DISD’s poorest students face long odds to attend magnet schools

It bothers Dallas ISD Trustee Edwin Flores that the demographics of magnet schools don’t reflect those of the district.

A presentation given by Chief of School Leadership Stephanie Elizalde at a board briefing earlier this year showed that 55 percent of magnet students are Hispanic. DISD, however, is 70 percent Hispanic, “which tells me that maybe we’re not doing a good job reaching out to those families to make sure they know the process and know how to apply to these magnet schools,” Flores said.

The trustees were discussing how many out-of-district students attend DISD magnet schools, and Flores is among those who assume more students are coming from the suburbs than are showing up in the data.

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Still, “setting aside any concerns about cheating and maybe taking the information at face value for right now,” he said, “we just need to do a better job marketing to our families and our kids and giving them the resources in elementary and middle school so that they can be ‘qualified’ and be ahead of these kids from out of district.”

He mentioned dancers as one example.

Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts auditions dancers every year for coveted spots at its nationally renowned campus. DISD students don’t often qualify for those spots according to the audition criteria, so the spots are opened up to out-of-district students.

The result is a phenomenal arts education for suburban students at one of Dallas’ most sought-after schools. Five male dancers from Booker T. will attend Julliard next fall, claiming nearly half of the prestigious school’s 12 spots for freshman male dancers. Only two of the five live in Dallas — one in Preston Hollow and one in the Dallas Arts District. The other three live in Lake Highlands, Richardson and Carrollton.

“I think dance is an area that it’s really hard to qualify because we don’t have a lot of dance programs, so the kids who are going to do well are the kids whose parents can pay for private lessons,” Flores says.

This disparity has been an issue at Booker T. for decades.

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“The argument has been made that some student slots would be difficult to fill, particularly among the male dancers, if auditions were limited to residents of the school district,” stated a Dallas Morning News editorial from Oct. 29, 1989, when the board was weighing the possibility of dropping audition requirements or otherwise revising standards at Booker T. in order to increase the ratio of minority students.

This situation is not unique to the arts; Flores pointed out at the briefing that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) also are areas of deficiency. More students come from outside DISD to attend the Science and Engineering Magnet (SEM) high school than come from any single DISD high school.

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A three-step process whittles down the applicant pool to determine who will be admitted to the magnets. Students first have to meet the application criteria, based on their GPA and test results. If they decide to apply to one or more schools, they undergo an audition, interview, project or exam, yielding a separate score. In theory, students who score the highest qualify to attend.

Each magnet school ranks the qualifying students and allots 30 percent of its seats to the top scorers, then distributes the remaining 70 percent of seats to the top-ranking students from each of the 24 neighborhood high schools.

Whether those spots are distributed evenly among the different areas of the district is entirely dependent on the applicant pool, however, and given the disparity in students’ home high schools (37 Bryan Adams High School students attend SEM vs. six students from Conrad High School), it’s clear the applicant pool is not diverse geographically.

“It is skewed,” Elizalde told trustees of the admission process. “If I just look at percent of Hispanic students who gain admission vs. percent of whites who gain admission, percent of African-Americans who gain admission, that is a concern in terms of the percent that actually get in versus the percent that are applying.”

Trustee Dustin Marshall wondered “if there is a racial equity issue underlying the admissions process,” either because “we’re not reaching out to the right communities” or “even worse … there may be some skewing of the [admission] process that’s leading us to accept a much higher percentage of kids who are white to these schools.”

Even 14 years after desegregation ended, Dallas still is a geographically segregated city in terms of both race and class. Now that Elizalde has committed central administrators to verify students’ residency from year to year, DISD should see a decline in waitlists of in-district students at schools where out-of-district students currently claim seats.

This doesn’t, however, automatically increase the admission chances of minority or poor students because, as Flores pointed out at the board briefing, students with the best hope of attending schools like Booker T. or SEM are those whose parents have the resources to pay for private lessons or enrichment classes.

Magnet schools could change their admission policies to open up seats to students whose don’t quite qualify but show potential, but historically, this has been politically unpopular. The last time it was brought up to trustees was in 2010, when administrators suggested a policy change that would reserve roughly 10 percent of seats for what they called “students of promise.” The suggestion never evolved into a vote.

Then there’s the issue of whether students from some of the poorest and most hopeless parts of DISD would apply for the spots, or even know they exist. Keisha Crowder-Davis, who has overseen the magnet schools since 1999, told us last year that the magnet applications she distributes to schools around the district sometimes come back to her still shrink-wrapped because “in this high-stakes, academically driven arena that we’re in, [neighborhood schools] see magnets as creaming off the top.”

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Some magnet schools, like Townview’s School for the Talented and Gifted (TAG) high school, have worked on their own to correct these disparities by focusing on underrepresented DISD schools. Because of Principal Ben Mackey and his staff’s recruiting efforts, “in-district applications for TAG are up for a fourth consecutive year,” he says. He’s hopeful that this coming school year, his student body will reflect the racial and socioeconomic makeup of Dallas.

If he succeeds, he will buck the trend of Dallas magnets, which have grown increasingly white and affluent since desegregation ended in 2003.

The irony is that the very schools meant to allay segregation have now fallen victim to the systems they were meant to disrupt.

To learn more about Dallas ISD’s magnet school admission shortfalls, as well as the district’s new emphasis on choice schools, check out the other stories in this series:

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How many kids are cheating their way into Dallas ISD magnet schools?

Shrewd families are scheming a Dallas ISD program for homeless kids

Which students add more value to magnets: Dallas kids or Plano kids?

Rich + white + suburban students » Dallas magnet schools ≠ diversity

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• DISD’s poorest students face long odds to attend magnet schools

And don’t forget to read our December cover story that launched a deep dive into these issues.

Parents or students with questions about the magnet admission process or concerns about fellow students attending schools without proper documentation can contact Keisha Crowder-Davis at 972.925.6710 or magnetschools@dallasisd.org and can copy us at kmitchell@advocatemag.com.

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