A Great New School, Here at Last, Came Within One Vote of Never Happening

Who is the real practitioner of apartheid in southern Dallas?
Who is the real practitioner of apartheid in southern Dallas?
In Art

Construction crews were putting finishing touches on the new Uplift Pinnacle Secondary school at Camp Wisdom Road and Interstate 35E when I toured it last week with architect Brian L. Nelson of HKS, school director Rachel Harris and Uplift chief development officer Deborah Bigham. I tried to imagine the throngs of children rushing in through the front doors for the first time next month.

Nelson’s design is bare-bones sleek, a nod to charter schools' need to keep things cheap but another, better nod to modernism and the magic of great big windows. If I were a kid, I would rather go here because it’s bright and big-eyed, the way kids see, rather than go to a big, domineering, adult-proud edifice bristling with brass athletic awards and terrazzo tile.

Nelson told me with obvious pride that Uplift Pinnacle Secondary, a 76,000-square-foot structure set amid 18 heavily wooded acres, came in at a construction cost of $172 per square foot, compared with more like $250 per square foot for typical public schools. Charter schools in Texas get state money for instruction and administration but none for facilities. Bigham told me the facilities money all comes from philanthropy — her department.

Sadly for me, I guess, I couldn’t walk the echoing corridors of this pristine and empty place without also hearing echoes in my ears of the ugly Dallas City Council debate two years ago in which opponents from the community tried to kill this school before it was born. The council wound up agreeing by a one-vote margin to give Uplift permission to proceed with construction.

The Uplift Education school system is 20 years old and enrolls almost 17,000 students at 36 free public charter schools on 17 campuses. At the council debate in 2016, Uplift CEO Yasmin Bhatia said Uplift at the time had twice the state average of seniors who tested at the college-ready standard and twice the Dallas County average (which includes the Park Cities) of “college persistence” (the ones who make it).

At the end of that year, Uplift had 464 graduates across six high schools, 94 percent of whom intended to attend college. (Some chose the military.) Of those going to college, 75 percent were the first in their families to do so. The 2016 graduating class had been awarded a total of $54 million in scholarships and grants.

Harris, the director of this new secondary school — eventually to be a middle school and high school combined — told me 60 percent of the incoming two classes, a total of 300 kids, will be Latino, and 40 percent will be African-American. She thinks about 80 percent of them will meet the state standard for free and reduced-rate lunch, meaning they will come from low-income families.

Uplift admits students in a lottery and takes all comers. No consideration is given to previous academic performance. Uplift student bodies include special education kids from the full spectrum of conditions and needs.

Nelson, the architect, wanted me to notice that half of the school's front atrium is a space for the special counselors whose jobs are to help kids prepare for college. The first thing students will see every morning when they walk in and the first people to greet them every day will be the dedicated college preparedness staff.

Harris, a product of the School Leadership Program in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told me the issue of kids going to college was what drew her to Uplift a year ago.

“That was the question I asked," she said. "‘What percentage of your scholars actually graduate from college?’”

Apparently she got the right answer.

Bigham explained to me that Uplift has an intensive follow-through program for graduates in college. An Uplift counselor will even fly to a distant campus, for example, to smooth things out if a kid is panicked over library fines or something and wants to drop out.

Harris said it was that sort of thing that made her want to come to Dallas to be a part of Uplift after Harvard.

“I really appreciate that the goal and the drive of Uplift is to close the achievement gap and close the equity gap and close all the gaps that we are seeing in education nowadays," she said. "The mission is not just to get kids into college but to see kids graduate from college.”

So, yes, as I say, I’m walking around this beautiful new building, a beacon of hope and a guide to better days ahead for all of us, and I cannot help hearing again the voices from that day at City Council in January 2016, when the council came within a single vote of killing this school.

Holsey Hickman, a longtime community activist, spoke at the open microphone that day.

“In voting no,” he urged, “you will be voting against re-establishing an apartheid schooling system in this system. Democracy is suffering because the people in this area do not want an extension of charter schools.”

The Rev. Anthony B. Nolan, pastor of Paradise Missionary Baptist Church, told the council: “The proliferation of charters has undermined public education in the south [of Dallas]. Another charter will only lead to more deterioration.

“Not only are we asking that the council would vote no to Uplift coming with this expansion but vote no to any other charter coming to the south.”

Brian L. Nelson's design for Uplift Pinnacle Secondary in southern Dallas is big-eyed and bright, the way children see.EXPAND
Brian L. Nelson's design for Uplift Pinnacle Secondary in southern Dallas is big-eyed and bright, the way children see.
Jim Schutze

After the council voted narrowly to approve zoning for the school, Dallas Independent School District trustee Joyce Foreman told reporters at the meeting she would go over the project carefully to look for any way it could still be stopped.

Among the many Uplift students and parents who spoke to the council that day to plead for a yes vote was one mother whose name I could not hear and couldn’t be sure of from the minutes. I do remember what she said:

“I want a better education for my child,” she said. “Unfortunately for me, my income limits me to living south of I-35. However, I do not feel that my income should limit the quality of the education my child should receive.

“Yes, at Uplift Pinnacle, they have a lot of new teachers. But those teachers come with a hunger that they pass on to our children, and I love that.

“DISD has many teachers who have been teaching for many years, but those years of service do not translate to quality of education, and we are all aware of that.”

And right there you have a key part of the mystery. The mystery is why on earth a person who styles himself a longtime civil rights leader would use an evil word like apartheid to describe an all-minority school that is part of a system achieving revolutionary success at sending poor, minority kids to college.

The answer involves two things. Political patronage. And smart parents. Hickman, Foreman and the minister have mortgaged their entire public histories and good names — and they had very good names to mortgage — to the Tammany Hall jobs machine that is the Dallas public school system.

They view public school jobs as the most important bounty of the civil rights battle over schools. And in that dark irony that is so uniquely Dallas, they view the continuing segregation of the school system as a bulwark that protects their bounty.

Foreman in particular says it over and over: It isn’t anybody else’s business how South Dallas educates its kids. And Holsey says it. Apartheid, in his use of the word, is any effort by anyone from outside black southern Dallas to come in and rearrange the furniture in any way. The monumental failure of that system to do anything but send its children to prison is acceptable because no one is allowed to look in from outside and offer alternatives.

Ah, but someone is. Lots of people are. It’s a free country. And here’s the other piece of the puzzle: The parents are getting too smart for the old system. Like the mother who spoke at council, they recognize a seniority-based, good-old-boy, back-scratching system when they see it. And it’s not what they want for their children.

Look, I’m sorry to be walking the halls of a beautiful new school that I know will be a palace of destiny for thousands of children, a place where the new leadership of the nation will be forged, and find myself remembering all those dark, negative voices and thoughts from a year and a half ago.

But it haunts me. It should haunt us all how close our City Council came to killing this. One vote. One vote the other way, and none of this would be here.


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