When Reformers Get Serious About Diversity: Unlocking the Promise of Socioeconomically Diverse Schools in Dallas

January 12, 2017 by

This blog was written by Guest Author Mohammed Choudhury and was originally published to LinkedIn in July 2016. Mohammed is the founding Director of Transformation and Innovation for the Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD). He was one of two speakers for our January 13th Hot Lunch, a Conversation on School Integration.

Student enrollment practices, while often overlooked, can have a huge impact on student achievement because they can shape the socioeconomic makeup of the student body. In 1966, the influential Coleman Report found that the largest predictor of academic achievement is the socioeconomic status (SES) of the student’s family and that the second largest predictor is the socioeconomic makeup of the student body in the school itself. Close to a half-century of research supports this claim, some of which goes even further to argue that the socioeconomic makeup of the school matters more to student achievement than does the SES of the family.

Currently in Dallas ISD, the vast majority of our students are assigned to a neighborhood school based on the attendance zone of their street address. Dallas also consistently has some of the highest levels of residential segregation by income in the entire country, which, by extension, often means school segregation by income. Coupled with decades of middle class flight from the district, this means that the lion’s share of Dallas ISD schools have high levels of concentrated poverty in their student bodies. In fact, approximately 85% of Dallas ISD schools have student bodies that are 80% low-income or more. Unfortunately, there is a great body of research demonstrating that concentrating poverty in a school building creates serious challenges in terms of student achievement.

Undoubtedly, a student living in poverty brings challenges into the classroom, but when a school building is comprised of a majority of low-income students, the challenges compound. In fact, research shows that the likelihood of a school’s overall success is considerably reduced when the student body exceeds 50% low-income.

This is not to say that high-poverty schools cannot be successful with great administrators and great teachers. There are many shining examples of high-poverty schools across the nation, including several Dallas ISD schools. And it goes without saying that Dallas ISD has many initiatives in place which will continue to prove that high-poverty schools can achieve at high levels, such as our Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI) and Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE) initiative. But there is also no doubt that high-poverty environments present more serious obstacles to student achievement. Therefore, as we continue to tackle the challenges associated with high-poverty schools, we must also explore ways to breakup concentrations of poverty in the first place and reduce their overall prevalence.

By the year 2020, Dallas ISD seeks to launch 35 new Choice Schools that reflect community demand. Future choice schools will offer a variety of instructional approaches and content/themes, such as Montessori Schools, International Baccalaureate (IB) Schools, Visual and Performing Arts Schools, and STEM Schools. Several of these new Choice Schools will be called Transformation Schools, which will be new, startup campuses that open in previously vacant school buildings, new school buildings, or nontraditional spaces. Unlike existing Magnet Schools, none will have academic entry requirements.

Launching new campuses from scratch will require substantial work in many areas, from staffing to professional development to budgeting to facilities. And it also presents an opportunity to be creative and innovative with the design of these elements, all in an effort to boost student achievement to new heights. When thinking about new Transformation School campuses, one element that begs for creativity and innovation is student enrollment, which will be the focus of our Socioeconomic Diversity Pilot.

Beginning in August of 2016, Dallas ISD will launch Solar Preparatory School for Girls (Solar Prep) as the district's first Socioeconomic Diversity Pilot campus. Solar Prep represents Dallas ISD’s most serious and explicit attempt to promote socioeconomic integration at a campus.

Solar Prep is a brand new, K-8 STEAM Transformation School that will launch with three grade levels (K-2) in a previously vacant school building. For the first time in district history (and we believe Texas history as well), we codified enrollment regulations for a new school that looked at an individual student’s SES as the primary factor in admissions to ensure a research-based balance – 50% of the seats were reserved for students eligible for free/reduced lunch; the other 50% were reserved for students ineligible for free/reduced lunch. After the lottery, an “Equity Audit” was conducted to check that at least a quarter of admitted students reside in the most disadvantaged Census Blocks in the district. The purpose of the "Equity Audit" was to ensure that students from varied backgrounds were represented fairly.

Coupled with its strong instructional plan, these enrollment practices are a reason why Solar Prep received $450,000 from the NewSchools Venture Fund which runs a prestigious national grant to support the launch of promising startup schools. Overall, we received 360 applications for 198 seats in K-2. We had enough middle class applications and low-income applications to fill the seats and meet our 50/50 goal with waitlists.

The 50/50 socioeconomic weighted lottery also helped achieve significant racial diversity despite race playing no role in admissions: the admitted student body is roughly 45% Hispanic, 25% Black, 25% White, and 5% Asian and multi-race children, a level of racial diversity that’s very rare in Dallas schools.