Dallas ISD Magnet Schools: Trading Meritocracy for Convenience

The Dallas Independent School District is the second largest in Texas, serving 160,000 students in 227 schools. They have a challenging vision and mission: “to be a premier urban school district” and “educating all students for success”. They face challenges that wealthier school districts do not, or at least not to the degree DISD does, in that many of their students live in poverty leading to significant challenges helping students come to school every day ready to learn, much less graduate with the skills needed to enter the workforce or further their education.

Certainly, it is difficult to provide the educational opportunities necessary for all 160,000 students to achieve success due to challenges related to poverty, homelessness and English proficiency. While DISD works hard to help those students with the most challenging circumstances have the educational opportunities needed to achieve success in life, they also have many high-achieving students from all over the socioeconomic spectrum and have been very successful creating a series of magnet school programs to allow further opportunities for these students. In fact, based on the 2015 US News and World Reports “Best High Schools” ratings, at the Townview Center the School for the Talented and Gifted is ranked #1 in the nation, the School of Science and Engineering is #5 and the Law Magnet is #170. Furthermore, the Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School is #75 and Booker T. Washington School for the Performing and Visual Arts is #127. In contrast, Highland Park High School is considered one of the best public schools in Dallas County, but is part of a separate city (Highland Park) and school district (Highland Park ISD) that is literally surrounded by Dallas city and schools. It is also extremely wealthy and extremely white. US News ranked it #104 in 2015. Part of the reason that DISD has established these programs is to try to keep the families of high-achieving students from leaving DISD for one of the surrounding wealthier public school districts, like Highland Park, Coppell, Southlake and Plano, or one of the myriad of private school options, like St. Mark’s, Jesuit, Ursuline and Hockaday. I live in DISD and my oldest son is in 3rd grade at his local DISD elementary school because I have believed in that mission and considered DISD to be a trusted partner in my school aged child’s academic success. He has had an excellent education up to this point, including a dual-language program teaching all students in both Spanish and English since kindergarten. My wife and I chose to send our son to our local DISD school because we don’t want our children to grow up in a lily-white, uber-rich microcosm of the real world. We want them to grow up in a world where there are people that look different from each other and speak different languages at home because that is the actual real world, and our children must learn to live in it and will become better citizens and human beings by growing up in it. I certainly don’t mean to denigrate other schools or districts, but I have believed in DISD’s ability to provide the needed educational opportunities while allowing children to grow and learn in a diverse environment. Amongst my work colleagues, though, I am quite the aberration. Most of my colleagues either chose to live in another school district and commute into the city, or to live in the city and send their children to private school. Many parents perceive these wealthier school districts or private schools as having better educational opportunities, thus those with the means to do so leave DISD. One of DISD’s Student Achievement Goals is to “be the primary choice for families in the district”. This is a stated goal precisely because many families with the financial means or families with high-achieving students avoid DISD due to the perception that their children will get a sub-par education due to the high number of students for whom simply attending school each day, or even getting three meals a day, can be a daunting challenge. The DISD magnet high schools are an attempt to convince families to keep high achieving students in the district by providing superior opportunities for them.

Not only do the magnet programs in DISD include superior high schools, but there are a series of magnet schools for earlier grades as well. The most well known and regarded of these is the William B. Travis Academy/Vanguard for the Academically Talented and Gifted. Yes, it’s quite a mouthful. Most people just call it Travis. The “Vanguard” portion is for 4th-5th grades, and the “Academy” portion is 6th-8th grades. According to the school’s website “admission is based on student’s academic achievement”. My son is quite the nerd and does very well at school, especially with math and science, so we made the decision to apply to Travis Vanguard when he goes to 4th grade next year. Travis takes 66 4th graders per year and the admission process has several parts. First, prospective students must achieve at least 80th percentile on the 2nd Grade reading and math Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). Next, they must have a 3rd Grade scaled score for English Language Arts (ELA) of 1570 and for math of 1578. The exact elements that make up the scaled score are not listed on the DISD magnet website, and no one I have talked to seems to know how it is calculated. There is also an on-site essay and an on-site critical thinking assessment, which is the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT).

