Do You Think of Dallas as a Leader on Integrating Schools? Maybe You Should.

Dallas has been in the news lately for its ongoing conversations about race and class in the wake of tragic shootings. Like other American cities, Dallas is highly segregated by income and race, and nowhere is this more apparent than in our public schools. In the Dallas Independent School District (ISD), the middle-class has mostly opted out, leaving schools with vast concentrations of poverty. Approximately 85 percent of our campuses are 80 percent low-income or more, and children of color are much more likely than White children to attend a mostly low-income school. The small percentage of affluent students in Dallas ISD tend to be enrolled in selective magnet schools or in a handful of neighborhood schools that serve wealthy attendance zones. Of course, that’s not to say that high-poverty schools can’t be successful. Inspiring examples of success exist across the country, thanks to great teachers and principals. Poverty is never an excuse for bad instruction. But we also cannot deny that high-poverty environments create significant learning challenges, and diverse schools consistently  prove to be dramatically better learning environments for all students, both middle-class and low-income alike. So in Dallas, at the same time that we’re working to achieve peak success in every high-poverty school, we’re also trying to promote more socioeconomic diversity where possible.

A New School

On Monday, we’re launching Solar Preparatory School for Girls, a new, K-8 STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) school that is open enrollment across the district. Solar Prep represents Dallas ISD’s most intentional and explicit attempt to promote socioeconomic integration at a campus, as part of our broader  Public School Choice initiative. It’s launching with three grade levels (K-2) in a previously vacant school building. Like other choice schools of its kind, Solar Prep is voluntary to attend and, unlike the district’s existing magnet schools, there are no academic entry requirements. Transportation is provided because “choice” without transportation isn’t a choice for many families. For the first time in district history, we’re using student socioeconomic status as the primary factor in admissions. Fifty percent of the seats are reserved for students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, 50 percent are reserved for students who don’t. A computerized lottery determines the rest. The 50/50 weighted admissions lottery also builds a long-standing protection against the downsides of gentrification. Solar Prep is located in a gentrifying area. Home values and rents are rising quickly. If the district drew traditional attendance boundaries around Solar Prep, lower-income families would eventually be priced out of the neighborhood and, by extension, the school. The 50/50 balance ensures low-income students will still have access to the school regardless of market fluctuations or housing policies that don’t prioritize affordability. Any teacher can tell you that there is a difference in the challenges faced by students who barely qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch and students living in the worst forms of abject poverty. So after the first admissions lottery, we conducted an “equity audit” to check that our efforts at socioeconomic diversity were working. The equity audit showed that at least 25 percent of admitted students reside in the most disadvantaged census blocks in the district, confirming that students from varied backgrounds are all represented fairly at Solar Prep.

Parents Want Diversity

Naturally, there were skeptics: Wealthier families wouldn’t risk enrolling their child in a school that’s half poor, or Dallas isn’t ready, especially given its troubled past with issues of race and class. This was uncharted territory. We knew that if the 50/50 design flopped, it would probably be years before a purposeful attempt at socioeconomic integration would be tried again. As it turned out, applications poured in from all corners of the district. Overall, we received 360 applications for 198 seats, surpassing our expectations. In fact, we had enough middle-class and low-income applications to fill the seats and meet the 50/50 goal with waitlists on both sides. Forty-six percent of applicants were not current Dallas ISD students, showing that district-run Choice Schools can bring families back to the district and even compete with private and charter schools. The 50/50 lottery also helped achieve significant racial diversity despite race playing no role in admissions: our projections show that the admitted student body is roughly 45 percent Hispanic, 25 percent Black, 25 percent White, and 5 percent Asian and multi-race, a  rare balance in Dallas ISD. Of course, Solar Prep’s ultimate success will be defined by future student achievement results. To tackle this, the school won’t be segregating the student population based on academic performance  within the school, as this often stratifies students by race and income without academic value. Instead, Solar Prep is implementing a common, rigorous curriculum which can benefit both high and low achievers alike. The school will intentionally engage the parents to promote a representative PTA and encourage “playdates” outside of school.

Learning By Doing

The case of Solar Prep is validating lessons learned nationally through similar initiatives.
  1. Open-enrollment, “boundless” schools—especially those that employ income-based admissions lotteries with equity audits—promote socioeconomic and racial diversity by moving students beyond segregated neighborhoods to attend more balanced schools.
  2. Incentives which encourage voluntary participation in diverse schools (i.e., high-quality instructional models and protected seats for all income levels) are more feasible and sustainable than forced participation.
  3. Many families are seeking diverse learning environments for their children and won’t succumb to false fears about people from different backgrounds.
Solar Prep by no means represents a panacea for socioeconomic diversity in Dallas ISD, and districtwide scaling will require decades of coordinated effort. But, perhaps to the surprise of some observers, it shows that Dallas is poised to contribute to an overdue but critical national dialogue about the intersection of race, class, housing, segregation and schools. Education leaders cannot dismiss school segregation as a housing dilemma to be dealt with by city officials alone. We must be bold enough to implement solutions that decouple school assignment from residential address by empowering family choice and prioritizing diversity.
Mike Koprowski is the chief of transformation and innovation at Dallas ISD. He is primarily tasked with spearheading the district's Public School Choice initiative. Prior to Dallas, he served at the Tennessee Department of Education, and before that he was as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force.

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