Dallas Schools, Long Segregated, Charge Forward on Diversity

Dana Goldstein, New York Times, June 19, 2017

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[Michael] Hinojosa is the superintendent, and the Dallas school system, one of the country’s most segregated urban districts, has become a national leader in trying to figure out how to encourage students of all backgrounds to willingly go to school together.

Two years ago, under Mr. Hinojosa’s predecessor, the Dallas schools set a goal of starting more than 35 new schools by 2020. Through this effort, Mr. Hinojosa hopes to reverse enrollment declines and increase student achievement, while wooing college-educated and white families that may have never before considered public education in Dallas.

Some of the schools, in fact, make no secret of whom they are trying to draw: Half of their seats are reserved for students from middle- or higher-income families, and some are set aside for students living outside the district.

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Dallas is one of just a handful of cities trying ambitious integration programs, even though nationwide, public schools are more segregated today than they were in 1970.

A third of black and Hispanic students attend schools that are more than 90 percent nonwhite, according to research from the Century Foundation, and those racially segregated schools are overwhelmingly low-performing.

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But fearful of stoking a fresh round of middle-class flight or another busing revolt like Boston’s in the 1970s, most cities have shied away from addressing the issue.

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That makes Dallas, which has even produced a marketing campaign to promote its integration efforts, an outlier.

The effort is small for now, involving fewer than one in 10 city schools, and has not been a total success. One strategy, called “innovation schools,” tries to make neighborhood schools more attractive by installing programs like the International Baccalaureate curriculum, similar to Advanced Placement.

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Another, more expensive strategy, called “transformation schools,” is getting faster results.

Rather than admit students by grades, test scores or auditions, which tends to turn schools into enclaves of affluence, these schools admit them by lottery, with no admissions standards. They are organized around popular themes like single-sex education, science, the arts, bilingual classes and professional internships.

Most strikingly for a district where 90 percent of students are low-income, the district is setting aside seats in several of the new schools for students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, even if they live in suburbs outside the district. Those coming from other districts do not have to pay tuition, and though Dallas will not receive school property taxes from their families, it will get funding from the state for each traveling student.

By relying on income instead of race, Dallas is following guidelines from the Supreme Court, which in 2007 declared it unconstitutional to consider race as a factor when assigning students to schools.

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Dallas has plenty of white and college-educated parents to draw from.

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But these people have not enrolled their children in public schools, with the exception of a few coveted neighborhood schools and selective magnet programs. The district’s student population is 93 percent Hispanic and black. In the 1960s, before court-ordered desegregation, more than half the students were white.

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The idea of catering to parents like these was, at first, controversial. Past desegregation efforts, based on involuntary busing and selective schools, offered little to poor, nonwhite children. The transformation program is also costly; the district renovated several school buildings and is busing students — voluntarily — across the city.

Joyce Foreman, a school board member who represents working-class southwest Dallas, said she supported the integration push and believed the new schools gave her constituents more options. But she said the cost of expanding these programs must be weighed against the needs of older schools that serve largely poor families.

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This spring, 1,705 students applied for 613 spots in the five existing transformation schools. More than a quarter of applicants are currently enrolled in private or charter schools or live outside the district, and 15 percent are white, a demographic profile very much outside the district’s norm.

The most lauded of the new schools is Solar Preparatory School for Girls, which emphasizes the sciences and art.

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The school has become so popular with well-off families that administrators have had to step up recruitment in low-income neighborhoods, in order to meet the requirement that half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The student body is 51 percent Hispanic, 22 percent black, 22 percent white and 2 percent Asian.

Not all of the transformation schools are that diverse. At the Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship Academy, or IDEA, a high school that places students in professional internships as early as 10th grade, about 80 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and only eight students are white.

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