One would think that a school for the “Academically Talented and Gifted” would use only measures of academic talents and gifts as the criteria for acceptance, especially since they say it right on their website, but it turns out to be incorrect. DISD has a policy that allows a prospective student with an older sibling currently attending Travis to only meet the minimum criteria to gain admission. Interestingly, this policy is not in effect for the magnet high schools, just the elementary and middle school magnets. In the current year, my son applied to Travis and was wait listed. His 2nd grade ITBS was 93rd percentile for reading and 99th percentile for math. I have not been able to figure out what his scaled score was, but he got full credit for his grades. He scored 100% on the NNAT critical thinking assessment. He got a 65% on the essay (I said he’s more of a math/science guy, OK?). Based on the overall scoring system of academic achievement that Travis publicly states they use for admission, my son had a 93/100. He got 30/30 for ITBS, 30/30 for grades (scaled scores), 20/20 for the critical thinking test and 13/20 for his essay. Of all the kids who got into Travis from his elementary school, only one did not already have an older sibling there. My son is 31st on the wait list, meaning he is 97th overall in the ranking (66 accepted students + 31st on the wait list). If my son did not get in because he was not one of the top 66 achievers based on the stated entrance requirements, then I have no problem with him not being accepted to Travis. I want him to learn that life is full of opportunities that come with lots of hard work and high achievement, and that no one will just hand it to you. Unfortunately, DISD failed to mention the other criteria that trump academic achievement for admission into their school for the “Academically Talented and Gifted”. So while I’ve tried to teach my son the value of hard work it seems DISD is teaching him a different lesson: Life isn’t fair; it is capricious. While everyone says they like the idea of a meritocracy there are many instances in life in which someone else gets the thing you were working for just because. That’s a hard lesson to teach a nine year old but, give it to DISD, they sure know how to make a real world application when they want to.

I have reached out to several DISD personnel including the school board president, Eric Cowan, the Magnet Coordinator, Nancy Rubio, and the Superintendent of DISD, Michael Hinojosa. Only Mr. Cowan has responded. Of note, his daughter and my son are classmates and neither have siblings at Travis. Both were wait listed at Travis, so at least DISD isn’t nepotistic AND fraudulent. Mr. Cowan informed me that due to the large number of students who were disenfranchised by this policy for this year in particular due to a large cohort of younger siblings applying to Travis there has been a much larger outcry amongst families than normal. The controversy has gotten the attention of the Dallas Morning News who, in a recent blog post, profiled another prospective student who got 97/100 and was still waitlisted! The article goes on to quote DISD’s chief of school leadership, Stephanie Elizalde, in which she states 50 of 66 (75.8%) of seats for Travis were filled based on sibling status. Of those 50 students, 33 (66.7%) were outscored “significantly” by 61 waitlisted students who did not have siblings at Travis. That means that half the incoming class of 4th graders for the W.B. Travis Vanguard for the Academically Talented and Gifted, which states that “admission is based on students’ academic achievement”, got in solely because of their sibling status because their academic performance was insufficient to earn a spot in the school. How effective will the education be at Travis when the pool of students is so diluted?

One reason I am putting the effort into writing this is to try to change this unfair policy. It seems plainly obvious that a magnet school for the “Academically Talented and Gifted” would be purely merit based, and that is exactly what DISD does for their magnet high schools. If they truly valued merit based acceptance policies then they would simply take the 66 children who had the highest levels of academic achievement. The fact that one has a sibling in the school should have no bearing on whether a student is admitted, especially if that student did not perform as well academically as other prospective students who either do not have older siblings or their older siblings are not Travis students. The Dallas Morning News blog quotes one parent, Josh Newburn, who states, “the magnet school option and the existing sibling preferences that accompanies [sic] it, are motivating factors to stay in DISD”. So what Mr. Newburn says is that the fact that he can shoehorn his other kids into the magnet schools based on his oldest kid’s achievement, even when the younger ones may not earn their spots, and thus effectively steal them from the kids who do earn them, is a big reason why he chooses to stay in DISD. On the other hand, I consider the fact that high achieving students from any family have the ability to EARN one of these coveted spots to be a motivating factor to stay in DISD. If DISD continues its commitment to make life more convenient for these 50 students at the expense of a meritocracy for the other 160,000 students, then I view that as motivation to look at options outside of DISD.

