Why do so many suburban students attend Dallas ISD’s top magnet schools?

Pegasus sculpture at Booker T. Washington High School (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Pegasus sculpture at Booker T. Washington High School (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
WWhat makes the arts magnet special?” asks a headline in the fall 2016 Highland Park Village magazine.

The publication, crafted for the well-heeled customers of the Park Cities shopping center’s high-end stores, showcases Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts with artistic images of dancers in motion and paint-splattered artist smocks. The story lauds the “renowned” school “founded in 1892 for African-American students” that evolved into the “anchor location for what would become Dallas’ burgeoning Arts District.”

“It should be noted,” the story continues, “that earning acceptance into the school is an astonishing feat in itself. ‘There are roughly 900 applicants for only 220 places in each incoming freshman class,’ ” school spokeswoman Sharon Cornell tells the publication.

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“While preference is accorded students residing in the DISD, jaw-dropping merit can also win a place among the ‘fortunate few’ who live in surrounding areas,” the story says.

This year, the “fortunate few” numbered 71 out-of-district students at Booker T.’s campus. That’s a drop from a high of 207 out-of-district students in 2009-10, when Parkies and suburbanites comprised more than one-fourth of the school.

Talk with Dallas ISD’s trustees, administrators and faculty, and there are a variety of responses to the issue of suburbanites blocking deserving Dallas ISD students from Booker T. and the other TAG and magnet schools in the district.

They all know the issue. They all have their opinions. There just doesn’t seem to be any real will or enough concern to do anything about it.

Dallas ISD Trustee Edwin Flores, who represents the North Dallas area, is an exception. One of his daughters attended Booker T., he has seen the problem first-hand, and he’s angry about the situation.

“If for every kid that Highland Park sends to Booker T., I could send one of my poor kids to Highland Park — do an even exchange — I’d be OK,” Flores says.

“If we had some kind of reciprocity. But this is not a county school— this is a DISD school, and it bugs me that we knock out kids with potential just because those kids didn’t have the access to the piano teachers, the dance teachers.”

Than Zaw Oo: Not just a statistic

A few years ago, Janet Morrison-Lane took her first tour of Booker T. She was there on behalf of students who live in Vickery Meadow, a vast apartment community in Northeast Dallas populated with refugees from throughout the world.

“I work as a parent advocate to do what I know a parent would want to do if they knew their options,” says Morrison-Lane of her role as director of the Eagle Scholars at Vickery Meadow Youth Development Foundation.

The tour was led by one of Booker T.’s elite students. The young man introduced himself, telling the group he lived in Richardson while offering a few other personal details.

Morrison-Lane didn’t hear anything after “Richardson.”

“He said it nonchalantly, and I kept thinking about it,” she says.

She wondered: What deserving Dallas ISD student had he displaced?

On Morrison-Lane’s mind that day was a young Burmese refugee, Than Zaw Oo, a gifted artist with no formal training who, as a sixth-grader, created an exact likeness of President Barack Obama in pencil. Morrison-Lane knew Booker T. and its acclaimed art instruction would change his life.

But Zaw Oo was new to this country, having learned English in only a few years. That translated to test scores and grades that were on the low-end of the top tier magnet school’s acceptability scale. Plus, he was painfully shy, a characteristic that didn’t bode well for the interview portion of the application process.

“His academics weren’t there, but his artistic talent was,” she says, “and he could’ve risen up to that [academic level].”

Than Zaw Oo was denied the opportunity to attend Booker T.

Yet somehow, Morrison-Lane thought, this Richardson student had elbowed Zaw Oo aside to become one of the fortunate few. The year Zaw Oo’s application was denied, 89 out-of-district students attended Booker T.

Something else Morrison-Lane eventually learned: It’s common knowledge that parents from the suburbs sign short-term leases or even forge Dallas addresses to get their children into Booker T. and other select Dallas ISD schools.

As we scoured enrollment figures between 2000 and 2016, the data confirms it’s not unusual for suburban students to claim a sizable chunk of spots in Dallas’ most sought-after magnet schools.

