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Good News Dallas
by Scott Bennett    Fri, Jan 6, 2006, 01:24 AM

I have a theory: If Santiago Calatrava designed every bridge in Dallas, if all our streets were paved with gold, and if both the crime and tax rates plummeted to zero, the middle class with kids would still be fleeing to the suburbs.

Why? Dallas schools would still be awful. And that is something the Dallas City Council cannot be blamed for - although it can play a major role in correcting it.

Before revealing the secret sauce for a turn-around let me provide credit due. Progress has been made from a very few years ago when a changing cast of embarrassing characters paraded through the Superintendent’s office and the School Board itself was meeting under armed guard. Mike Mosley took big strides in bringing order from chaos and new Superintendent, Michael Hinojosa, brings a sterling reputation from the Spring ISD near Houston. So far he has talked the talk and seems to be a man who listens and then acts. (It is a sad commentary that this alone can be taken for great progress.)

Let’s also give DISD’s some credit. Many elementary schools are racially mixed and have their share of poor kids and succeed nicely. Elementary Schools like Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Adams, Walnut Hill and others have students that score well on tests across all demographic segments. Indeed, some of the city’s highest achieving elementary schools are in the worst parts of town because Texas Instruments and other companies provide them enormous support for tutoring, after school programs and IT infrastructure.

Some high schools aren’t too bad either. Nearly all of the city’s “magnate schools” are good, and some like the Arts Magnate is outstanding. The city’s Talented and Gifted schools are racially mixed and magnificent. And some neighborhood high-schools are improving.

If this comes as a surprise to you I am not surprised. I only know because I have a five year old daughter and before I pile private school tuition on top of my considerable DISD taxes I wanted to see if we could use local elementary schools. We may not do so, but we surely can do so.

I will say that there are those prone to look for a conspiracy and believe DISD really doesn’t want a bunch of Anglo, or really middle-class kids of any type, attending these schools. The middle class brings pushy parents and neighborhood kids upset ethnic balances. I prefer to believe DISD doesn’t realize it needs to help neighborhood parents market these schools better.

Yet schools are still the primary obstacle to a Dallas renaissance. The challenge faced by DISD is daunting: 80% of its students are poor and one third speaks English as a second language – which means they don’t really speak English at all. (There are 88 first languages spoken within Dallas schools). Also, about half of all DISD kids have either one or no parent at home. There is also the problem of transience. Nearly one in four DISD students will not finish a school year in the school where they started. This means teachers hardly get to know a student and assess their needs before they are gone. The result is that nearly half of all DISD schools are considered non-performing. It is kind of hard to worry about bringing back the middle class when faced with such a tsunami of the poor.

It is hard to argue that resources are a problem. Dallas teachers are more experienced and paid better on average than any other major city school district, well above the state average, and even above the average for Highland Park. Dallas is also a high wealth district. Dallas area corporations such as Texas Instruments make enormous investments in Dallas schools.

It is also notable that good chunks of the City of Dallas lie outside of DISD and in wealthy districts such as Plano, Richardson, Irving, and even Highland Park. The Lake Highlands area of Dallas once boomed because it lay with the Richardson ISD. Alas, Richardson and other adjacent suburbs aren’t what they used to be any more than Dallas is. That is why the middle class exodus is now to the exurbs such as Melissa and Forney.

So is there a secret sauce? Yes: Charter schools.

What is a charter school? According to Texas law charter schools “are public schools that foster educational competition and offer parental choice in education. Charter schools have a significant amount of autonomy and are free to be innovative in educational and administrative practices.” Charter schools receive the same per pupil expenditure for maintenance and operations as other Texas public schools, but they do not receive capital funding .

What I am suggesting is that the City of Dallas create its own system of charter schools in partnership with a private foundation, and very likely with DISD itself (a school district can create charter schools). In effect, Dallas would develop a parallel system of public “charter” schools to supplement existing public schools.

Yes, the track record of charter schools is mixed, but a minority is outstanding. Others don’t get the job done. Usually, failing charter schools are the creation of educators who lack administrative ability. But there are stellar examples of achievement such as the North Hills School located in Irving. With more than 1200 students (grades 1 – 12) it has a waiting list of over 1000. It may be even more demographically mixed than the most DISD schools.

The advantage of a charter school is that while it must be open to all who want to enroll (assuming available space) those who do enroll do so by choice and must abide by a contract that establishes rules of discipline and unique educational programs that most regular schools cannot.

Now before DISD howls I should repeat that DISD might well be a partner in administering the schools as this would likely save money and make DISD a partner not an adversary.

The first City of Dallas Foundation Charter School should be an elementary school located in downtown Dallas. Probably, the next several schools should be the same. If you want to fill downtown office buildings put the best schools in North Texas in them so that office workers can bring their children to work with them and then have them an elevator ride away. Lord knows there is plenty of empty office space available. Wouldn’t it behoove many landlords to make tax deductible contributions of space for schools whose presence would help fill their buildings - largely at public expense?

What would the city’s role be? First, it would create and govern the Foundation and seek the charters. Next it would help line up land lords, possibly with an offer of additional tax breaks. The City would also provide money for limited capital funding. Then there is the matter of those downtown parks the city plans to build. It needs to make them kid friendly school playgrounds (it should do so anyway to attract young couples with kids). Finally, it should provide cops for security.

(Establishing a system of Charter Schools in downtown would have the added advantage of bringing some suburban tax dollars into the city as suburban parents chose to bring their kids to downtown Dallas Charter Schools.)

After the downtown system of elementary schools is complete (I would foresee about 10 such schools with around 4000 students) downtown middle schools and even a high school should be the next step. Beyond downtown the City should look at establishing special Charter Schools in particularly difficult neighborhoods such as Vickery in North Dallas as a supplement to the regular DISD schools. These schools would be aimed at addressing specific problems with special programs not and not at replacing existing schools.

And what of existing schools? First, DISD must do the job of educating the students it has. I have personally always thought schools should be community centers where police are present, where after school study halls and other activities offer a place away from violent neighborhoods or dysfunctional homes, and where there is interaction with people who live in the neighborhood. Clearly the City can do much to support after school programs and establish neighborhood watch programs operated from schools.

It also seems that there should be an expansion of summer school. As the Dallas News report noted, Chicago Mayor Richard Daily ordered 150,000 students to remedial summer school with considerable positive benefit. I never attended a summer school but I seem to recall that those who did often returned in the fall with a new focus on academics. The City should be able to play a complimentary roll in implementing such a program.

What the Mayor and City Council must realize is that all their other efforts are in vain if Dallas cannot provide an education system that the middle class is willing to use. It must realize that DISD is invisible to most residents of the City. If the turnout is low for City elections it is virtually non-existent for school board elections. The government of Dallas should take the lead in mobilizing the people of Dallas to establish a singular educational success among urban American cities.

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