“They aren’t paying any taxes. That is not fair. That is straight-up fraud.”
‘We are enabling it’More than a decade of strong anecdotal evidence suggested high rates of suburbanites — most of them white and affluent — cheating their way into Dallas ISD’s top magnet schools, primarily Booker T. Washington. Campus leaders and the DISD magnet office weren’t tasked with verifying addresses, and left well enough alone unless parents called to tattle. The board washed its hands of it, pointing to the policy that gives priority to Dallas ISD students. Elizalde is quick to shoulder the blame, even though her tenure stretches back only three and a half years. She admits that other priorities have taken precedence.“This was always on my mind, but I was trying to Band-Aid it,” she says. “Now that we are in a much better position as an organization, it’s allowing me to look at some deep-rooted issues that require systematic changes. They’re messy, and they’re going to be messy to solve.“I don’t want a quick fix because there will be unintended consequences,” Elizalde says. In early March, when the Advocate first approached her about the situation, Elizalde didn’t believe suburban magnet students were a board policy problem. But a couple of weeks later, she said, “The remedies are going to require, in all likelihood, new policy.”The policy currently states that “all qualified in-District students shall be served before any out-of-District student may gain admission into that magnet program.” But the term “in-District” needs to be defined clearly “to encourage honesty instead of dishonesty,” Elizalde says. Another problem is that the policy isn’t being followed, Elizalde says. The board requires magnet students to submit proof of residency each year, but as of now, Booker T. students provide it only when they apply. This facilitates families who rent an apartment solely during the application period, forge a utility bill, or own property in Dallas ISD without actually living there.“We need to be clearer and more explicit with parents that they cannot move out of DISD during the years they attend Booker T.,” Elizalde says. “Silence is a response, and usually it’s taken as acceptance. If that continues to happen, we are enabling it.” Starting this fall, Elizalde says, magnet families will be required to provide proof of residency at the start and end of every school year. She says she won’t kick students out who are currently enrolled, and “we’re not going to go out and do a physical visit of 1,000-plus kids at Booker T. Washington.” However, “we are, at a minimum, going to begin with this entering class. We are going to look at the ones from a Plano middle school who ‘suddenly’ moved to Dallas.”If their address is different in August than it was when they auditioned this spring, Elizalde says, “that’s going to raise a flag.” She predicts a “very, very, very intensive summer” for Booker T. and Tiffany Huitt, DISD’s executive director of magnet schools, as they scour middle school transcripts and Dallas County Appraisal District records to find residency discrepancies among the incoming freshman class. Ultimately, it’s up to the board to set policy and priorities. Elizalde plans to recommend a new policy no later than September, in time for the 2020-21 application window, which opens in November. She envisions the new policy giving priority to students who attend DISD schools, then to those who live in the district. One possibility is a five-point bump to students’ application scores if they attend a DISD school. Trustees also will have to decide whether renting or owning a secondary residence in the Arts District should be considered “in-district.” If the board decides on a policy giving priority to its own, however, and enforces that policy with thorough checks on school transcripts and residency documents, DISD’s own numbers show that few, if any, slots will remain for suburban students.But won’t that mean that the nationally acclaimed Dallas arts magnet will fall from prominence?“That’s such a deficit mentality, and public education doesn’t have a deficit mentality. We’re an abundance mentality,” Elizalde says. “It’s my job to pull it out of them. They all have it. They just don’t all have the opportunity to have the private dance lessons and tutors and coaching, and that is our job, and our schools will have those.”
‘Turning a blind eye’In spring 2018, 332 students attending Dallas ISD middle schools auditioned for one of the 220 spots at Booker T. A little more than half of them — 178 — scored high enough to qualify. In the end, only 127 enrolled last fall. More than 200 DISD students who wanted to attend Booker T. lost out to competitors from private, online, charter, suburban ISD and home schools. “Magnet schools exist because we want to draw students back into the district, but it concerns me that we’re not reaching all the students we can,” Rudes says. “When I talk about closing the opportunity gap, the response I get from the district is, ‘Help us on the way.’ ” This year Booker T. “adopted” five middle schools in West Dallas and South Dallas, inviting seventh-graders to spend a field trip day exploring the Arts District campus. It also is helping to develop arts curriculum and programming at these campuses that will better prepare students for auditions. O.W. Holmes Academy in East Oak Cliff, for example, has “amazingly creative kids,” Rudes says, but though it has visual arts, a band and a music technology lab, it doesn’t have a choir or dance classes, so those will be added next year.Vast disparities exist between DISD elementary and middle schools in terms of their fine arts offerings. Rudes’ goal is to continue to expand Booker T.’s middle school partnerships, starting with areas that don’t have strong representation at Booker. T.“We have found that for those students, Booker T. is transformative,” Rudes says. “My passion is that the arts can change young people’s lives. We know that we can find between 220 and 240 incoming freshmen who can thrive in this environment, that even if they haven’t had the same training, we can get them where they need to be. Booker T. exists to serve the Dallas community and always has.”
Photo Credit: Danny Fulgencio
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