The question is: Why?

What’s the goal: Maintaining top rankings or helping kids up?

In a district without enough accomplishments to brag about, the magnet schools are an exception.

Booker T. has a long string of accolades and famous alumni. Townview’s Talented and Gifted as well as Science and Engineering magnet high schools (better known as TAG and SEM) annually are atop the lists of “best high schools in America” from Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. Altogether, these three schools are educating 145 out-of-district students this year.

At Dallas ISD’s Montessori magnets, George B. Dealey in Preston Hollow and Harry Stone in southern Dallas, suburban students are sprinkled among the pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade mix. They’re even at Travis, the district’s TAG fourth- through eighth-grade campus, where preference for siblings and long waitlists led to a recent board policy change. The waitlist wasn’t exhausted, yet three non-Dallas ISD students still were admitted last year.

All of these schools have waitlists. All have policies that require qualified Dallas ISD students to be admitted before out-of-district students, even if those suburban students’ scores are off the charts.

Yet none of them follow their own rules.graph-ousiders

Booker T., which didn’t respond to interview requests for this story, is the worst offender, both presently and historically.

When Booker T. reopened as an arts magnet in 1976, suburban students weren’t just welcomed with open arms, they were recruited. It was year five of the district’s court-ordered desegregation efforts, and to say that busing wasn’t popular with certain sectors of the community would be an understatement.

The district had seen some success mixing races at the then-new Skyline magnet school, which enticed white, black and brown students with its air-conditioned building (the only one in Dallas ISD at the time) and a chance to be part of something historic. Then-superintendent Nolan Estes thought the success could be replicated, so he proposed four new, career-focused magnet schools in 1976 that would be centrally located downtown.

Booker T. had been the only Dallas school for black children until 1939, and it was still essentially segregated when the district turned it into an arts magnet for dissimilar black and white students who shared an interest in the arts. The other original downtown magnets have faded into history, but 40 years later, Booker T. still stands.

At the time, the district’s goal for creating the magnets was explicit: They were “designed to achieve desegregation by attracting students of different ethnic backgrounds to schools where unique academic and vocational programs will be offered.”

And when it came to students who lived outside district boundaries, Dallas didn’t discriminate.

A September 1977 Dallas Morning News story laments that only 17 suburban students had enrolled in the district’s magnet schools. The story notes that then-trustee Brad Lapsley, a Woodrow Wilson High School graduate, “saw the magnets’ specialized curriculum as a way to lure Anglo students from the suburbs into Dallas’ voluntary desegregation program.”

Then as now, though, Dallas ISD’s trustees weren’t in agreement about that goal. The southern Dallas cohort of trustees believed if parents wanted their students to attend the magnets, “they should buy houses inside the school district.”

By 1989, 17 percent of Booker T.’s students were suburban transfers, despite a waiting list of almost 400 Dallas ISD-resident students. The board wasn’t happy about so many outsiders taking up seats, according to a September 1989 Dallas Morning News story. Some trustees wanted to “prevent outside enrollment until all DISD students interested in the school were served.”

“We weren’t created for them; we were created for DISD students,” said then-school board member Rene Castilla.

Ultimately, the decision came down to race. Booker T. was 60 percent white by that time (compared to 17 percent district-wide), and the board opted to split admission (one-third each) at its magnets between white, black and Hispanic students.

The board left the door to the suburbs open, perhaps because white students were leaving Dallas ISD too quickly. By 2003, whites made up only 6.7 percent of Dallas ISD enrollment.

Then desegregation ended.

The court-ordered desegregation shackles are off

One year, Dallas ISD was legally required to admit students to its magnet schools to meet race quotas. The next year, that practice became illegal when the court released the district from its desegregation order.

As part of the terms of its release, Dallas ISD made promises to the court about how it would manage the magnets going forward. The schools had led the district out of segregation. What would become of them now that the court had declared Dallas desegregated?

