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