Photo Credit: Danny Fulgencio
Lie about your home address. Compel co-workers or friends to put your name on their utility bill. Or just rent an apartment in Uptown for your son or daughter, even if the kid never actually lives there.
Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the nationally renowned public magnet school, is known for funneling dancers to The Juilliard School, churning out Presidential Scholars in the Arts and grooming music stars, such as Norah Jones and Erykah Badu. The high school is funded by Dallas Independent School District taxpayers and reserved for students who live in the Dallas ISD attendance zone, according to school board regulations.
But Advocate research shows neither campus nor district officials make much of an effort to verify that applicants live where they say they do. And once a kid cheats his way into a magnet school, DISD generally doesn’t review his residency again.
Meanwhile, talented Dallas ISD hopefuls who live within DISD attendance boundaries are denied entry to the school and left wondering what might have been.
In the wake of the “Aunt Becky” national college cheating scandal, look at this year’s freshman recruits to the Booker T. dance conservatory.
In spring 2018, 55 eighth-graders received coveted “I am Booker T.” acceptance letters. At the time they applied, only 20 were attending a Dallas ISD middle school. Another 28 — half of the dancers admitted — were attending public schools in the suburbs, based on their middle school transcripts.
Yet as part of their application paperwork last spring, 53 of the 55 dancers turned in utility bills purporting to live in Dallas.
In fact, all but three of the 227 freshmen in Booker T.’s dance, music, theater and visual arts academies used a Dallas address when they applied. Yet 100 of those students have never attended a DISD middle school, including 39 who attended public middle schools in the suburbs.
Juxtapose that with the 56 DISD students who applied to attend the school and were denied entry in spring 2018, along with another 144 DISD students who were rejected as “unqualified” by the magnet school audition judges.
Based on DISD numbers, children from suburban families who ignore the district’s rules have a better chance of gaining access to Booker T. than DISD’s own students.
Sure, it makes Dallas taxpayers proud that one of our public schools annually ranks among the best in the country.
But how proud should we be knowing that every suburban kid taking a spot at our nationally ranked magnet school could be stealing that opportunity from a deserving Dallas kid who played by DISD’s own rules?
“This school is for in-District kids.”
Dance: ‘Straight-up fraud’
Lisa Ormsbee remembers a Booker T. instructor emphasizing these words to the prospective parents gathered in the high school’s dance studio.
She says she glanced around at the other moms and dads, who were mostly white and dressed in designer clothes. They looked different than most of the parents she had encountered at Withers Elementary, E.D. Walker Middle School and Dealey Academy, the Dallas ISD schools her daughter had attended since kindergarten. She assumed many of them were suburban families and says she wondered if the warning would frighten them away.
Ormsbee’s daughter auditioned a few weeks later, in spring 2018. She had begun dancing when she was 3 and had her sights set on Booker T. for high school.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought it would be a problem because we live in DISD, and I thought she was prepared,” Ormsbee says.
But her daughter was waitlisted, and “she was crushed,” Ormsbee says.
More bad news awaited them at the Plano studio where her daughter trained. Several of her daughter’s dancer friends made the cut, and Ormsbee was dumbfounded: They all lived in the suburbs.
As it dawned on Ormsbee and her daughter that families who had looked down on them for years for attending Dallas public schools were now bypassing them to gain entry to a Dallas public school, her grief for her daughter turned into fury at the broken system.
“These moms and the studios, they know the policy, and they all talk about how to get around that,” Ormsbee says. “They get a friend and ask if they can pay their phone bill, and nobody ever goes deeper.
“They aren’t paying any taxes. That is not fair. That is straight-up fraud.”
Ormsbee began sending emails, telling district employees that she personally knew at least 11 out-of-district dancers admitted to the conservatory. The Booker T. dance director, Kate Walker, responded that it was the district’s, not the campus’, responsibility to investigate the applications.
DISD’s director of magnets and special programs, Keisha Crowder-Davis, initially told Ormsbee she would personally review the applications, Ormsbee says. Soon afterward, someone from Crowder-Davis’ office called Ormsbee and told her she would need to provide the suburban students’ names in order for the district to take action.
Ormsbee wasn’t willing to rat out her daughter’s longtime friends. She believed it was the district’s responsibility to verify that applicants reside in DISD.
“It’s so negligent to me,” Ormsbee says. “It’s really turning a blind eye. You open the file and you see the kid’s transcript.”
Ormsbee decided she wasn’t going to get anywhere with her complaint and dropped it. The school year started, and her daughter’s waitlist stance remained unchanged. She spent a semester at her neighborhood high school, W.T. White, where she loved the teachers and the dance program but struggled socially. She now attends Bishop Lynch, a private Catholic high school.
Suburban middle schoolers with Dallas addresses
In January, Ormsbee fired off another round of emails to DISD officials telling the story of her family’s journey. One went to Stephanie Elizalde, Dallas ISD’s chief of school leadership, who had heard from Ormsbee the previous spring.
When Elizalde received another email this year, she asked her staff to pull data on the 2018-19 Booker T. freshman class. She didn’t want their addresses; she wanted their middle school transcripts.
Elizalde says she was floored by what she saw: 39 of the 227 freshmen — 17 percent of the class — had attended public middle schools in Frisco, Plano, Garland, Rockwall and other suburbs. Almost all of them had turned in application documents with a Dallas address.
Another 61 freshmen — 27 percent of the class — came to Booker T. from private, online, charter and home schools. Some of them likely live in Dallas ISD, but the district doesn’t verify how many do or don’t.
“I absolutely see evidence of students who misrepresented their real residence to gain admission to our magnets,” says Elizalde, who oversees instruction at DISD’s 230 campuses. “Families are trying to circumvent the intent of the admission policy our board has approved.”
Their methods range from ethically suspect to, as Ormbee calls it, “straight-up fraud.”
Some students have divorced parents with one living in the district, which may explain the three Booker T. freshmen with suburban addresses who displaced DISD students. Some are known in the Booker T. community as “two-house” families: Their main residence may be in Southlake but they own or rent a condo in Uptown during their child’s high school years. Technically, they’re taxpayers, but does this, as Elizalde describes it, “circumvent the intent” of the board policy?
Then there are the flat-out swindlers who sign a short-term lease with a DISD address to be used solely during the application period, or who call a friend in Dallas and offer to pay their monthly water or electricity bill to use that address as proof of residence.
“It’s very alarming and very concerning to me,” Elizalde says. “Parents from other districts are not in the seat of being held responsible.”
Booker T. does nothing more than ensure the address on the student’s utility bill matches the address on their application.
“We’ve just followed the district policy, and we’re checking the utility bill as it’s presented,” says Booker T. Principal Scott Rudes. The campus sends applicants’ addresses and audition scores to the DISD magnet office, and the district, not the campus, determines who is accepted, waitlisted or denied, he says.
No one at the DISD central office is tasked with checking residency documents, either.
Theater: ‘We don’t check addresses’
Andrea Ramirez remembers an information session at Booker T. in 2013, when her oldest son was applying to the school and parents were told in-district students take precedence. However, she recalls a separate gathering where the head of the theater academy told parents: “We don’t check addresses.”
“I thought, ‘Did she just say that?’ ” Ramirez says.
Over the next two years, she met families driving in daily from Little Elm, Garland and even Greenville, Texas.
“I don’t know what they were doing or how they were doing it, but it’s a big problem for that school,” Ramirez says.
Her sons, now a senior and sophomore at Sunset High School, were theater students at Greiner Middle School Exploratory Arts Academy, a fine arts magnet in Oak Cliff, before being admitted to Booker T. Her oldest son spent two years there and her youngest spent a semester before they both decided to return to their neighborhood high school.
Greiner has long been the DISD school supplying the most students to Booker T. Forty-seven Greiner students were admitted in spring 2018, comprising one-fifth of this year’s freshman class. No other DISD middle school came close.
The only group larger than Greiner’s was the group of students new to the district. Nearly half of Booker T.’s 2018-19 freshman class — 104 of 227 students — did not attend a Dallas ISD middle school. And at least 39 of those students didn’t live in Dallas ISD, based on their middle school transcripts from suburban ISDs.
Meanwhile, 52 Greiner eighth-graders who auditioned were waitlisted or rejected altogether.
Ramirez had known dozens of talented kids from her son’s eighth-grade class at Greiner “who didn’t get in, and they were so good.”
“The whole point of Booker T., I thought, was for kids whose parents couldn’t afford piano lessons or dance, and that school would offer it to them,” she says.
But when nearly half of the spots at one of DISD’s premier high schools are awarded to students new to the district, it doesn’t leave much room for homegrown talent.
“Why aren’t all of those students gaining admission if there are enough seats?” Elizalde asks about the Greiner applicants. “I failed, and I’m going to fix it.”
“It makes Booker T. a school for rich kids.”
Can you buy your way into Booker T.?
Wealth, and the access it affords, seems to be a line of demarcation between who does and doesn’t make the cut at Booker T. Compare its demographics to Greiner’s: 69 percent of students enrolled in the middle school arts academy report being economically disadvantaged, according to federal poverty standards. At Booker T., that statistic is only 32 percent.
Wealthy suburban families have the ability to rent or own a second property in Dallas ISD so that their child can attend Booker T. This might explain why there are no Highland Park zip codes attached to students enrolled at Booker T. but plenty of “HP” bumper stickers in the carpool line.
It also sheds light on the recent upsurge in students zoned to North Dallas High School who attend Booker T. The Uptown high school is more than 90 percent economically disadvantaged, with similar stats at its neighborhood elementary and middle schools. Yet 111 students, 11 percent of those who attend Booker T., “live” in the North Dallas High School zone, up from 29 students, or 4 percent, a decade ago.
Ormsbee has suggested to district officials that if families can afford a second home, the district would be better off with them paying tuition.
“At least it would be visible” she says. “It wouldn’t be so dirty and underhanded.”
Upper-class families also can shell out cash for private art classes, audition coaching, portfolio guidance, summer camps and more.
When Ormsbee’s daughter attended Walker Middle School, she remembers talking to the dance teacher about the training students received starting in sixth grade, which Ormsbee thought would give them a great chance of being able to attend Booker T.
“None of my kids ever make it into Booker T.,” the instructor told her, “but that doesn’t mean they’re not great.”
“It’s like, ‘Don’t even try,’ ” Ormsbee says, “which is a horrible message for a young sixth-grade kid who thinks, ‘Wow, I love this, I’m really good at it.’ ”
If nothing changes, Ormsbee says, “someone with raw talent who doesn’t have the means to get the training isn’t going to be able to compete with a kid from Frisco who’s been training since before kindergarten.”
The problem isn’t limited to the Booker T. dance conservatory. Kristen Jackson spent a decade teaching visual art at K.B. Polk Elementary near Love Field. She witnessed many talented students but says maybe two of her hundreds of students made it into Booker T., even though “lots of kids tried.”
“I knew the cards were stacked against them because of how hard it was to get in and how many kids outside of the district were vying for a spot,” Jackson says. “They’re going against kids who have a lot of private help.”
Jackson acknowledges that “the demographics of any magnet school are going to be different” than the overall district. She witnessed this firsthand at Polk, which was a neighborhood school that also housed a fourth- and fifth-grade Talented and Gifted magnet.
“The demographics looked different” between the neighborhood kids and the magnet kids, she says, but “the breakdown wasn’t wildly different than the rest of Dallas ISD because they were still pulling from Dallas ISD.”
Does Booker T. have an ‘Aunt Becky’ problem?
The recent nationwide university admission scandal showed the lengths to which parents are willing to go for their children. It shouldn’t be a surprise when wealthy and influential parents do whatever it takes to secure the best opportunities for their children.
And “that’s exactly who should not be gaining admission” to Dallas ISD specialty schools, Elizalde says. “That’s not what we’re about.”
Middle- and upper-class families dominate just five of the 230 DISD campuses: two neighborhood schools, Lakewood and Mockingbird elementary schools in East Dallas; and three magnet schools, Dealey Montessori in Preston Hollow, Travis Talented and Gifted in Uptown, and Booker T. Less than a third of families at these schools report living below federal poverty standards.
Families with means concentrating in acclaimed specialty schools is “not something unique to DISD,” says Tiffany Huitt, the executive director of DISD’s magnet schools. She sits on a national board of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) secondary schools, and some of her board colleagues “actually talked about being propositioned with money.”
Huitt personally hasn’t received such offers, she says. As to whether parents have bribed their way into Booker T., “there’s no smoke,” Elizalde says, but adds that she’s “not naïve.”
“If someone brings me something tangible, we absolutely would investigate that immediately,” Elizalde says.
Art: ‘Students of promise’
It broke Kristen Jackson’s heart as she realized her art class at Dallas ISD’s K.B. Polk Elementary School near Love Field was the first place most of her kindergartners picked up a crayon.
“These are things we don’t understand as part of the middle class,” Jackson says.
Every year, she took fourth-graders to the Dallas Museum of Art for a field trip. For most, it was their first visit.
“They live less than five miles from Downtown, but for myriad reasons, they’re not getting out of the neighborhood often,” Jackson says. “Maybe both parents are working, they have only one vehicle and that vehicle has to be used to get Dad to work, and Dad is working 12 to 14 hours a day.
“It’s not because their parents are bad people; it’s that they don’t know how important it is for them to be exploring their creativity,” Jackson says.
These kids, even the ones who come out of the womb with natural artistic talent, “are not going to do as well in the [magnet school] application process as kids who have been exposed to the arts their whole life.”
Whether Dallas ISD magnet schools are for “the best of the best” or “students of promise” is a debate that has raged for decades. The fear among many magnet school parents is that opening these schools to unqualified, unprepared students would “dilute” the talent.
The term “students of promise” was introduced to the DISD school board in 2010 with a proposal to reserve some magnet school seats for students who “exhibit resilience and interest but do not meet the entrance criteria.” Magnet parents, and some DISD trustees, countered that this would “water down” the quality, “downgrade the environment” and “set students up for failure,” according to 2010 Dallas Morning News stories.
Such terminology grates on Elizalde, DISD’s chief of school leadership.
“Who are we to decide who belongs in public education? Who of us knows the talent of our students?” Elizalde asks. “I’m in the business of ensuring every kid belongs, and to sit on a pedestal and say, ‘This kid doesn’t belong,’ is in contrast to public education, even at a magnet school.”
“It’s so negligent to me. It’s really turning a blind eye. You open the file and you see the kid’s transcript.”
Polish vs. potential
Ben Mackey, who spent six years as principal of DISD’s Townview Talented and Gifted (TAG) magnet high school, is familiar with the idea that only the “best of the best” should be allowed into a school like TAG.
“A lot of times, what we equate with ‘best of the best’ is polish and not potential. How do you compare years of lessons and practice versus a natural talent who hasn’t had those same opportunities?” Mackey says.
In 2013, when he became Townview’s principal, Mackey noticed how his student body looked more like the Park Cities or Plano than Dallas. He and his staff subsequently stopped requiring applicants to submit portfolios and essays, which tend to do little more than separate the haves from the have-nots, he says, and instead created a half-day, on-site assessment.
TAG also stopped waiting for kids to come to them. Each year, TAG administrators ask for a list of every DISD student who has high-enough grades and test scores to apply to the school, which has a longstanding reputation as one of the best in the country. Then the teachers visit as many Dallas ISD middle school campuses as will have them and talk to these students face-to-face, encouraging them to apply.
Their goal is to recruit so many Dallas ISD students that they don’t need to fill seats with suburban kids, who comprised at least 17 percent of TAG’s applicants in spring 2018. Another 27 percent were new to DISD but purportedly lived in Dallas, so Mackey often used his lunch hour to visit the applicants who submitted transcripts from suburban schools, or whose utility bills showed little to no use.
“Point blank, we’ve got so many more talented kids than we’ve got seats in our specialized programs in Dallas,” Mackey says.
All magnet schools give applicants a score of 0 to 100 based on a rubric the school establishes. At TAG, the rubric is based primarily on applicants’ on-site essay, interview and assessments. Any student who scores a 70 or higher “qualifies” to attend TAG. So even if a Plano applicant scores a 99, a Thomas Jefferson High School applicant who scores a 72 would be given the spot.
At Booker T. Washington, Elizalde says, the rubric is based primarily on the audition, which is “subjective,” she says. She says she plans to reexamine the use of Booker T. instructors as audition judges.
Elizalde’s career includes a stint as the cheerleader sponsor at Southwest High School in San Antonio, and “I did not conduct my own auditions,” she says. “I brought in individuals who did not know my kids, almost like ‘The Voice,’ ” referring to the popular TV show.
Photo Credit: Danny Fulgencio
Music: ‘Some people just know how to sing’
Booker T. principal Scott Rudes defends his school’s judging panels, which consist of three to six Booker T. faculty members plus outside experts in their fields. The panels are diverse, he says, both ethnically — “because that is an expectation we want to maintain,” he says — and in terms of expertise. The music panel might include both a classical and a mariachi expert, for example. Panelists recuse themselves when they know a student personally, Rudes says, and many panels drop the highest and lowest scores, similar to Olympic judges.
Rudes began his tenure at Booker T. in 2013, the same year Mackey took the helm of TAG. The arts magnet’s demographics at the time were similarly “alarming,” Rudes says.
“There were certain groups that felt very disenfranchised and felt they would never even have a shot at coming to Booker T. because they didn’t have the training,” he says.
Rudes tossed out the academic assessment that formerly comprised 25 of the 100 potential points because artistic talent and academic ability don’t necessarily correspond. He also changed the weight given to skills such as sight reading. “Some people just know how to sing. We’re leaning more on the natural ability.”
In the arts, “you hope you’re being as objective as possible, but there’s still room for subjectivity,” says Lily Weiss, who spent 38 years on the Booker T. faculty before being named the executive director of the Dallas Arts District in 2016.
Weiss uses the term “students of promise” repeatedly and affectionately to describe the hundreds of students she saw enter Booker T. ill-prepared and exit as flourishing artists. In the ’70s and ’80s, the arts magnet’s early days, Weiss “very distinctly” recalls the simplicity of the dance audition — running, skipping, demonstrating flexibility, imitating a tendu stretch, which would show instructors whether a student’s feet had natural rotation.
“You can actually tell, with that, students who have training and students who have the capacity,” Weiss says.
These are the kinds of students Jackson taught at K.B. Polk. She initially encouraged them to apply to Booker T., but so many were rejected that she changed her advice.
“I told them, ‘You can do art anywhere. You don’t have to go to a fancy art school,’ ” Jackson says. “I didn’t want them to feel that disappointment and get so discouraged that they would give up.”
Repeated rejection of students of promise creates a feedback loop for DISD magnet schools.
“It’s not fair because Dallas ISD kids already have it tough. They don’t have the same support systems that kids in the suburbs do, and the kids suffer because of that,” Jackson says. “It makes Booker T. a school for rich kids.”
Weiss believes that both Booker T. and the entire Dallas arts community are “on the precipice of making a huge shift” toward equity. She was thrilled to see Booker T. host audition workshops at neighborhood libraries this year. She points to LaGuardia High School, Booker T.’s counterpart in New York, which takes its auditions to every borough, and ChiArts, its equivalent in Chicago, which reserves 40 percent of seats for students of promise.
Booker T. and Dallas ISD “have to be dedicated to finding those pockets of students,” Weiss says.
“They aren’t paying any taxes. That is not fair. That is straight-up fraud.”
‘We are enabling it’
More than a decade of strong anecdotal evidence suggested high rates of suburbanites — most of them white and affluent — cheating their way into Dallas ISD’s top magnet schools, primarily Booker T. Washington. Campus leaders and the DISD magnet office weren’t tasked with verifying addresses, and left well enough alone unless parents called to tattle. The board washed its hands of it, pointing to the policy that gives priority to Dallas ISD students.
Elizalde is quick to shoulder the blame, even though her tenure stretches back only three and a half years. She admits that other priorities have taken precedence.
“This was always on my mind, but I was trying to Band-Aid it,” she says. “Now that we are in a much better position as an organization, it’s allowing me to look at some deep-rooted issues that require systematic changes. They’re messy, and they’re going to be messy to solve.
“I don’t want a quick fix because there will be unintended consequences,” Elizalde says.
In early March, when the Advocate first approached her about the situation, Elizalde didn’t believe suburban magnet students were a board policy problem. But a couple of weeks later, she said, “The remedies are going to require, in all likelihood, new policy.”
