Amid the longstanding woes of Dallas ISD, there is a bright spot in South Oak Cliff High School, which is among the poorest schools in Texas yet is graduating two of the school district’s brightest scholars.
The school’s valedictorian and salutatorian, graduating next month, will attend Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin, respectively.
Valedictorian Frank Byers won the Gates Millennium Scholarship, an academic full ride. Salutatorian Alex Simmons has won about $600,000 in scholarships.
Of South Oak Cliff’s 1,215 students, about 73 percent of them, almost 900, qualify for free and reduced lunches, an indicator of poverty. The school performs academically lower than average compared to the rest of the Dallas school district.
So how did these two young men do it?
They had parents and mentors who held very high expectations for them.
Byers, 18, has four younger siblings, and his mother raised them all on her own, “with no help,” Byers says. But she would not accept a “B,” he says. So he never earned anything lower than an “A” until AP calculus and AP chemistry.
He twice was accepted to the School for the Talented and Gifted at Townview High School, which consistently is ranked one of the top high schools in the nation. But he chose South Oak Cliff because he wanted to play basketball (he was a varsity point guard and led the state in assists this past season).
Although he says he was “terrified” of attending South Oak Cliff because of its reputation for fights and bad behavior, that’s not what he found there. Head basketball coach James Mayes took Byers under his wing. Counselors made sure he stayed in AP classes even though there were times he wanted to drop them for easier work loads.
He worked at JP Morgan Chase as part of the Mayor’s Summer Internship Program last year, and two associates there take him to dinner about once a month. One recently received a promotion but is flying in from Florida for Byers’ graduation.
Personal trainer Ira Stewart visited colleges with him.
Byers plans to study petroleum engineering.
Simmons, 17, plans to study business and accounting at UT and become a certified public accountant. He says he was inspired by his grandma, who was a DISD teacher, holds a PhD from UT and is now a professor at the University of Missouri. The past four years have been full of personal struggles for him because of family conflicts, frequent moves and an illness that left his mom unemployed and evicted from her apartment. Also, he has a 1-year-old son.
Head football coach Emmett Jones, who recently joined the coaching staff at Texas Tech University, “took the time to find out your personal life,” Simmons says. The coach made sure Simmons stayed on track academically above all else, he says.
Throughout the process of applying to colleges and for scholarships, Byers and Simmons estimate they wrote 15 or 20 personal essays, which were revised and edited by counselor Mr. Fields, a South Oak Cliff alumnus who graduated from Northwestern University.
Both students volunteer frequently, and Byers is a mentor to younger kids through his church.
“I just want to be the best I can be, and hopefully I can inspire someone else to rise above,” he says.