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Dallas schools were on the rise, praised for progress and reform. And then the pandemic hit

Getting students on track to success will have long-term effects on the city’s future.

Lashunta Wafford watched as her third grade son lost gains in the months spent learning from their Dallas home, away from a real classroom and the extra supports the school provided for his ADHD and autism.

“He was really struggling in certain areas that he had already went over and we had done drilled in,” she said.

Jayce returned to school at Paul L. Dunbar Learning Center as soon as the campus reopened last fall. But weeks into this more “normal” year, Wafford is waiting to see whether teachers can fill the chasms that COVID-19 created.

Lashunta Wafford, with children Sakaya Mimiko, 5, and Jayce Mimiko, 8, says Jayce struggled learning virtually from their Dallas home as a student at Paul L. Dunbar Learning Center. She hopes he will be matched with a tutor who helps children with autism.
Lashunta Wafford, with children Sakaya Mimiko, 5, and Jayce Mimiko, 8, says Jayce struggled learning virtually from their Dallas home as a student at Paul L. Dunbar Learning Center. She hopes he will be matched with a tutor who helps children with autism.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

The Wafford family is among thousands across Dallas grappling with the fallout from the pandemic and its disruptions to education. State officials estimate COVID-19 erased a decade of academic gains in math and five years of progress in reading.

In Dallas, which was often praised for its swift academic rise in recent years, those losses are especially painful. DISD serves some of the city’s most vulnerable children — kids who need school to be a refuge and to set them up with their best chance at success.

“Unfortunately, we’re still a tale of two cities and if we lose this generation, this whole city is going to go backwards,” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said. “We’ve made a lot of progress in the last few years, but we’ve still got a long ways to go and this gave us a setback. And so I think everybody oughta care.”

Altogether, more than 55,000 Dallas ISD students did not pass or take at least one of their state tests last year. That’s more than one-third of the total student body.

Before the pandemic, Dallas had made marked improvements in recent years, particularly helping the kids most in need and raising up failing schools. Nonprofits and industry banded together with area school districts, charters and others to address pressing needs, such as expanding early childhood education. But challenges have been persistent as Dallas ISD generally lags behind other major urban districts across the country, including those in Houston and Miami.

DISD is the center of the city’s complex educational universe that also includes charter networks, neighboring suburban districts and private schools. Some see it as a pioneer, willing and able to try new things and disseminate what works to others across Texas. The district has championed reforms such as a pay-for-performance compensation structure, which informs its work to funnel the best teachers into the neediest schools.

Officials are proud of the results. In recent years, the number of failing DISD schools has plummeted. In the 2013-14 school year, more than 31,000 students were enrolled at campuses that missed state academic standards. Five years later, that dropped to about 4,200 children. And now, more students than ever are earning college credit — and even associate’s degrees — while still in high school.

But to some, the district appears burdened with bureaucratic bloat and facing socioeconomic challenges that it alone cannot rectify. They see DISD and its lagging student performance holding the city back.

The challenges DISD faces are massive and complex, many of them linked to the city’s historically racist policies.

“Dallas ISD as an institution has been trying to deal with that sort of quandary of being susceptible to housing segregation and what that means for putting kids — who are racially segregated in a community — into a school district that’s not supposed to be racially segregated,” said Jerry Hawkins, executive director of the nonprofit Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation. “Dallas ISD is trying to do its best in that system.”

Dallas was deliberate in slowing any efforts for school desegregation, a process that took four decades of legal wrangling and was never fully realized. Once Black students were allowed onto previously all-white campuses, many white families fled to the suburbs, with the district losing as many as 50,000 white students in the decade after a court ordered desegregation in the 1970s.

Today, a little more than 5% of the district’s students are white, compared with nearly 60% in 1970. By comparison, roughly 29% of Dallas’ residents are white.

Immigrants, many of them from Mexico and Central America, moved in throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Now, 47% of the district’s students are learning English and 86% are from poor families.

These are the students hit hardest by the pandemic and its ripple effects. DISD kids saw their parents lose jobs and mourned for loved ones taken by COVID-19.

District administrators know how vital it will be to help students recover — academically and emotionally — from the pandemic disruptions, not only for their futures but for the city’s.

“The kids we’re educating today in Dallas are Dallas of the five,10, 15, 20, 25, 50 years in the future,” DISD board President Ben Mackey said.

DISD board President Ben Mackey, sitting outside Sunset High School, says, “The kids we’re educating today in Dallas are Dallas of the five,10, 15, 20, 25, 50 years in the future."
DISD board President Ben Mackey, sitting outside Sunset High School, says, “The kids we’re educating today in Dallas are Dallas of the five,10, 15, 20, 25, 50 years in the future."(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

Challenges remain

The pandemic exacerbated Dallas’ academic challenges — but they aren’t new.

