of the seats will go to economically disadvantaged students, half to non-economically disadvantaged students.

Mata has achieved a modest amount of socioeconomic integration. Seventy-two percent of its students count as economically disadvantaged, which is significantly lower than the district as a whole (90 percent) and the school where many of the kids are pulled from, Mount Auburn (95 percent). The admissions policies at Solar represent a much more direct way to achieve integration.

This, Koprowski acknowledges, is a form of social engineering, but so is constructing a school system that relegates poor urban kids to poor urban schools. “You’re engineering it one way or another,” he says.

OTI is testing out other ideas as well. The standard way school districts measure socioeconomic status is to count the number of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches. This captures every student whose family is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which is an enormous bucket. To refine the district’s measurement of socioeconomic status, the office has analyzed data for each of DISD’s 808 census blocks and assigned them each to one of four socioeconomic tiers based on its median income, adult educational attainment, homeownership rate and the prevalence of single-family households. Chicago uses something similar for school assignments, but for now OTI is using it to conduct “equity audits” to make sure that choice schools are capturing a reasonable number of students from each of the tiers.

The office is also developing new ways of evaluating schools. Using this year’s data as a baseline, the choice schools will be measured based on things like extracurricular activities and how students feel about a school in addition to just academics. And the academic component of the evaluations will be more nuanced than an enumeration of test scores.

“Take Lakewood,” Choudhury says. “Lakewood is easy for me to pick on. The school, raw achievement-wise, knocks it out of the park. The kids come in ready to take standardized testing very, very well.” The test scores, however, obscure some shortcomings. “When you start looking at the data and you start disaggregating, you see other things, right? You see that, well, writing, they’ve actually been dropping in the last few years, and the difference between subgroups is actually huge. Yeah, 90 percent of the kids aren't economically disadvantaged, but the [other 10 percent of] kids are performing actually worse.”

Turner isn’t thinking about that. She’s spending the year conducting research and preparing to open Solar in the fall. At first, she admits to being “pretty nervous” at the prospect of opening her own school, but she quickly corrects herself. “It’s terrifying.”
So far, DISD has succeeded in creating choice schools that parents are excited about. OTI received 689 applications last year, more than two for every available seat.

Jeanne Seagrest moved to Dallas from Seattle in 2010 with her husband, a real estate developer, and their four kids. They initially settled in the Park Cities but quickly decided they’d be more comfortable in Lakewood, partly because Seagrest wanted to be a part of DISD. “It sounds kind of weird to say, but I kind of felt a calling. I just feel like the Park Cities, their schools are great. They don’t need any more help.”

Her youngest, a first-grader, is at Lakewood. The two in the middle, in fourth and eighth grades, are at William B. Travis, the talented and gifted magnet. Her oldest, a ninth-grader, spent last year at the Shelton School, a private school in Far North Dallas. They were thinking of sending him to the neighborhood high school, Woodrow Wilson, when Seagrest attended an information session about IDEA.

“Really, the first thing that impressed me was the administration. They were just really sharp and passionate about what they’re doing, and just this idea that it’s personalized to the kid. I just thought, that is an incredible opportunity.”

One gets a sense of the appeal while walking the halls during a school day. Every morning kicks off with “advisory,” in which each student meets with a faculty member to discuss their academic goals and progress. Every afternoon, there’s a dedicated reading period for students to read books of their choice.

In an algebra class, the teacher has students run through a brief drill on the Microsoft tablet they’ve each been assigned. She then separates them into two groups. With one, she helps nail down the previous lesson while the other forges ahead. The teacher claims she can’t wait for the district testing to begin in two weeks. She’s confidant her kids will crush it. Across the hall, in a media arts class, students huddle in small groups, collaborating on a video touting the school.

OTI has six people in a district with 22,000 employees. Solar will bring the number of choice schools to four, some 2 percent of DISD’s 224 campuses, but they’re animated by the notion that Dallas ISD doesn’t have to be the dense knot of poverty it’s become. A frequent touchstone is Jefferson County, Kentucky. There, the courts rolled Louisville and its suburbs into a single, countywide school district.

Koprowski and OTI are a long way from turning Dallas into Louisville, but for now, they have more immediate goals. They have to be sure acceptances get to families early in the spring, before they sign contracts with private schools or abandon DISD for the suburbs, as Stacy Akins was prepared to do last spring. But Akins never had to pull the trigger. In late May, she learned that Zachary had been admitted to IDEA, meaning they’d get to stay in their apartment. She was relieved, though the school’s newness gave her pause. “The plan sounds good, always,” she says. “You just want it to come together.”

So far, with a semester behind them, she and Zachary have been impressed. “He likes that it’s different,” she says. “He hates that it’s long.” IDEA has tacked an additional hour onto the traditional, seven-hour school day. To get there on time, Zachary has to be standing in front of W.T. White by 6:20 every morning to catch the bus. He doesn’t arrive home until a little after 5 p.m.

It’s been exhausting, but both say it’s worth it. “Things are going really, really well,” Akins says. “He’s really enjoying it. Things are good.”
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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson