Community Members Rail Against DISD Alternative Schools: "Stop The Pipeline To Prison!"

Alternative elementary schools used for discipline are a "pipeline to prison" and a drain on Dallas Independent School District's budget that should be closed, a group of DISD parents and activists said today.

Alternative school opponents waded across the unkempt lawn at NW Harllee Elementary school in southern Dallas to hold a news conference on behalf of their new coalition, the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), which has partnered with public interest law center Texas Appleseed to argue that the alternative schools fruitlessly drained at least $11.3 million of taxpayer money from DISD in the 2010-2011 school year.

Dorothy Robinson, a TOP member from Oak Cliff, told the conference about her niece and nephew who spent most of their youth in and out of alternative schools. Eventually, they both dropped out.

"These are two young people who could've been productive citizens, who are now nonproductive citizens," Robinson said. "To me, that's crazy. It's asinine."

Another member, Mayra Hurtado, said in an emotional speech, "DISD has failed us. I don't want that for my kid, and I don't want that for any other kid."

The problem with DISD's disciplinary policy, TOP says, is that students who are forced to enroll in alternative schools are swept under the rug. They're in a punitive environment where they're given boring busy-work. As their peers are learning, they're left behind. In elementary schools, it means they're not learning how to read, write or do fundamental math. It's a life sentence; they're forever worse for it, and all this is coming on the taxpayers' dime. According to Texas Appleseed and TOP, the cost per seat at elementary alternative schools last year was $57,746. The average cost per seat in DISD: $9,410.

Dr. Juanita Wallace, president of the Dallas NAACP, was at the presser, as well as representatives from the teacher's union and Dr. Jerry Christian, president of the African American Pastors Coalition.

"DISD has one of the highest dropout rates in North Texas," Christian said. "We've got to stop being a nation of incarcerating our children, and become a nation of educating our children."

The demonstrators said that the whole system is broken. It's designed to get disruptive students out of the classroom, as opposed to rehabilitating or teaching kids.

TOP has been in contact with DISD since November 2009, but according to Christian, "We have a board that does not listen, a board that doesn't pay attention, a board that doesn't hear the voices of the community."

If fixed, the smaller number of students would be able to study within alternative programs at their home schools, not out of sight elsewhere.

TOP alleged that DISD students are looked at as criminals in training, as opposed to what they are -- students, and works in progress. DISD made almost 23,000 out-of-school suspension referrals last school year alone. Four thousand students were charged with misdemeanors by DISD police.

"We have elementary students who are going to court for truancy," TOP communications coordinator Durrel Douglas said. He acknowledged that some kids are truly bad kids who need to be separated from their peers, those who bring knives to school or fight others.

"Ninety-seven percent of kids sent to alternative schools are sent, not because of mandatory infractions, but discretionary ones," he said. Things like not wearing a belt, talking too much in class, and wearing the wrong-colored jacket could get a student sent to an alternative school.

"When you take a kid and treat him like a criminal through elementary school," Douglas started, "you're going to get a criminal."

Update: Some commenters have been asking if the cited cost per seat in DISD elementary alternative schools during the 2010-2011 school year, $57,746, was correct.

'Fraid so, it looks like. Texas Appleseed got the figure from the Texas Education Agency, adding this clarification in their report:

While schools report a "cost per student" as part of the AEIS (Academic Excellence Indicator System) system, since students circulate through the DAEP over the course of a school year, the "cost per student" reported by Dallas ISD for its DAEPs is more accurately understood as a "cost per seat."

Just because it's unbelievable doesn't make it untrue, we suppose. The Observer reached out to DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander for verification, but he said he didn't have access to the figure. Fair enough; it was already past five o'clock. DISD did have this statement to say regarding the TOP and Texas Appleseed findings:

There's been considerable effort by the district to reduce costs in alternative education. Approximately $500,000 has been saved by no longer sending students to Dallas County JJAEP. In addition, Elementary and Secondary DAEP have been combined resulting in the elimination of several positions, including a principal, assistant principal, teachers, teacher aides, 3 case managers, specialists and administrative assistants. During the 2011-12 school year, the number of students referred to DAEP has declined. The number of elementary students sent to DAEP is less than half of those sent last year and the number of secondary students is also down. The number of out of school suspensions is down by almost half from last year.

And for those of you using this post as an opportunity to facetiously presume what fight songs these schools have: Whenever you utter the name "Coolio," yes, you are dating and incriminating yourself. Here's looking at you, TheRealDirtyP1.

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Greg Howard