There comes a time in all Dallas parents' lives when they must decide whether their iron-clad commitment to city living is really clad in enough iron to see them through a dozen years of DISD. The crisis point often arrives with the letter from Dealey or Harry Stone Montessori informing the family that their 3-year-old has been placed on an interminable wait list or, worse still, rejected entirely, forcing the parents to come to terms with the fact that their DISD experience won't be buffered by an elite magnet system. They will have to find a neighborhood elementary school.
DISD has plenty of neighborhood schools to choose from, but precious few that have proven acceptable to the middle-class parents. Only two elementary campuses in the entire district — Lakewood and Stonewall Jackson — have student populations that are less than half economically disadvantaged. Two other campuses — Withers and Hexter — have student populations that are less than two-thirds economically disadvantaged. Three of those four — Stonewall, Lakewood and Withers — received the highest accountability rating from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) in 2015: a "met standard" rating plus five distinctions.
With those schools as a short-list, the next crisis point arrives. Unless the parents are either independently wealthy or have two professional incomes, they'll have a hell of a time finding a house they can afford. "Right now, to get into either [Lakewood or Stonewall], you can't hardly get in under $350,000," says real estate agent Britt Lopez, who has been selling homes in East Dallas for two decades. Withers, located in North Dallas near Preston Hollow, is even less affordable, with house listings starting somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-a-million dollars.
There are a lot of things, like the size and quality of houses and the feel of the neighborhood, that factor into real estate prices. Plenty of people buy into Lakewood and Preston Hollow and then send their kids to private schools. But schools are a big driver of demand for specific areas. "[It's] almost the first thing people look at... You can have a shithole for sale in Lakewood Elementary, and it will sell because it's Lakewood Elementary."
The good-school boost doesn't come just from parents and parents-to-be. It also attracts other buyers who see a strong neighborhood elementary school as a guarantee of strong future property values. "They want Lakewood for resale even if they don't have kids," says Scott Carlson, another East Dallas real estate veteran. You can see the impact of the Lakewood attendance zone in a place like Lakewood Hills, a small cluster of streets where Grand Avenue becomes Garland Road that are now dominated by enormous new houses. "Everyone wants new construction."
Lopez has seen demand grow for Hexter, which earned four of five TEA distinctions. "Fifteen years ago, people with elementary age kids were not buying in the Hexter Elementary area at all. They didn't consider that a school they wanted to send their kids to." Slowly, the neighborhood began to invest in the school and it's become a desirable campus for middle-class families. Which means the average parent is quickly being priced out of the Hexter neighborhood as well. Houses that a dozen years ago were selling for under $200,000 are now going for $350,000.
Those schools are all great, but they probably shouldn't be the real estate-warping forces that they are. DISD has a lot of really good elementary schools that aren't in a fancy part of East Dallas or North Dallas. There are a lot of ways to assess school quality, but the grandaddy of them all, what real estate agents used to put in their blurbs until the state ditched the straightforward "exemplary" classification system about five years ago, are the TEA ratings. DISD has six neighborhood elementary schools that earned all five distinctions in 2015: the three already mentioned — Lakewood, Stonewall and Withers — plus George H.W. Bush, F.P. Caillet and Arcadia Park, all of which occupy more affordable, if less prestigious, neighborhoods.
To offer a sense of just how affordable DISD's top neighborhood elementaries can be, we looked at the Census tracts that feed into each of TEA's six favorite schools in the district to see what the median home buyer would have to pay to get property in the area.
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Median Home Value: $483,000
Median Home Value: $337,000
Median Home Value: $594,000
George H.W. Bush
Median Home Value: $210,000
Median Home Value: $61,000
Median Home Value: $164,000