While most of us were shocked by the ongoing college-entry cheating scandal, fewer were surprised by the revelations in Keri Mitchell’s investigative story: “How suburbanites cheat their way into Booker T. Washington.”

Were we disappointed? Yes. Angry? Absolutely. Frustrated, discouraged, saddened, indignant, riled and righteous? You bet. 

But surprised? Not really.

Many of us are just a couple degrees away from knowing someone who’s done it. Even families who attend Booker T. will tell you that it’s a not-so-secret secret, especially when enrollment forms don’t match a PTA directory that contains addresses well outside Dallas Independent School District boundaries.

I’m not suggesting the out-of-district issue is all-encompassing, but it is significant. According to Mitchell’s findings, at least 8 percent of Booker T.’s enrollment live outside the district. That’s more than 80 students. Whether you think that’s a big number or not, there’s inherent injustice in playing by the rules and then witnessing the prize go to someone who didn’t.

Over the years, many of us with kids attending DISD schools heard the common refrain: “Oh, I’d never send my child to DISD” or “That’s why we moved to Plano, Allen, McKinney, Frisco or the Park Cities — for the schools.” Yet suburbanites who had previously shunned our district are cheating their way back in. 

Another not-so-secret secret is that what happens at Booker T. also happens at our other magnet campuses, including Dealey, Travis, Science and Engineering and School for the Talented and Gifted.

Cheating to gain entry happens in our neighborhood schools, too.

If you live in East Dallas and send your child to Lakewood, Mockingbird, Long and Woodrow, your eyes are wide open. Although these schools are not part of DISD’s magnet program, they are regarded as top-tier public schools in Dallas and across North Texas.

Parents living outside the Woodrow Wilson attendance zone have approached some of our friends, asking them to corroborate a false home address. I experienced a similar situation during my son’s kindergarten year in 2008 at Mockingbird Elementary (formerly Stonewall Jackson). 

I had asked a parent for her home address so my son could mail her child a post-birthday party thank you card. I didn’t receive an answer. But after a few months of building trust, we were invited to their home for a play date. I recall inquiring as we walked into their house, “Is this part of Stonewall’s boundaries?” The mom confessed to me that they paid the utility bill at a friend’s apartment within the Stonewall attendance zone so they could enroll in the school. And could I please, please not say anything to anyone else.

I didn’t tell anyone. This made me complicit, but I couldn’t rat out another family. Yet it continues to bother me that year after year, I hear similar stories from other parents. 

While noting that DISD is an open-enrollment district (that is, we allow student transfers from within and outside of our district), DISD magnet school policy requires that first preference be given to all qualified in-district students. At a school such as Booker T. where waitlists are long, the surest way to get rejected is to say you live outside its boundaries.

The issue at hand is out-of-district families gaming the system so they appear to live in the district. As Mitchell pointed out, residence is achieved by using a false name on a utility bill or renting an apartment in Uptown. I’m sure there’s additional creativity in there, too.

There are those who don’t see this as a problem. They worry that if Booker T. doesn’t admit talented young people from the suburbs, the quality of the program will suffer. And why not admit them? The state’s contribution to a public school follows the student. That is, the more students enrolled in our district, the more money we receive.

But it’s not that simple. The portion of property taxes that pays for teacher salaries, instructional materials, band equipment, capital improvements and more stays where the family’s home is declared. None of that comes to DISD.

To counter concern about the program quality, I offer the following as anecdotal evidence. New District 7 trustee Ben Mackey is the former principal at TAG, our perennial nationally top-ranked magnet high school. Mackey intentionally changed the application process to make it more equitable to in-district students. Additionally, he visited middle schools throughout DISD to encourage all students to apply, not only those from Travis, Spence and Dealey, which are considered the traditional feeder schools for TAG. While some stakeholders were concerned about diluting the program, students and the school continue to excel. 

Even though we have a defined admissions policy, and even though magnet campus leaders are required to inform applicants that home addresses will be checked, this process clearly isn’t working. Out-of-district parents are creative. Therefore, the district must be equally as imaginative in its solution.

Once we have all that figured out, the long-term issue is how can we give our in-district students, 90 percent of whom are poor, the same access and advantages suburban and affluent applicants have? How do we make up for hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars spent on private lessons, entry fees, expensive competitions and the right outfits?

Only then can we fulfill Booker T.’s stated vision of being the “home to the young artists and thinkers who will write the next chapter of our society” for our DISD kids.

Mita Havlick (Photo by Danny Fulgencio).

Mita Havlick is a neighborhood activist. Find her commentary regularly in the back pages of our print edition and online at lakewood.advocatemag.com.

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