The reason this is all such a big deal is that once students are in the Travis Vanguard for the Academically Talented and Gifted (4th-5th grades), they are first in line to stay for the Travis Academy for the Academically Talented and Gifted (6th — 8th grades). So once students get into Travis, they are pretty much in that pipeline through the end of middle school. Then what? All the nationally recognized magnet high schools, such as the #1 ranked high school in the nation (School For The Talented And Gifted at Townview), are all competing to get the best students and the Travis Academy for the Academically Talented and Gifted is the best middle school. So now, in 3rd grade, I face a situation where my son has been shut out of this pipeline, and it is quite likely due solely to the fact that he is the oldest child in his family. It is unfair for a public school system to take educational opportunities from one child purely for the convenience of another family. The fact that DISD apparently cannot see the disparity here has been extremely frustrating and disappointing.

I am a huge public school supporter. My wife and I both graduated from public high schools and went to state universities. I went to medical school at a state university and I am now on faculty at a state university. I believe in public schools. DISD’s mission is “educating all students for success” and one of their student achievement goals is to “be the primary choice for families in the district”, but they are failing my son among others and failing to complete their mission since they refuse to give the highest achieving students the educational opportunities they deserve based on academic achievement. It pains me to say it, but I no longer consider DISD a trusted partner in achieving academic success for my son and for the first time I am looking at what other options out there that could give him those opportunities. I’m not ready to leave DISD yet because I have been very happy thus far with his elementary school, but I’m certainly not as committed as I once was to staying in DISD long term. I am not looking for sympathy here, what I am looking for in writing this is a change in DISD’s policy. My son is smart and hard working and I’m confident that he will excel in whatever school attends. We are fortunate enough to have the means to seek out other opportunities if DISD continues to deny such opportunities to those students who earn them. For some families the DISD student achievement goal to “be the primary choice for families in the district” rings hollow, because DISD is the only choice they have. The travesty of this policy is for the high-achieving students whose families do not have the means to send their children to a private school or move to a wealthier school district. Feel sympathy for them, because DISD has chosen to give away the spots they earned through hard work and has given them to other children because it is more convenient for their families. Feel sympathy for them because now they are on the outside looking in since DISD won’t give them the opportunity to succeed, and their families can’t buy other opportunities for them. Feel sympathy for them because DISD’s policy actively prevents them from maximizing their potential because it’s inconvenient for 50 other families. Or perhaps we could just do the right thing and remove this foolish policy and provide magnet school opportunities to the kids who earn them based on academic performance.

If you agree, then let your voice be heard.

DISD Board of Trustees/Candidates:

Edwin Flores, District 1 — @edwinflorestroy

District 2 Candidates:

· Mita Havlick — @mphav

· Dustin Marshall — @MarshallforDISD

· Carlos Marroquin — https://www.facebook.com/CarlosMarroquin4DallasISD/

· Suzanne Smith — @smith4disd

Dan Micciche, District 3 — @DanforDISD

District 4 Candidates

· Jaime Resendez — http://jaimeresendez.com/contact/

· Omar Jimenez — @ojtheprep

Lew Blackburn, District 5 — @lewblack

· Opponent — Marquis Hawkins — @Hawkins4Dallas

Joyce Foreman, District 6 — @joyceforeman16

Eric Cowan, District 7 (retiring) — @ericcowan4DISD

· Audrey Pinkerton — https://www.facebook.com/audreypinkerton4disd/

· Isaac Faz — @isaacfaz

Miguel Solis, District 8 — @SolisforDISD

Bernadette Nutall, District 9 — @BWNutall


Tawnell Hobbs, DMN — @tawnell

Corbett Smith, DMN — @corbettsmithDMN

Ray Leszcynski, DMN — @ RayLeszcynski

Eva Marie Ayala, DMN — @EvaMarieAyala

Jim Schutze, Dallas Observer — @JimSchutze