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The answer is in the “Declaration of Commitments and Covenants” Dallas ISD made to the court in 2003: The magnets would now exist to “offer unique educational opportunities through specialty curricula that cannot be found within the neighborhood schools.” The district also pledged to “be diligent in its efforts to identify all eligible or qualified students” and to “carefully monitor the selection process so that no student or ethnic group is unfairly excluded.”

By 2005, an internal review of these commitments showed that 110 new out-of-district students were admitted to magnet schools, while 446 district students were left on a waiting list. This “excluded about 25 percent of DISD students from the program,” the report notes.

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“The selection process should be reviewed to determine if a limit is needed.”graph-nucleus

Board policy at the time welcomed out-of-district students. In general, it still does. The district receives state funding for each student who attends its schools. With private schools abounding and charter schools ramping up efforts, Dallas ISD typically doesn’t turn away volunteer recruits. In fact, its new collegiate academies at eight high schools are an explicit effort to attract students from charter and suburban schools.

That’s not the case at the magnets, however, where board policy dating back to 2010 gives Dallas ISD students precedence over out-of-district students.

So why are there still eye-popping numbers of students at some of the district’s most elite magnet schools?

For starters, parents “flat-out lie” on their applications, says Flores, the North Dallas trustee and former Booker T. parent. The fact that parents give false addresses, with their kids participating in the deceit, is “the part that really irks me,” he says.

What exacerbates the problem at Booker T., he says, is that some of the adults conducting the auditions required to gain entrance to the school also are being paid as tutors by parents in places such as Coppell and McKinney.

“To say that the auditions are rigged is being kind,” Flores says.

Dallas ISD is 70 percent Hispanic. Booker T. Washington is 27 percent Hispanic — a drop since 2003, when desegregation ended.

“Are you telling me there’s no Hispanic arts talent in DISD?” Flores asks.

Booker T.’s percentage of black students also has decreased in the 13 years since desegregation, down to 21 percent. But the school is significantly whiter (48 percent) and is 76 percent affluent in a district that is 90 percent low-socioeconomic.

Don’t ask, don’t tell?

The fact that Dallas ISD’s top magnets are peppered with suburban students is fairly common knowledge among trustees, at least anecdotally.

“I’m perplexed by that,” says Trustee Dustin Marshall, who was elected in June to represent East Dallas and Preston Hollow. “There seems to be more than sufficient demand within the boundaries of DISD.”

Audrey Pinkerton, the new Oak Cliff trustee whose daughters attended Booker T., also acknowledges the “concern that has been expressed by some parents and community members [whose] perspective is, ‘We have kids coming from cities who are not paying taxes to DISD, and we are, so our kids should get first preference.’ ”

This topic came up at a recent town hall meeting Pinkerton hosted. A mother in the audience said she knew two Highland Park families who rented apartments in Dallas ISD so their children could attend Travis.

“I’m offended by that,” the mother told the crowd. “Is there any way to police that?”

Administrators, too, seem aware of the problem.

Keisha Crowder-Davis, Dallas ISD’s director of postsecondary success who has overseen the magnet schools since 1999, says that “our programs have always been for our in-district students. We triple check when they submit.”

“The funny part is parents tell on each other,” she says. “They’ll call and say, ‘This student got in, and I know he doesn’t live in the district because he lives across the street, and we used our real address.’ ”

The district’s policy requires students to show a utility bill, lease or mortgage agreement, or a notarized proof of residency to enroll at a magnet school. If something “looks abnormal,” Crowder-Davis says, Dallas ISD police are sent to the student’s purported place of residence.

However, Dallas ISD’s own numbers show that suburban students are still finding loopholes, and not just by the ones and twos but by the dozens.

Crowder-Davis says Dallas ISD has made “a concerted effort for the past several years to only accept in-district students.” That seems to have made an impact at Booker T., where the number of suburban students has been reduced by more than half since 2009-10. At TAG and SEM, however, out-of-district enrollment saw an uptick during the past few years.