The policy currently states that “all qualified in-District students shall be served before any out-of-District student may gain admission into that magnet program.” But the term “in-District” needs to be defined clearly “to encourage honesty instead of dishonesty,” Elizalde says.
Another problem is that the policy isn’t being followed, Elizalde says. The board requires magnet students to submit proof of residency each year, but as of now, Booker T. students provide it only when they apply. This facilitates families who rent an apartment solely during the application period, forge a utility bill, or own property in Dallas ISD without actually living there.
“We need to be clearer and more explicit with parents that they cannot move out of DISD during the years they attend Booker T.,” Elizalde says. “Silence is a response, and usually it’s taken as acceptance. If that continues to happen, we are enabling it.”
Starting this fall, Elizalde says, magnet families will be required to provide proof of residency at the start and end of every school year. She says she won’t kick students out who are currently enrolled, and “we’re not going to go out and do a physical visit of 1,000-plus kids at Booker T. Washington.”
However, “we are, at a minimum, going to begin with this entering class. We are going to look at the ones from a Plano middle school who ‘suddenly’ moved to Dallas.”
If their address is different in August than it was when they auditioned this spring, Elizalde says, “that’s going to raise a flag.” She predicts a “very, very, very intensive summer” for Booker T. and Tiffany Huitt, DISD’s executive director of magnet schools, as they scour middle school transcripts and Dallas County Appraisal District records to find residency discrepancies among the incoming freshman class.
Ultimately, it’s up to the board to set policy and priorities. Elizalde plans to recommend a new policy no later than September, in time for the 2020-21 application window, which opens in November. She envisions the new policy giving priority to students who attend DISD schools, then to those who live in the district.
One possibility is a five-point bump to students’ application scores if they attend a DISD school. Trustees also will have to decide whether renting or owning a secondary residence in the Arts District should be considered “in-district.”
If the board decides on a policy giving priority to its own, however, and enforces that policy with thorough checks on school transcripts and residency documents, DISD’s own numbers show that few, if any, slots will remain for suburban students.
But won’t that mean that the nationally acclaimed Dallas arts magnet will fall from prominence?
“That’s such a deficit mentality, and public education doesn’t have a deficit mentality. We’re an abundance mentality,” Elizalde says. “It’s my job to pull it out of them. They all have it. They just don’t all have the opportunity to have the private dance lessons and tutors and coaching, and that is our job, and our schools will have those.”
‘Turning a blind eye’
In spring 2018, 332 students attending Dallas ISD middle schools auditioned for one of the 220 spots at Booker T. A little more than half of them — 178 — scored high enough to qualify.
In the end, only 127 enrolled last fall. More than 200 DISD students who wanted to attend Booker T. lost out to competitors from private, online, charter, suburban ISD and home schools.
“Magnet schools exist because we want to draw students back into the district, but it concerns me that we’re not reaching all the students we can,” Rudes says. “When I talk about closing the opportunity gap, the response I get from the district is, ‘Help is on the way.’ ”
This year Booker T. “adopted” five middle schools in West Dallas and South Dallas, inviting seventh-graders to spend a field trip day exploring the Arts District campus. It also is helping to develop arts curriculum and programming at these campuses that will better prepare students for auditions.
O.W. Holmes Academy in East Oak Cliff, for example, has “amazingly creative kids,” Rudes says, but though it has visual arts, a band and a music technology lab, it doesn’t have a choir or dance classes, so those will be added next year.
Vast disparities exist between DISD elementary and middle schools in terms of their fine arts offerings. Rudes’ goal is to continue to expand Booker T.’s middle school partnerships, starting with areas that don’t have strong representation at Booker. T.
“We have found that for those students, Booker T. is transformative,” Rudes says. “My passion is that the arts can change young people’s lives. We know that we can find between 220 and 240 incoming freshmen who can thrive in this environment, that even if they haven’t had the same training, we can get them where they need to be. Booker T. exists to serve the Dallas community and always has.”
Photo Credit: Danny Fulgencio
We want to hear about your experiences with Dallas ISD magnet schools. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a voicemail at 214.292.0487.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.