Sudie Williams: Is a magnet school enough to change a neighborhood’s opinion of DISD?

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

It didn’t matter that Sudie L. Williams Elementary’s test scores improved or that its deaf education program attracted suburban students. It didn’t matter that an army of neighborhood volunteers — the majority without school-age children — coordinated fundraisers and raved about its charismatic principal, Michael Jackson.

Sudie Williams’ progress hadn’t reversed its low enrollment. At least, not in the school’s current iteration. 

The Dallas ISD school, tucked between affluent Pomona Road homes and Bluffview Park, ends its 66-year run as a neighborhood public school in June. It reopens this fall as Sudie L. Williams Talented and Gifted (TAG) Academy, a magnet school for high-achieving children in grades 4-8.  Students who didn’t test into the magnet were rezoned to K.B. Polk Elementary, a school 1.5 miles away that also houses a TAG program for fourth- and fifth-graders. 

Sudie Williams wasn’t performing poorly, says DISD Trustee Dustin Marshall, who represents Preston Hollow, but it wasn’t well-known among many homeowner families.

“We haven’t done enough as a district to educate homeowners nearby about all the great things going on at the school,” he says.

About 850 neighborhood children zoned to the public school attend private schools such as The Lamplighter School and St. Monica Catholic School, according to DISD data compiled in 2016. Sudie Williams’ enrollment was a fraction of that number — roughly 205 students were enrolled during the 2017-18 school year. The school lost 28 percent of its total population this past year when 60 students who lived at the nearby Gates of Bluffview apartments were forced to move elsewhere after the apartments were razed. 

The apartments’ gentrification was the catalyst for the school’s conversion, says Dorie Cranshaw, a Briarwood neighbor who has volunteered at Sudie Williams. 

 “It’s like a mobile. Move one thing, and everything else moves around it,”  Cranshaw says.

In December Dallas ISD announced that Sudie Williams was one of three schools citywide that would be converted to a magnet school. The decision upset volunteers and parents alike, so much so that nearly 200 people crammed into Sudie’s auditorium to protest the abrupt decision during a community meeting. 

“I don’t want to be dishonest or dismissive,” said Stephanie Elizalde, DISD Chief of School Leadership, during the December meeting. “[Our decision] was based on the data. We talked to our principals. We did not go the community.”

DISD’s decision wasn’t as sudden as it seemed to the community. Sudie Williams is representative of a larger problem looming over the district: Affluent white families are opting out of public school, and DISD has yet to figure out the formula to coax them back.

Sudie Williams has been at half-capacity since the 1990s. Even before then, in 1981, DISD considered closing the school as part of a revamped desegregation plan, according to Dallas Morning News archives.

Melissa Johnson served as PTA president when her children attended the school between 1991 and 2004.  Enrollment then was between 210 to 250 students, but a number of  students still lived in homes in the Bluffview and Shorecrest neighborhoods, Johnson says. There also was more diversity among the student population than its current demographic — 94 percent Hispanic, 3 percent black, and 1 percent white, with more than 90 percent identifying as having a low socioeconomic status. 

Magnet schools, DISD’s most successful solution to desegregation in the 1970s and ’80s, is part of its strategy to lure homeowners back to the district. Located in Uptown, William B. Travis Talented and Gifted Academy has a waiting list of more than 200 students. With Sudie Williams’ capacity at 50 percent, the decision to convert Sudie to a TAG school was pragmatic, according to Elizalde. 

“The surrounding community really wanted us to look at a choice school,” Elizalde says. “The challenge here is I don’t have a market feasibility study that tells me what would lure people to that school right now. Not having that information means I would have to wait a year to close it out and operate it inefficiently without meeting the needs of Travis’ [wait list].” 

Several Bluffview parents even told DISD they would move their children from St. Monica to Sudie Williams if it was a magnet school. Martha Schwalm is one of the Bluffview residents whose interest piqued after the meeting. Her eldest children have attended private elementary schools and public high schools. Schwalm says she knows at least seven children from neighborhood families who are transferring from private schools to the magnet.

Elizalde is hopeful for the school’s future but did not expect the backlash she received from the surrounding community.

Sudie Williams District Map

Jonathan Maples, who attended the December meeting, is still angry at the district. Growing up, he attended a medley of private and public schools, including Sudie Williams and K.B. Polk. His children also attended K.B. Polk, and he’s remained an advocate for the school. Maples is fearful that the district’s decision to rezone Sudie students to K.B. Polk promotes segregation between affluent, white families and poorer, minority families. He’d prefer to expand K.B. Polk’s fourth- and fifth-grade TAG program, the oldest in the district, to include sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

“If I had something that was working for more than 40 years, I’d enhance it instead of starting something new 10 blocks down the road,” he says. 

But Sudie doesn’t have room for all of the students who attend Polk, Elizalde says. 

“I knew the lens was going to be, ‘Oh, you put the fourth through eighth in the affluent neighborhood,’ ” she says. “First and foremost, we’re wanting to meet the needs of students. Do we want to attract other students? Absolutely. It’s not either-or. It’s both-and.” 

The district says 192 students have signed up to attend the revamped Sudie Williams TAG school.  When Travis opened in 2000, 350 students enrolled. Eighteen years later, 507 students now attend the Uptown magnet. 

Cranshaw, though, doesn’t believe high enrollment at Sudie will determine if DISD made a good decision. Whether both K.B. Polk and Sudie Williams improve is the proof, she says.


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About the Author:

Elissa Chudwin
ELISSA CHUDWIN is an editor at Advocate Magazines. Email her at echudwin@advocatemag.com.