Even at Barack Obama Leadership Academy, a new all-boys school in southern Dallas that opened five years ago, out-of-district students make up 10 percent of the small campus. In the academy’s first graduating class of 12 young men, the valedictorian was a transfer from DeSoto ISD.

The district will accept transfers if no qualified Dallas ISD students are on a waitlist, Crowder-Davis says. Part of the challenge, she says, is seeking out and recruiting those qualified students.

It’s a problem even in a neighborhood such as Oak Cliff. Sunset High School sent 47 students to Booker T. this year — slightly more than its fair share. Kimball High School sent 31 students, and Molina and Adamson high schools sent only 14 each.

The magnets admit the highest-ranking 30 percent of applicants, regardless of Dallas ISD home high school; the remaining spots go to the top applicants from each of the district’s 21 high schools. If a particular high school doesn’t have enough qualified students to fill its seat allotment, however, those leftover spots go to the next highest-ranking students overall.

That’s how hundreds of students from high schools such as Bryan Adams and Woodrow Wilson in East Dallas gain admittance to Booker T. while other schools send only a tiny fraction. Conrad High School, which serves the Vickery Meadow community and where Than Zaw Oo attends, has only 11 students at Booker T.

It’s not for Morrison-Lane’s lack of trying.

“My goal is to get a kid where they need to go,” she says. “I want them to be where they can completely excel.”

She advocates for students from Conrad and Tasby Middle School, which feeds to Conrad.

“It’s not about Tasby and Conrad being bad schools. They truly want the best for the kids,” Morrison-Lane says.

Each year, the district sends letters to families whose children have qualified to apply for a magnet school, but in a community filled with families who may not speak English or are not knowledgeable about Dallas ISD’s educational options, that’s not enough, she says.

“If you speak Farsi, and you receive a piece of paper that says something about a magnet school, and you have no idea what a magnet school is or does, what does that mean?” Morrison-Lane says.

schoolstorymagnet_sidebar2“A parent in our community, you have to hand that paper to them and translate it and tell them that this opportunity exists.”

That’s part of her role as a stand-in parent advocate. Morrison-Lane even works with Tasby’s counselors to identify students at the middle school whose GPA and test scores make them magnet candidates.

It doesn’t help that there is pressure, whether implicit or explicit, on administrators at neighborhood schools with high poverty rates and low test scores to hold onto their best students, Morrison-Lane says.

Crowder-Davis acknowledges this, too. Every year, she sends a stack of printed magnet school applications to each school to distribute.

“Some schools send them back, and they hadn’t even taken them out of the shrink wrap,” Crowder-Davis says. “In this high-stakes, academically driven arena that we’re in, they see magnets as creaming off the top.”

She also looks over a list of students each year who qualify to apply to magnets and compares it to actual enrollment. She says she uses it for “targeted recruitment.”

“We look at where we have not seen applicants [and] schools that did not invite us over to speak,” she says. “The next year, you become a focus for us because we’re coming to get your kids.”

What’s the point of magnets?

So are Dallas ISD magnet schools for poor Dallas students who need access to opportunities, as Morrison-Lane hopes, or are they inexpensive surrogate private schools for middle- and upper-class students — no matter where they live — who want access to more options?

“When you hear ‘TAG,’ a visceral reaction is to go to the best of the best,” says Dallas ISD Trustee Miguel Solis. Same for a school such as Booker T., he says, “the best of the best musicians,” and so on.

What’s “perplexing,” Solis says, is “trying to identify a way to ensure all children have fair and equal access to those schools from across the district,” Solis says.

“The idea of out-of-district kids bypassing Dallas ISD until they get into a magnet school and taking the slot of a DISD student is inequitable,” Solis says.

“If we are robbing some of our children and boxing them out to the credit of others, that needs to change.”

Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa calls it “an issue of concern for us, but it’s a complex issue … There’s not going to be a silver bullet on this.

“One thing we don’t want to do is poke a giant in the eye,” he says. “We don’t want to mess up our magnets that are really successful, but at the same time, all of our students deserve to have access to all of those programs.”

