Dallas ISD expected its enrollment to plummet by roughly a thousand students this year. Instead, enrollment is surpassing projections, and the district is chalking up this good news to its “collegiate academies” and “innovative choice schools” as well as its unexpectedly high “B” grade from the state.
Some parents at Woodrow Wilson High School, however, aren’t celebrating the enrollment uptick.
Nancy Wilson, Woodrow’s PTA president, says DISD isn’t following its own enrollment policy and has sent a formal complaint to a school board trustee — a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit against a school district.
The policy, which is spelled out “in black and white,” she says, requires all students provide a 1) utility bill; 2) birth certificate; 3) immunization records; 4) social security card; and 5) transcript from the previous school.
But at Woodrow, “not one single person has been asked for that documentation,” Wilson says.
“The safety of our students/community are at risk when staff fails to follow board policy,” Wilson states in an email to District 2 Trustee Dustin Marshall, who represents Woodrow. She points to Hillcrest High School’s scandal last year, when one of its alleged 17-year-old students was discovered to be 25.
“We don’t want to be Hillcrest,” Wilson says. “Those checks and balances are in place for a reason.”
The policy also caps enrollment at DISD schools so that they don’t end up with more students than they can educate. Wilson says the intent of her complaint is for the district to follow its own rules, rather than to oust students, but the underlying issue of overcrowding at Woodrow has been a source of contention for years.
The current facility has a capacity of 1,695 students, according to district documents from the previous school year. As of today, 1,961 students are enrolled at the school.
Stephanie Elizalde, DISD’s chief of school leadership, says a more conservative capacity estimate would be around 1,600. But another addition is being constructed at Woodrow, with space for even more students starting in fall 2019, and the meantime, 16 portable classrooms are sitting on the property, so theoretically, the school should be able to accommodate around 2,000 students, she says.
That said, Elizalde believes 1,900-plus students at Woodrow this year “was not the ideal situation. We did allow a larger number of transfers with our open transfer policy, and I did not monitor that as tightly as I should have.”
Nearly 600 of Woodrow’s students transfer into the school from other areas, according to records obtained by the Advocate.
“But have I created a situation that is causing a disadvantage or a disservice to anyone? From my lens, I have enough teachers, enough classroom space,” Elizalde says, “so I’m not going to force kids to go back to their neighborhood school just yet.”
Transfers are up to the principal’s discretion as long as space is available. Over the summer, Woodrow experienced its fifth principal change in four years, and Woodrow parent Debra Bishop is concerned that the discontinuity may have resulted in even more transfers than would have been approved otherwise.
More than one-third of the transfers into Woodrow this year — 209 — are freshmen, and those transfer students make up more than one-third of the freshman class.
Bishop also suspects that lax enforcement of enrollment documents means some students are enrolling as Woodrow students even though they live outside the school’s boundaries. The school is so crowded, she says, that students are standing or sitting on floors in classrooms and also in the cafeteria during lunchtime. It’s also creating makeshift classrooms all over the school in non-academic spaces.
“When you’re teaching a class in the 1928 girls’ gym, and students are sitting on cement bleachers for an hour and a half trying to study, that’s a problem,” Bishop says.
What’s frustrating to her and Wilson is this has been an ongoing problem at Woodrow and J.L. Long Middle School next door. “The last six years of my life, I’ve spent countless hours on this overcrowding,” Bishop says.
Trustee Dustin Marshall worked with Long and Woodrow parents during the 2016-17 school year to revise the district’s enrollment policy. One revision allows students to transfer anywhere in the district as long as space is available. Another revision prevents students from enrolling with false documents, which has been a longstanding problem at popular DISD schools.
Even with Dallas ISD’s higher-than-expected enrollment this year, most of the district’s schools are under capacity. Woodrow bucks this trend. It’s one of three DISD comprehensive high schools that earned top honors from the state this year, along with Bryan Adams and Hillcrest. The other DISD high schools with top honors are either magnet or public choice schools.
Not only does Woodrow have a long-standing reputation of high academic performance, it’s also a fairly diverse campus in terms of both ethnicity and socioeconomics. It has more upper-income students (45 percent) and white students (22.5 percent) than any other DISD high school, outside of magnet and public choice schools.
But is its popularity causing problems?
“Everyone wants their kids to have a great education, right? Woodrow parents are advocates for every single student there,” Wilson says. “But if you do not have the necessary tools or the necessary facility to provide a successful environment, nobody is going to be successful at the end of the day.”
“If we’re following board policy and we’ve got 1,900 students that show up, then it is what it is,” Wilson continues. “Then that becomes a DISD facility issue and you’ve got to address it.”
Wilson believes that Woodrow’s new principal, Michael Moran, “is going to be fantastic and truly a great leader. He’s trying to fix a ton of things.”
Elizalde plans to do another walk-through at Woodrow with parents to assess the capacity before closing enrollment. Parents believe capacity, even with portables, is closer to 1,850 based on a building assessment they did two principals ago. The district also will require documents from every student new to the campus.
“My lesson, of course, is I need to manage the numbers so that we’re not going to accept more than 75” or so transfers, Elizalde says. “That’s what I should have done.”
“But they’re there now, and I know [Woodrow parents] care about all of our kids, so I’m going to work toward creating the best environment we can,” she says. “Next year, we’ll put a cap on enrollment from the beginning.”
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