The magnet schools’ admission process needs work, Dallas ISD Chief of School Leadership Stephanie Elizalde told trustees at a board briefing recently. It needs to be refined to ensure Dallas ISD students have “primary enrollment preference” over out-of-district students.
She cautioned them, however, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
“Diversity is important, and we know that some of that diversity will come from outside Dallas ISD, just like we are encouraging students from outside of Dallas ISD to attend our regular schools,” Elizalde said.
Trustee Dustin Marshall, who represents parts of East Dallas and Preston Hollow, dug deeper into this premise.
“There’s no question that socioeconomic integration in schools helps improve outcomes for everybody,” he said, but Elizalde’s emphasis on diversity “implies that the kids that we’re letting in from outside the DISD boundaries are adding to that socioeconomic integration. I assume that you mean they are middle- or upper-class families that are coming in?”
“They don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch,” Elizalde responded, citing the key indicator school districts use to determine families’ income levels.
“What about from a race perspective? Do the kids coming in from outside the district, do they skew in any one direction?” Marshall asked.
“From school to school, I’m going to be off, but overall, they’re primarily white,” Elizalde said.
Considering that less than 5 percent of DISD students are white and nearly 90 percent live beneath the poverty line, this influx of wealthy out-of-district students could, indeed, create more potential for more socioeconomic diversity. But it would have to happen by chance because the magnets have no structure in place to ensure such diversity.
This is one of the key differences between DISD’s magnet schools and its newer “schools of choice.” Unlike magnets, which have admission criteria that require students to “qualify” for a select number of spots, choice schools have no admission criteria. They are either neighborhood schools that have changed their curriculum approach (“innovation” schools) or campuses with a new concept that admit students by lottery (“transformation” schools).
Two transformation schools — the all-girls Solar Prep on Henderson Avenue and the new CityLab High School in downtown Dallas — built socioeconomic status into their lottery, admitting 50 percent low-income students and 50 percent affluent students. (CityLab reserves 30 percent of its seats for out-of-district students as long as the lottery results adhere to the half-and-half rule.)
Even transformation schools that don’t have these criteria, however, are subject to an “equity audit.” The audit kicks in if a lottery gives too much weight to more privileged students. DISD’s office of transformation and innovation, which oversees these schools, created a formula to ensure that each transformation school reserves a quarter of its seats for students who are not just low-income but among the poorest in the district.
Magnet schools don’t replicate this practice. They emerged during the desegregation era to attract students of all races with unique curriculum offerings, and once they became successful enough to have waitlists, board policy ensured that roughly one-third of each magnet campus was white, one-third black and one-third Hispanic. Those regulations went away, however, when desegregation ended in 2003, and the magnet campuses, like neighborhood schools, have grown increasingly segregated over the years.
Efforts were put in place to avert this outcome, namely the geographic clause in the board’s admission policy: Magnet schools accept the top 30 percent of applicants throughout the district, then the remaining 70 percent of slots are divided evenly among the 24 comprehensive high school feeder patterns.
A great disparity exists, however, between each high school’s number of applicants who are eligible to apply, those who actually do apply, and those who “qualify” to attend according to each magnet school’s admission criteria. All things being equal, J.L. Long Middle School would send the same number of students to William B. Travis Academy as Sam Tasby Middle School does.
But things aren’t equal today.
East Dallas’ Long sent 97 students to the Dallas ISD talented and gifted middle school this year; only four came from Tasby, which serves students living in the Five Points and Vickery Meadows apartment communities, heavily dominated by impoverished families and recent immigrants.
Ironically, Tasby is named for the black father who sued the district on behalf of his sons, who couldn’t attend their neighborhood school.
“My thinking was if they could get to go to school with the white children, they would have the material that they need,” Tasby said in a KERA interview when desegregation ended.
His argument at the time for racial diversity is, in essence, experts’ argument today for socioeconomic diversity: If poor children attend school with affluent children, they will have access to the same resources, the same educational quality, the same parent advocacy — all of which could change the trajectory of their lives. This was the intent at DISD magnet schools during the days of desegregation.
But with racial admission criteria now illegal and socioeconomic criteria absent, it’s not surprising to wind up with a school like Travis, which is almost 60 percent white and 75 percent affluent, in a district that is 5 percent white and almost 90 percent low-income.
If the district believes that “diversity is important,” trustees can change magnet policy to reflect the admission criteria of DISD schools of choice, rather than hoping for a happy accident. They can’t expect such results from the status quo, which has been more likely to give out-of-district students a golden ticket to Dallas ISD’s top magnets than the district’s own impoverished children.
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:
• Rich + white + suburban students » Dallas magnet schools ≠ diversity
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and can copy us at email@example.com.