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

No one likes a cheater. But as it turns out, Dallas ISD has tolerated them for years.

Not in classrooms — cheating is a punishable offense in the district’s student code of conduct.

Students who cheat their way into magnet schools, however, have been excused and even encouraged in some cases.

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That’s the scenario Dallas ISD Trustee Edwin Flores described during a recent board discussion of out-of-district magnet school students. Board policy requires that magnet students provide proof of residency each school year, but when Chief of School Leadership Stephanie Elizalde looked into the documentation, she found that “we have been lax.”

Flores, who represents northwest Dallas, wasn’t surprised.

“I attended, for one of my children, the welcoming at the beginning of the year at one of our much-vaunted magnets, and it was all run by volunteers, not by staff, who stood up and said, ‘If you move, we don’t want to know about it,’ ” Flores said at the board’s March briefing.

“It was very clear — you got in because you are in-district, but if you move, we’re just gonna stick our head in the sand and cover up our ears and, you know, hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”

Flores didn’t name the school, but his children have attended Dealey Montessori, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and the School for the Talented and Gifted (TAG).

The review of Dallas ISD’s out-of-district students came at the request of northeast Dallas Trustee Dan Micciche, who led the charge to modify the sibling policy at magnet schools last fall. Micciche and other trustees, including Flores, hinted then at reassessing the policy on out-of-district students.

At a February board briefing, Elizalde presented the current numbers — which correlated to the numbers the Advocate published in a December story after reviewing various Dallas ISD documents — and told trustees she was surprised at how low they were.

“I myself thought that I was going to see Booker T. Washington as a school with an overwhelming number of students from outside our district,” Elizalde told board members.

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Dallas ISD data showed that 1,740 of roughly 157,000 DISD students, or 1.1 percent, come from outside the district. A little less than a third of those out-of-district students are at magnet schools — 490 of 6,815 magnet school students, or 7.2 percent.

At Booker T., the nationally renowned performing arts school, 70 (7.55 percent) of 927 students come from outside Dallas ISD boundaries, according to the district’s data. The out-of-district number is closer to 15 percent at other magnet schools — particularly Harry Stone Montessori Middle School and Barack Obama Male Leadership High School, Elizalda said.

Flores immediately questioned the district’s numbers.

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“I’m surprised the number is as low as it is,” he said. “I think people have learned how to game the system better at schools that have had a long, you know, history of having certain parts of DFW feel like they’re entitled to come to our schools.”

He asked administrators to identify “what kind of information we’re receiving from those families to make sure we’re serving our kids first.”

The “surprisingly low” numbers may have been the end of the discussion if several trustees hadn’t pressed the issue, asking why so many in-district students are on waiting lists of magnet schools where out-of-district students are enrolled.

Board policy requires that “all qualified in-District students shall be served before any out-of-District student may gain admission into that magnet program.”

“Tell me what ‘qualified’ for those positions means,” Trustee Dustin Marshall, who represents parts of East Dallas and Preston Hollow, asked at the February briefing.

For Booker T., Elizalde told him, an audition helps determine who is “qualified”. She granted that auditions are subjective, but that’s “why we have a central person who reviews the admission requirements each year that the school is using. We certainly work toward ensuring as much objectivity in a subjective [situation] like Booker T.”

“So the administration’s perspective is, there is not one single child who has applied to one of these magnet schools and is qualified to attend the magnet schools who lives in Dallas ISD boundaries who hasn’t gotten in?” Marshall asked

“Yes, that is correct,” responded Keisha Crowder-Davis, Dallas ISD’s director of postsecondary success who has overseen the magnet schools since 1999.

This past year, 772 magnet applicants selected Booker T. as their first-choice, according to a recent Dallas Morning News report. The school had 242 seats for those students, and 92 in-district students whom the school deemed “qualified” remain on the wait list, even though 70 out-of-district students attend the school.

Administrators’ initial explanation for out-of-district students attending magnet schools was that either the in-district wait list for a particular grade or specialty had been exhausted, so out-of-district students were granted admission, or they were the children of DISD employees who live outside the district’s borders.

This didn’t mollify Marshall. He asked Elizalde to “cut the data” to show how many out-of-district students were employees’ children.

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“Something else is going on here,” he said. “We appear to be giving away spots outside of the district when we have qualified students within the district.”

A month later at the March briefing, administrators had identified 51 magnet students — roughly one-tenth of all out-of-district magnet students — who are the children of employees. Their research also revealed, however, that not all magnet schools were checking students’ residency from year to year.

For example, Harry Stone Montessori spans pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade. Last year, 256 applicants vied for the 52 seats available, according to the Dallas Morning News report. District data shows that 54 out-of-district students attend the school, with 144 qualifying in-district students on the wait list. Students are admitted at the pre-K level and at the sixth-grade level, but even at other grade levels, Elizalde said, “the students are supposed to provide their current residence, and we have not been doing that.”

Elizalde also noted “a pattern, albeit very isolated,” among students at the Townview campus — which includes the nationally ranked TAG as well as Science and Engineering Magnet (SEM) high schools — who apply with an in-district address and change addresses during the school year.

The district accepts a recent utility bill, mortgage statement or apartment lease as proof of current residency. Not even these are foolproof, however — TAG principal Ben Mackey is known to drive around during his lunch, double checking the addresses of suspiciously low utility bills, for example.

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This reality, compounded by discovery of the absence of year-to-year checks, means that the district’s data on out-of-district students likely isn’t accurate. The “surprisingly low” numbers may be much higher than the data shows.

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:

• 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

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.

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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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