Diversifying Large City Public Schools:  Dallas Trying Harder!

Dear Commons Community,

Large cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago have had great difficulty diversifying their public schools.  The New York Times today has a featured story on the issue that focuses mainly on Dallas’ attempt to integrate its public school system.   Here is an excerpt:

“Dallas has produced a marketing campaign to promote its integration efforts,  

The effort is small for now, involving fewer than one in 10 city schools, and has not been a total success. One strategy, called “innovation schools,” tries to make neighborhood schools more attractive by installing programs like the International Baccalaureate curriculum, similar to Advanced Placement. It has improved test scores, but has not yet significantly changed the demographics of the schools, many of which are in middle-class areas but serve few middle-class children.

Another, more expensive strategy, called “transformation schools,” is getting faster results.

Rather than admit students by grades, test scores or auditions, which tends to turn schools into enclaves of affluence, these schools admit them by lottery, with no admissions standards. They are organized around popular themes like single-sex education, science, the arts, bilingual classes and professional internships.

Most strikingly for a district where 90 percent of students are low-income, the district is setting aside seats in several of the new schools for students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, even if they live in suburbs outside the district. Those coming from other districts do not have to pay tuition, and though Dallas will not receive school property taxes from their families, it will get funding from the state for each traveling student.

By relying on income instead of race, Dallas is following guidelines from the Supreme Court, which in 2007 declared it unconstitutional to consider race as a factor when assigning students to schools.

“What’s exciting about what Dallas is doing is you have a district that’s 90 percent low-income,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, an expert on school segregation at the Century Foundation, a liberal think tank. “So many people look at that and say, ‘Therefore, we can’t integrate.’

“That’s not right,” he continued. “You can begin with a small subset of schools and try over time to build the reputation of the school district among middle-class people.”

Dallas has plenty of white and college-educated parents to draw from. The region is the nation’s second-fastest-growing, with an economic boom driven by the financial services and health sectors. On weekday evenings, throngs of well-heeled, mostly white urbanites take to the Katy Trail, an elevated, tree-lined path north of downtown. They walk their dogs, stroll with their babies and jog while wearing university T-shirts and expensive sneakers.

But these people have not enrolled their children in public schools, with the exception of a few coveted neighborhood schools and selective magnet programs. The district’s student population is 93 percent Hispanic and black. In the 1960s, before court-ordered desegregation, more than half the students were white.

The Rev. Andrew C. Stoker, senior minister of First United Methodist Church of Dallas, sends his two sons, who are white, to Hispanic-majority public schools. But he estimates that three-quarters of his congregants send their children to private schools.

Mr. Stoker said he heard a variety of concerns from church members about the Dallas schools, first among them, “Is my child safe?” (According to the most recent state data, Dallas experienced major disciplinary incidents, like fights and drug and weapons offenses, at about the same rate as the state average.)

The idea of catering to parents like these was, at first, controversial. Past desegregation efforts, based on involuntary busing and selective schools, offered little to poor, nonwhite children. The transformation program is also costly; the district renovated several school buildings and is busing students — voluntarily — across the city.

Joyce Foreman, a school board member who represents working-class southwest Dallas, said she supported the integration push and believed the new schools gave her constituents more options. But she said the cost of expanding these programs must be weighed against the needs of older schools that serve largely poor families.

“I am looking at the numbers of students per nurse or counselor” in traditional schools, Ms. Foreman said. “We want to make sure we don’t oversaturate ourselves with choices.”

Michael Hinojosa, who is on his second stint as superintendent, began his education career in 1979 as a Dallas middle school history teacher and basketball coach. He sent all three of his sons to Dallas public schools.

He inherited the desegregation plan from the previous superintendent, Mike Miles. Several staff members working on integration have recently left the district, but Mr. Hinojosa said he was nevertheless expanding the effort.

This spring, 1,705 students applied for 613 spots in the five existing transformation schools. More than a quarter of applicants are currently enrolled in private or charter schools or live outside the district, and 15 percent are white, a demographic profile very much outside the district’s norm.”

This story provides lots of insight into one of the most difficult issues facing our cities.  Good luck to Dallas and its efforts!



Comments are closed.