Only in Oak Cliff: Elementary kids call out developers

‘Help! Our neighborhood is changing!’

One day, in the middle of their schoolwork, John H. Reagan Elementary fifth-graders began discussing where they live. Their school sits a couple of blocks from the vibrant Bishop Arts District, the north Oak Cliff retail and restaurant mecca that saw its heyday in the 1930s as Dallas’ busiest trolley stop, and in recent years experienced a renaissance.

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Not surprisingly, residential construction followed. The last several years have seen developers buying up and tearing down decades-old cottages and craftsman-style homes around the shopping district. Many of them housed families whose children attend Reagan.

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Joseph Resendiz’s family is among them. He told his classmates that developers’ interest in his former home led to his family’s move last year. They weren’t forced out, he says; they were offered another house even closer to Reagan, “which is actually something better,” he says.

But it got the fifth-graders thinking — how many of their classmates have had to move because of their gentrifying neighborhood?

Instead of sitting around wondering, they decided to find out. Reagan’s project-based learning curriculum encourages students to “pick a question that is somewhat interesting to them,” says Reagan gifted and talented teacher Susan Stone, “and then they explore it over a long period of time.”

The fifth-graders titled their project, “Help! Our neighborhood is changing!” They started by surveying their peers to find out how many had moved over the past couple of years. Of the 209 second- through fifth-graders who responded, roughly one-fifth of them had moved since the start of the school year.

What’s more, only half of the students surveyed live in the same house or apartment this year as they did the prior school year. The fifth-graders working on the project found it encouraging, however, that so many students who had moved since last year still attend Reagan.

“People didn’t run away, even though change was happening,” Stone says. “That’s just not something you assume; they have the data that proves it.”

Next they conducted shoe leather research, taking a walk through the neighborhood and even approaching workers at construction sites. When they stopped at the Bishop Highline apartment project, at Melba and Adams, they asked the foreman whether the project would improve the area and whether the units would be rented or owned. 

“He said the new projects would blend in with the older housing to make a good mix of styles,” says fifth-grader Yulianna Huertas, “and that they will provide new students for our school.”

“Did we catch him on something, though?” Stone asks her fifth-graders, prompting them to recall what they were told when they asked whether the project would bring in new residents.

“He said they would bring new children for us to play with,” fifth-grader Mariana Gonzalez says.  

“But then what happened, Daisy?” Stone asks.

“It would be only one room” per unit, fifth-grader Daisy Mojica recalls, “so we didn’t understand.”

“It was kind of a disconnect,” Stone says, between the one-bedroom units and the promise of new families, who typically need more than one room. “We’ll see. They know we’re on it, that we’re going to check back in with them and see if that’s going to hold true or not.”

Reagan’s student population has fluctuated between 500 and 600 since 2005, according to Dallas ISD records. As recently as 2013, 583 students were enrolled; that number has since dropped to 364. More than 100 of those students transfer in. The portable buildings on the school’s property belie that its campus is only 60 percent full. 

The fifth-graders’ investigation, however, left them more encouraged than discouraged. 

“When we noticed that more people stayed at their houses, we felt more comfortable with our neighborhood,” Joseph says, adding that their research shows most people are choosing to move rather than being forced.

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All of the fifth-graders can walk to school. Most of them have attended Reagan since kindergarten or even pre-K. The school’s population is stable, barring the residential disruptions caused by recent development.

Stone, who grew up in north Oak Cliff and still lives here, hopes the students’ work will remind people that Bishop Arts is more than a Dallas hot spot; it’s a neighborhood.

“It’s not just about fancy coffee shops and five-dollar slices of pie,” Stone says

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