Suburban students keep lying to steal magnet school spots from deserving Dallas ISD students

Random residency checks. Kicking cheaters out. Legal consequences for families who deliberately lie to skirt Dallas ISD’s magnet school entrance rules.

Dallas ISD pledged to take all of these actions in the wake of an Advocate investigation last year, which exposed an epidemic of parents in wealthy Dallas suburbs cheating eligible Dallas students — 85% of whom live in poverty — out of coveted slots at one of the country’s top-rated magnet high schools.

Soon after the school year began, district officials bragged to local media about how many suburban students had withdrawn from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, including a few who flat out didn’t show up for school after all of the bad publicity. Those vacated seats were supposed to make room for deserving Dallas students.

The district’s enrollment numbers tell a different story.

One of the lucky ones called back to fill a vacant spot: a student who had attended Highland Park Middle School — a public school in the wealthiest of Dallas’ suburbs, with zero impoverished students at the campus or in the entire district, according to Texas Education Agency data.

When this student applied to Booker T. to fill one of the vacancies, the utility bill the family turned in showed an address in Dallas ISD’s Bryan Adams High School zone — an East Dallas school with a high percentage of low-income students that mirrors the district’s.

In other words, one of the “deserving Dallas students” appears to instead be a suburban student whose admission scheme made it through the beefed-up scrutiny the district told the media and public it had implemented.

In fact, 2019 fall enrollment records the Advocate obtained from Dallas ISD show that of the 15 spots vacated by Booker T.‘s incoming freshmen, at least half of them were filled by out-of-district students, including three who previously attended public middle schools in the suburbs and, as part of their application, turned in utility bills with Dallas ISD addresses.

Another 34 students from suburban middle schools who turned in Dallas utility bills and received golden tickets in the spring are still enrolled at Booker T., according to Dallas ISD data.

The district doesn’t consider magnet students to be cheaters “simply because they went to a different middle school,” says Tiffany Huitt, the executive director of Dallas’ magnet schools. Some students have extenuating circumstances, such as divorced parents with only one living in DISD.

“We can’t automatically make the assumption that students don’t belong there,” Huitt says, “but also it requires further investigation.”

The magnet office has conducted two rounds of residency checks this school year for students who were flagged — they turned in a middle school transcript that didn’t match their utility bill, or their address changed between when they applied and when they enrolled, Huitt says. The district gives them 10 days to turn in proof of residency or be subject to a home visit.

It’s “evident that the word must have gotten out,” Huitt says, because so far this year, Booker T. applications have seen “a pretty significant decrease” compared to years past.

“We are taking this very seriously and making an effort to serve our Dallas ISD kids first,” Huitt says.

Still, when we asked if Dallas ISD had kicked out any students or pursued legal consequences for families based on fraudulent residency documents, there wasn’t an answer. And there wasn’t a readily available explanation for why so many students whose middle schools don’t match their utility bill addresses remain at Booker T.

As Sharon Grigsby reveals in her Dallas Morning News column today, it was business as usual at a recent Booker T. open house for prospective parents, with rules about residency barely mentioned. Stephanie Elizalde, DISD chief of school leadership, told Grigsby she is taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again, but as Grigsby notes, “not all decision-makers seem committed” to the goal of stopping fraudulent admissions.

The deadline for students to apply to Dallas ISD magnet and transformation schools is this Friday, Jan. 31. The question is: Will the spring 2020 applicant pool be scrutinized more heavily by the district, as administrators promised last summer, to ensure that Dallas’ own are getting a fair shot?

This question has reverberations beyond the Booker T. campus. Right now, Dallas ISD is discussing a multi-million-dollar bond package for November 2020 that would include money for community resources — infrastructure improvements in some of the district’s poorest communities that could bolster neighborhood schools. These efforts are underway in the name of equity, to help restore resources that historically have been directed away from some of our city’s most vulnerable areas.

This work by the district and its partners is being hailed as progress. But in the neighborhoods where these dollars would be spent, skepticism remains. These also are the same neighborhoods with the lowest numbers of students who apply and qualify to attend schools like Booker T.

The underlying question troubling these communities is: If the district can’t live up to the magnet-school enrollment promises it made less than 12 months ago, how can it be trusted to spend millions of taxpayer bond dollars equitably in our neighborhoods?

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