Photo courtesy of Dallas ISD

These days, as Dallas ISD magnet school applications are under review, it’s not unusual for Principal Ben Mackey to leave Townview’s Talented and Gifted (TAG) High School during his lunch period and drive to an address on a utility bill or lease agreement that a student applicant provided.

Perhaps that student’s transcript came from another school district. Perhaps the utility bill showed minimal to no use. Mackey has only 65 spots for new freshmen at his nationally acclaimed school, and it’s important to him that each spot is given to a student who lives in DISD.

Not only that, it’s important to Mackey that each spot is given to a student who shows the potential to thrive in TAG’s rigorous environment, no matter the student’s race or socioeconomic status or home middle school.

Enrollment at Dallas ISD’s magnet schools should reflect the racial, socioeconomic and geographic diversity of the families living within DISD, Mackey and his staff believe, and they have worked hard for the last four years to make this a reality at TAG.

Mackey was hired as TAG’s principal in summer 2013, and as he got to know his new staff, “one thing that kept coming up was the application process,” he says.

The school’s student body had changed dramatically over the last couple of years. In 2009-10, 31 percent of TAG’s students were low-income. By 2013-14, that number had dropped to only 20 percent.

The staff pointed to several reasons for this. First, the reduction in force (RIF) that DISD instituted in 2009 left the school, and several other magnet schools, without a recruitment coordinator. At one point, TAG had sent a campus representative to middle school assemblies across the district, where representatives from all of the magnet high schools would promote their programs and invite eighth-graders to apply.

Magnet schools in 2009 had more staff per student than traditional campuses. The district’s attempt to equalize staffing across its campuses had an unintended consequence — more affluent students from fewer middle schools, as well as more out-of-district students, found open spots at top tier DISD magnet schools.

“We weren’t filling up with qualified students,” says Rebecca Jensen, a longtime TAG teacher. “There are plenty of smart kids in DISD but a lot of these kids didn’t know or their parents are working two jobs and didn’t know.”

So Mackey and the staff made a decision: “These kids, we’re going to go to them. They don’t have to come to us,” Jensen says. “They’re 13 years old — they don’t know.”

TAG began obtaining a list of all DISD eighth-graders who qualified to apply to the school based on their grades and test scores. Personal invitations were mailed to each of them. In addition, teachers and staff began using their planning periods and lunch periods to travel to middle schools, especially those whose students were under-represented at TAG and other acclaimed magnet schools.

They didn’t stop there. Another problem was the application process, which was “greatly skewed,” Mackey says. It had changed little since 1982 when the school opened to facilitate integration in DISD. For the first couple of decades, the school was required to admit a racially diverse group of students to meet that goal, but that requirement went away in 2003 when federal courts lifted the desegregation order.

The former application process gave substantial weight to a student’s resume and to an off-campus project. That meant if students, or their parents, had ample time and resources to put into the resume and project, those students would take precedence.

“We need to look at potential and drive and maybe not a resume chock full of service hours when they’re home watching three kids,” Jensen says.

The resume was replaced with an interview that gives explicit directions to interviewers to “remember: Our applicants are coming from a variety of backgrounds and have different levels of experience when it comes to being in formal settings and interacting with new adults.” The new interview process stresses potential over polish, content over eye contact, creativity over charm.

TAG also struck the test score requirements from its application scoring, as those scores “skew toward high-income” and penalize students who “may not have been in a middle school that was developed all the way or may not have had parents who can put them in enrichment classes,” Mackey says. TAG kept the at-home project but begin giving as much weight to the project explanation as the project itself, looking once again for potential over polish.

The third major change is a thorough residency review of applicants to curb out-of-district enrollment, which is prevalent at DISD’s top magnet schools. Mackey’s lunchtime visits are part of this effort. The current senior class, who arrived in fall 2013 before recruitment and the application were revamped, is 30-40 percent out-of-district. But since fall 2014, when the new application process was introduced, 100 percent of new enrollees live in DISD, Mackey says, because TAG now does “as much research as we possibly can” before admitting new students. The change caused a “significant, immediate drop in African-American and Asian students” between 2013 and 2014 because “those sub-populations made up a majority of out-of-district enrollments.”

“Little by little they’re getting the picture,” Jensen says of out-of-district families.

“They’re also getting the picture because they’re not getting in,” Mackey says.

The results have been validating and encouraging for Mackey and his staff. Since 2014, when the new application process was introduced, the school has seen “steady increases in African-American, Hispanics and low-socioeconomic subpopulations,” Mackey says. TAG’s student body is now 34 percent low-income — a 70 percent increase in three years. Simultaneously, TAG students have passed more AP exams and scored higher on ACT and STAAR tests.

“It’s extra and it takes a lot of energy to do this,” Mackey says of TAG’s admission reform. “It takes monitoring and thinking about best practices. The school and the personnel have to own it.” That said, he and his staff are “excited to continue” this work.

Could these practices be implemented at magnet campuses across DISD, where broken admission processes are skewing student enrollment? Yes, but it would have to come from an administrative directive or a board policy that causes reform districtwide. Otherwise, changes like the ones Mackey and his staff have instituted are dependent on the initiative and drive of individual principals.

The magnet school presentation that DISD Chief of School Leadership Stephanie Elizalde planned to give last month was postponed to this Thursday’s board briefing. Trustees revamped the district’s magnet school admission policy for siblings last fall, and some have pledged that admission policies for out-of-district students would be next.

For magnet schools to better reflect diversity within the district, as TAG is striving to do, likely would require further reforms. One option would be for magnet schools to emulate DISD’s choice schools and add student’s socioeconomic status into the admission equation. Thursday’s presentation has slides “looking at the ‘positive effects’ of socioeconomic integration,” indicating that such a change may be in the works.

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