The intentional efforts Dallas ISD is making to diversify its schools socioeconomically aren’t unique to the district. They also aren’t some sort of newfangled idea that hasn’t been tried elsewhere. In fact, it could be argued that Dallas is behind the curve when it comes to integrating schools.
Last summer, This American Life produced a two-part series titled “The Problem We All Live With,” named for the Civil Rights-era Norman Rockwell painting. In the opening segment, New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones notes there’s one reform that people have pretty much given up on, despite a lot of evidence that it works — school integration. (Fair warning: The first episode in the series may leave you curled up in the fetal position, but the second is more hopeful, and all of it is worth listening to.)
Less than two months after the episodes aired, Dallas ISD’s Office of Transformation and Innovation, which oversees the district’s choice schools, posted the below video titled “The Case for Socioeconomic Diversity,” which references similar studies and data, notably the 1966 Coleman Report.
The video (which is only seven minutes long and, again, worth watching) notes that 80 U.S. school districts are making conscious efforts to promote integration, and these efforts have worked to improve student achievement in places like Raleigh, N.C., and Louisville, Ky. The video is meant to explain “our theory of action,” says Mike Koprowski, the district’s chief of transformation and innovation. As to whether it’s working, “we won’t really know for sure until a couple years out.”
He’s heartened by evidence that shows the new lottery-based schools are attracting families from across the district and from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Koprowski and his team are looking at more than just income in analyzing student body make-up; they also are considering homeownership, single-parent households and adults’ education levels — three other data points that have strong indications as to how students will fare in school. The result is not simply two groups (affluent and economically disadvantaged) but four blocks of varying affluence and advantage, Block 1 being the most advantaged and Block 4 being the least.
“This isn’t a ‘mission accomplished’ spreadsheet by any stretch of the imagination,” Koprowski says of the above data, but it suggests to him that these lottery-based “transformation” schools are attracting more affluent families as well as more disadvantaged families than what attendance boundaries drawn around segregated neighborhoods typically yield.
To achieve true diversity, it’s important to Koprowski to reengage the middle- and upper-classes, and these new schools’ exciting curriculum models do exactly that. It’s just as important to him, however, to make room for the district’s most at-risk students, which is why his office now gives weight to socioeconomics in its admission lotteries.
Take the new Solar Prep school for girls, housed in the former Bonham campus on Henderson Avenue. “That’s a gentrifying area,” Koprowski says. “If we put an attendance boundary around Bonham, in five years, there won’t be many people who can afford to attend Bonham.”
“If you don’t put the proper controls in place,” he says, “affluent families can overwhelm these schools.”
New York City is dealing with similar issues in its lottery-based schools. A recent New York Times story overviewed a situation parallel to what Dallas might experience in a few years without some priority given to low-income students:
“… once a school is viewed as desirable by middle-class families, their networking capabilities and social capital are far more powerful than any outreach the schools can do to attract lower-income families,” the story says. “All it takes, they say, is a few posts on Facebook, some word of mouth at cocktail parties, preschool fund-raisers and neighborhood playgrounds for a school to be inundated with applications from high-earning families. Those can far outnumber the ones coming from lower-income minority families, so even though seats are given out by lottery, the population can quickly shift.”
Already, the demand is high for Dallas’ choice schools. Koprowski’s office received roughly 400 applications for 50 kindergarten spots at Mata Montessori, for example. The school has a couple of safeguards in place to prevent it from becoming Lakewood or Stonewall Jackson Jr.: One is that two-thirds of next year’s slots were reserved for families in the Mount Auburn Elementary attendance boundaries, many of whom are in income Block 2 or 3, and another is that 3- and 4-year-old pre-K students in its mixed-age Montessori classrooms, who have the option to continue at Mata, must meet the state’s low-income or hardship requirements.
The safeguards are effective enough to keep Mata from being what Koprowski’s office considers a truly diverse school; its current mix is roughly 40/60 affluent to low-income, and the goal is 50/50. Those numbers could shift some next year, but 400 applications for 50 spots no doubt means a lot of affluent families didn’t get in — and Koprowski’s was one of them. His oldest son will be in kindergarten next year and didn’t “win” the lottery. So he will enroll at Robert E. Lee Elementary, the neighborhood school for Vickery Place.
Lee, itself, is a diversifying school — not because it’s one of the district’s lottery-based choice schools but because in recent years, more homeowner families from surrounding neighborhoods have begun sending their children there. Its new dual language program and International Baccalaureate curriculum are attractive to them, and the result is a socioeconomic make-up similar to Mata’s.
Dallas ISD has 227 schools and counting. To diversify, it’s going to take more than simply the eight to 10 lottery-based schools the district intends to open by 2020. Programs with broad appeal are needed at more neighborhood schools, for one, but the district faces an uphill battle integrating neighborhood schools when neighborhoods themselves are segregated. Koprowski visited City Council last week with a presentation titled School Policy = Housing Policy for this very reason.
Though Koprowski knows that his choice initiative alone isn’t going to transform a school district that has tried — and failed — to desegregate for nearly five decades, he believes that something must be done. Allowing class, cultural and racial segregation to continue is “socially, morally and economically unsustainable,” he says.
“It’s also personal to me, “Koprowski says. “My kid’s going to grow up in this city. I look at him and I wonder if he’s prepared for the diversity that lies ahead.”
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.