This story about Transformation Schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
When Lauren McKinnon heard a new public elementary school was opening close to her home in Dallas, it was good news; but when she learned the school would offer an all-girls education format with a focus on Stem, she was even more excited, knowing inequities often exist for girls – like her daughters – in math and science.
But something else stood out about the school that attracted McKinnon: its potential for a student body that looked more like Dallas as a whole.
The school, Solar Prep for Girls, opened in 2016 as a “Transformation School”, one of several efforts under way to reverse decades of white flight from the school system. The school district is currently 71% Hispanic, 21% Black and 5% white, and 86% of its students are eligible for federally subsidized lunches.
In contrast, the city of Dallas is more evenly divided racially and ethnically: it’s 41% Hispanic, about 29% white and 24% Black.
Solar Prep and other Transformation Schools in Dallas have no attendance boundaries. Students are admitted by lottery, with some seats open to families who live outside of the school district. But Solar Prep for Girls is one of 13 Transformation Schools that uses a special enrollment formula: half of the students admitted must live in one of Dallas’s socioeconomically disadvantaged census blocks, while the other half are drawn from more affluent areas. The district provides transportation to students within its boundaries.
As a group, these 50/50 schools draw thousands of applicants and have proven so popular that the district plans to open 11 more over the next three years, including two that will open when school resumes on 15 August.
“I’m Caucasian and I grew up in a lower socioeconomic group, so I know that color does not equate to income, but in Dallas, our hypothesis was that we were going to get some diversity,” McKinnon said. “We got lucky with Solar and haven’t looked back.”
The demographic breakdown at Solar Prep for Girls, where McKinnon’s daughters Elizabeth and Vivienne attend first and second grade, respectively, is 20% white, 17% Black and 52% Hispanic.
The district sees this half-and-half enrollment approach as one way to eliminate pockets of concentrated poverty and slow down enrollment declines.
“The city of Dallas is so segregated that, by using the 50/50 model, we can easily achieve racially diverse schools,” said Nancy Bernardino, a co-founder of Solar Prep for Girls. “We can’t admit by race, but this approach has given us that opportunity.”
Solar Prep for Girls was the district’s first 50/50 school. To get that diverse mix, the district uses the most recent census tract data available to create a socioeconomic map, and then places each of the city’s 827 census blocks in one of five buckets. The first bucket represents the wealthiest neighborhoods and the fifth represents the poorest.
The calculus that the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) uses to determine economic status includes median income along with other factors, such as parental level of education, home ownership and single parent status. Research shows that kids from both low-income and affluent families do better in school when they’re in socioeconomically mixed classrooms. Dallas school leaders are finding that these deliberately diverse schools are popular with parents on both ends of the spectrum.
Martha Castro, whose youngest daughter Sofia is in second grade at Solar Prep for Girls, said the school culture has made a noticeable difference in her daughter.
“She stands up for herself and speaks out when she doesn’t like something,” said Castro, a single parent who works as a housekeeper.
Castro, who is Hispanic, likes the way teachers at the school encourage the girls to believe that “they can do whatever they want in life”. Castro and her daughters live 30 minutes away in Mesquite, a suburb east of Dallas.
“I have never seen her more confident,” Castro said. “I truly believe that’s because of the school.”
The district’s attempts to achieve a measure of integration while avoiding specific racial quotas have received national attention.
“A lot of school districts that have very few white or middle-class students give up on integration, which I think is a mistake,” said Richard Kahlenberg, director of K-12 equity and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “With DISD’s demographics, a lot of outsiders would say that integration is irrelevant. Dallas thankfully proved them wrong because they looked at the metropolitan area, rather than just the existing school population, and thought more broadly about the possibilities.”
Segregation concentrates Black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools, said Sean Reardon, professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. Using data from every school district across the country, Reardon tracks educational outcomes, economic status and race.
As schools become more segregated, gaps in learning rates widen, he said. Where there are achievement disparities, they can be explained by the fact that in segregated districts, Black and Hispanic children generally attend high-poverty schools, while white students generally attend low-poverty schools, Reardon said.
“There’s nothing magical about the whiteness of classmates in integrated schools that rubs off and improves test scores,” said Kahlenberg, with the Century Foundation. “It’s the concentrations of poverty that are troubling.”
But successful school integration, said Bernardino, the co-founder of Solar Prep for Girls, isn’t just about enrollment. Before opening the school five years ago, Bernardino visited socioeconomically diverse schools in other cities.
“When we went to visit these schools, they were diverse, but the practices were still very traditional,” Bernardino said. “Students were self-segregating and adults still targeted certain children to come up and speak. These leaders thought that doing the lottery would be enough.”
During that planning year, Bernardino and her co-founder, Jennifer Turner, worked hard to get the word out about the school, visiting every Head Start program and daycare center they could. It was easy to fill seats for both socioeconomic buckets the first year. But once the two co-principals were busy running a new school and didn’t have time for as much outreach, the number of applications from economically disadvantaged families declined. So the principals headed back out into the communities. They knocked on doors, set up booths at Cinco de Mayo and Martin Luther King Day events and helped families fill out applications.
“Moms need to meet me and feel a connection with the principal,” Bernardino said. “Letting their four-year-old travel across the city and not knowing if they can get to her if something happens, that’s what they sacrifice. That was the biggest challenge.”
District officials see student achievement, along with attendance and teacher retention data, as indicators that they’re on the right track. But more persuasive than anything is the sheer popularity of the schools. Last year, the district received 25,000 applications for 5,800 seats in the 50/50 schools. A third of those applications were from families whose children weren’t already attending a DISD school. While some of those applications were for kindergarteners, many were for children who had been attending a private or charter school.
“The application data is one of the big indicators of our success,” said Angie Gaylord, deputy chief of transformation and innovation for DISD. “It’s transforming the perception of a large urban district.”
While the demographics of the schools are important to the district, those issues take a back seat once children are inside the schools.
Solar Prep School for Boys is located in north Dallas. Nearly a third of the boys are white, 15% are Black and 44% are Hispanic. As with all other 50/50 schools, Solar Prep for Boys is about half socioeconomically disadvantaged.
“When we went to meet-the-teacher night, I did have one concern,” said Aschanti Williams, a regional project manager for T-Mobile whose son Wesley is in the second grade. “I was really afraid that it’d be very cliquey, that the rich kids would be over here and poor kids over there. When we made it there, you could not tell the difference between a high-income parent or low-income parent. We were all just merged together, hanging out.”
One morning, as he pulled into the school’s semi-circle driveway, Williams noticed that the car in front of him was beat up. Its door colors didn’t match and it was belching smoke. Behind Williams was a shiny new Chevy Escalade. Williams and his son waited in their Toyota Camry.
“In the outside world, all three owners of those vehicles would be treated differently,” he recalled. “But those kids walk through the door, and all that goes out the window.”