He mentions the district’s new collegiate academies, which garnered 2,000 applications for 800 spots at “some very tough high schools,” and the district’s new public school choice offerings that “we are really ramping up.”

“Don’t be surprised if we see a way to address the issue from that regard, not from a deficit but from an abundance,” Hinojosa says. “There’s a great appetite by the board to offer more programs like this.”

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It won’t be in time, however, to make a difference for Than Zaw Oo. After being passed over by Booker T., he stayed at Conrad, which houses one of the new collegiate academies. Turns out, he was a year too old to enroll in the collegiate academy, too.

Instead, Zaw Oo has taken up an interest in film, says Morrison-Lane, and he’s being mentored by a professional in the community.

“Now, will he become an artist? I don’t know,” she says.

Every year, as she guides her students through the magnet application process, she witnesses their disappointment when the rejection letters are delivered. They’re “devastated, embarrassed, ashamed,” she says. “I think they feel like they’re not worthy of it.”

Morrison-Lane is convinced the system is broken. All she can do is navigate the nuances, crack the codes and hope that, maybe next year, she can help some of her deserving students find their way into the “fortunate few.”

“Now does that help the other hundreds of kids who are in Tasby? No,” she says. Nor does it help the other hundreds of thousands of kids in Dallas ISD.

“I wish every other kid could get that shot,” she says.

The barriers, though, are as high as the stakes. Morrison-Lane wrote an op-ed piece for the Dallas Morning News this past spring on “how to navigate the DISD application maze,” which was less of a how-to and more of a scathing review.

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In it, she wrote: “I have to wonder what we are really trying to achieve with magnet schools. Are they truly an opportunity for our poorest students to move forward?

“Or are they designed for middle-class parents in the Dallas district to access a high-quality education for their children?”

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  • Meme

    Thank you for responding. I did bring to the attention of the poll workers that there were City of Dallas props on my ballot and they let me know that whatever was on my ballot was correct. I thought they were being very defensive and just dropped it. I wonder how often that sort of thing happens. I have a talented grandniece in Denton who wants to be at Booker T. I think it will be their loss that she won’t be.

  • Hi Meme, thanks for your comment. The City of Dallas and the Dallas Independent School District are two different taxing entities. Taxes paid to the city aren’t shared with the school district, and vice versa. (Another recent commenter who lives in Dallas and also within Richardson ISD and wants her son to attend Booker T. also had some confusion about that, believing that the taxes she pays to the city should allow her son to attend the DISD magnet, but the comment appears to have been deleted by the commenter.) However, if you live within the City of Garland and found City of Dallas propositions on your ballot, it sounds like there was some sort of mistake.

  • Amy DaPonte

    I pay Dallas taxes, have a Dallas address, but live in a section of the inner 635 loop zoned to Richardson ISD. My 6th grade, highly talented aspiring artist dreams of going to Booker T. but isn’t likely to be allowed admission, despite the fact our tax dollars pay for the school’s upkeep! There are many people crying that those who pay Dallas taxes should be the ones whose kids get to attend, so what about us? Who is advocating for those of us who are in Dallas, pay taxes, but are deemed “suburban” and therefore outside the admission pool?

  • Meme

    I know this is old but I just saw it. I live in Garland and was surprised at how many City of Dallas propositions was on my ballot Tuesday. That tells me DISD is taking my tax dollars. It seems you only want the money but don’t want to share the facilities.

  • Pingback: How should Dallas magnet schools admit students? TAG High School provides the model - Oak Cliff()

  • Brenda

    Back when I attended Arts, grades and academic success, was not necessarily the kiss of death for being accepted. Just because a student struggles with grades, does not make then any less of a brilliant artist. This, however, makes me very sad. DISD students should have top priority for a spot in the magnet schools. If we pay the taxes in Dallas, our children deserve to attend these schools.

  • dhusu

    Nice article. +1

  • dallasmay

    Anyone surprised that suburbanites are selfish?