When Toyota picked Plano over Dallas as the location for its new national headquarters in 2014, then-Mayor Mike Rawlings pointed to the city’s school system as the reason for the loss.

“We don’t get Toyota in Dallas because of the school system,” he said in a radio interview.

Then just four years — and many school system reforms — later, Amazon passed on the city when choosing the site of its second headquarters. The decision meant Dallas would not receive thousands of high-paying jobs.

Some speculated that the mammoth company passed over the city because of its relative lack of home-grown science, engineering and technical talent. Pundits saw it as a rebuke of the area’s pre-K to college educational ecosystem.

While the number of Dallas campuses deemed failing by the state dropped tremendously in the past decade, a look at the “Nation’s Report Card” shows student performance still lags when compared with urban districts across the country.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, offers a standardized look at how students are performing across decades.

Results from 2019 show that 15% of DISD eighth graders were proficient on the NAEP math exam and roughly 13% of eighth graders met the same standard on the reading test. In math, almost two times the percentage of eighth graders met that standard in Miami-Dade public schools, a significantly larger school system with similar demographics.

And even compared to Houston, the only Texas district with a larger enrollment, Dallas eighth graders lagged in math by roughly 10 percentage points.

Hinojosa has said that just looking at raw NAEP scores doesn’t take into account how many students DISD serves who are learning English and from poor families.

“When you break it down for the level of poverty, we do pretty well,” Hinojosa said after the latest tranche of results was released. “But NAEP just puts scores out in larger comparisons, without disaggregating.”

His point is backed up by an analysis from the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank that looked at 2017 scores in a subset of urban districts and attempted to “level the playing field” by controlling for student characteristics like poverty.

After researchers adjusted Dallas’ scores, the district’s performance jumped closer to the top of the chart for urban school achievement.

“When comparing scores, you have to realize that not all students start from the same place,” Urban Institute expert Kristin Blagg said.

Without a strong foundation built in grade school, students can struggle after graduating, both in pursuing a degree or earning a living wage.

Inside the boundaries of Dallas ISD, about 1 in 3 people older than 25 have a bachelor’s degree. Only 19.6% of DISD graduates score high enough on exams or earn postsecondary credit in high school to be considered “college ready,” lagging just behind the state average of 21.1%.

The median income in the district is a little more than $55,000, although wealth is concentrated in small pockets.

To put more students on track for livable wages, DISD has partnered with Dallas College and businesses to offer early college and P-TECH programs where students can earn postsecondary credit in high school.

Through P-TECH, 18 high schools offer career-focused pathways — ranging from computer science to health to engineering to education — in which students can receive more hands-on experience in an industry through campus partnerships with businesses.

Charter moves and counter moves

On a more micro-level, some parents are voting with their feet and enrolling their children in schools outside of DISD.

Nearly one-quarter of students inside the district’s limits don’t attend a Dallas ISD campus, instead opting for other options. Last school year, the district lost nearly 40,000 kids to neighboring districts and charter schools.

“What we see is that people will move to Dallas, then they’ll have a family, and then they’ll move to the suburbs,” Mackey said. “No one should feel like they need to leave because of an education system. In fact, I think it would be a real feather in the cap to say, ‘Actually, I’m going to move to Dallas for Dallas ISD.’”

The school that has attracted the largest number of Dallas ISD defectors — about 10,000 in total last school year — is Uplift Education, which now has 11 campuses across the city.

Uplift Education CEO Yasmin Bhatia says charter schools have been a political football in Dallas. (File Photo/Staff)
Uplift Education CEO Yasmin Bhatia says charter schools have been a political football in Dallas. (File Photo/Staff)

The network, which was part of Texas’ first generation of charter schools, has expanded throughout the area in the past 2½ decades. Its most recent add in Dallas was in 2016 at Uplift Wisdom Preparatory in South Dallas.

“Five years ago, South Dallas still had a lot of challenges in terms of having high-quality schools for that community,” Uplift CEO Yasmin Bhatia said. “Families were open to more choice options and the philanthropic community [was] also paying more attention to South Dallas.”

Uplift has no immediate plans for more growth here, the CEO noted. Charters, Bhatia said, are a political football in Dallas and the network faced uphill battles in front of the City Council. Proposed charters receive pushback from city leaders when attempting to open a school.

A decade ago, DISD was losing about 25,000 students to nearby charters. That number has increased to nearly 36,000. Fewer students translate into less funding for the district because state formulas are tied to attendance.

DISD leaders have fought back against charter expansion. Last summer, Hinojosa and trustee Maxie Johnson stood near a proposed new campus for KIPP and accused the network of trying to bully its way into South Dallas.

Charters have long drawn from students in South Dallas, where families historically have had few alternatives to their neighborhood campuses. Most of the students who’ve left DISD for charters live south of Interstate 30.

But Hinojosa has conceded that charters forced the district to act. Talking about KIPP’s expansion, he said: “We saw what they did, and it shocked us. But instead of whining about it, we dusted ourselves off and did something about it.”

Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa addressed reporters July 14 while DISD trustee Maxie Johnson (right) looked on. DISD leaders opposed the placement of a charter school on the campus of Paul Quinn College in southern Dallas.
Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa addressed reporters July 14 while DISD trustee Maxie Johnson (right) looked on. DISD leaders opposed the placement of a charter school on the campus of Paul Quinn College in southern Dallas.(Ryan Sanders)

To stem the tide, Dallas ISD embraced innovative new programs and reforms in a bid to improve student performance and keep kids enrolled. For example, the district replicated one of its most lauded school models from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts at Martin Luther King Jr. Learning Center, south of downtown.

“Competition in any industry makes us all better,” Bhatia said. “DISD getting stronger makes Uplift better and vice versa.”

Dallas innovation

Decades before charters began expanding in Dallas and enrollment dropped, the district gained a reputation as a system willing to try new things.

Fifty years ago, to aid with desegregation efforts, DISD opened Skyline High School as the nation’s first magnet school. The district has since embraced all kinds of choice schools.

Students can attend one of 26 early college programs, new career institutes or a number of other innovative school models, including Montessori and arts-focused programs.

“Dallas is somewhat an example for the rest of the country,” Hawkins said, noting that some of its recent changes to its discipline policies became national news.

DISD was one of the first in the country to develop a racial equity department. Its focus on eliminating racial disparities in school suspensions led the district to be among the first in Texas to ban discretionary out-of-school suspensions for students in second grade and younger, a concept that later became state law. Recently, the district expanded that idea across all grade levels, the first large district in the nation to do so.

State leaders often hold up Dallas as a district the rest of the state can emulate. The historic 2019 school finance overhaul drew from the district’s signature school turnaround model and pay-for-performance system. The district credits the program — Accelerating Campus Excellence, or ACE — with helping to bring a steep drop in the number of failing campuses.

ACE-like programs have been replicated in districts across Texas, including Fort Worth, Richardson and Garland.

Ahead of the 2019 legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott said lawmakers needed to hear about proven strategies before allocating funding. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath — a former Dallas schools trustee — and other influential leaders stood firmly behind DISD’s approaches.

Under House Bill 3, Texas awards eligible districts ranging bonuses — up to $32,000 — for high-performing teachers who elect to work on campuses in impoverished or rural communities.

This law codified Dallas’ ACE program statewide and created a sustainable funding source so the model can continue for years to come.

Pandemic recovery

Dallas ISD leaders say they must throw everything they have at catching up struggling students.

They’ll have a huge infusion of resources to help them do it. The federal coronavirus relief package allocated more than $700 million to DISD, which officials plan to use to give students more time in the classroom.

Roughly 1 in 5 campuses extended their academic calendars by several weeks. District leaders hoped more schools would adopt a longer year but remain optimistic about how the thousands of additional minutes in front of a teacher will impact youngsters. Hinojosa predicted those schools would see a “big difference” in their data by the end of the year.

“We almost have a quasi-treatment group and a quasi-control group with the five schools that had complete school day redesign,” Hinojosa said. “We’ll have 41 schools that have data on [intersession calendars] and then we’ll be able to compare them to everybody else who stayed on the traditional calendar.”

Even more campuses are adding after-school programming with the district prioritizing chronically low-performing schools for the expansion. Roughly 60 schools will offer three hours of after-school programming every weekday, with time set aside for tutoring, athletics and arts.

Tutoring also plays an essential role in the district’s recovery plans. DISD is planning to spend millions to ensure students get one-on-one time and accelerate their learning.

Too often, educators know, private tutoring is accessible only for students whose families have the means to pay for it.

Wafford hopes her son Jayce will be one of the kids matched with a tutor, one who specializes in helping children with autism.

“That’s the key,” she said.

But she’s also still searching for schools that are focused on serving students with special needs and accessible from her South Dallas home, which could lure her family outside of DISD.

“We’re just trying to see what’s the best option at this point,” she said.

Note: This article is part of our State of the City project, in which The Dallas Morning News explores the most critical issues facing our communities. Find more topics in coming days as we examine the issue of public education.

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The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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Emily Donaldson, staff writer. Emily is an education reporter for Education Lab at The Dallas Morning News.

emily.donaldson@dallasnews.com emilyjdonaldson

Talia Richman, Staff writer. Talia is a reporter for The Dallas Morning News Education Lab. A Dallas native, she attended Richardson High School and graduated from the University of Maryland. She previously covered schools and City Hall for The Baltimore Sun.

talia.richman@dallasnews.com @talirichman

Corbett Smith. Education writer (and part-time HS sportswriter) for The Dallas Morning News

corbettsmith@dallasnews.com /DMNEducation @corbettsmithDMN
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