DALLAS — 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 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 underway to reverse decades of white flight from the school system. The school district is currently 71 percent Hispanic, 21 percent Black and 5 percent white, and 86 percent 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 percent Hispanic, about 29 percent white and 24 percent Black.
Solar Prep and other “50/50” 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. Half of the students admitted must live in one of Dallas’ socioeconomically disadvantaged census blocks, while the other half are drawn from more affluent areas. The district provides transportation to students within its boundaries.
The district currently has 13 such schools. 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 the school year resumes Aug. 15.
“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 percent white, 17 percent Black and 52 percent Hispanic.
The district sees its 50/50 Transformation Schools 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 school district 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. “Since the school opened, I wished one of my daughters could go there,” she said, but her older children were already in high school.
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.”
The district also sees the program as a way to slow down the number of students leaving the system. Like so many urban districts, DISD enrollment is declining steadily — by more than 10,000 since the 2018-19 school year. DISD’s experiment to reverse decades of segregation and student population loss enrolls just under 6,000 students — a small district within a district.
DISD, like many school districts, shies away from integration efforts that explicitly take race into account. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against districts in Seattle and in Jefferson County, Kentucky, which had used a “racial tiebreaker” to achieve racial balance in some of their schools. Such a policy was a violation of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, the court said in a 5-4 decision.
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.
The court decision did not forbid race from being a part of school integration efforts, but said that such efforts face “strict scrutiny” and must be “narrowly tailored.” Since that decision, guidance from the federal Department of Education, which does not carry the weight of law but is often relied upon by school districts, has varied, changing with the occupant of the White House.
The Obama administration, for example, released a document outlining ways that districts could take race into account in school admissions policies without running afoul of the law. Then, during the Trump years, the department rescinded that guidance, saying it went too far. As a candidate, President Joe Biden said that he would remove the Trump-era guidance, but the department has not issued new guidelines.
Dallas isn’t the only district that uses a “diversity by design” approach. Louisville — one of the districts whose integration policy was struck down in the 2007 Supreme Court case — places schools in geographic clusters of diverse neighborhoods based on census block characteristics, including household income and adult educational attainment. Since 2001, Cambridge, Massachusetts has used a “controlled choice” socioeconomic school assignment model.
In Dallas, historic and ongoing residential segregation, concentrated poverty and competition from charter schools pushed the district to innovate. Residentially, it’s one of the most segregated large cities in the country. While north Dallas is mostly white, most Black Dallas residents live in south Dallas. Both east and west Dallas are deeply Hispanic.
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.”
In 2014, DISD officials opened the Office of Transformation and Innovation to tackle the problems of enrollment declines and segregation. The district surveyed parents to find out what kind of schools they wanted. Among the most popular choices were college prep, Montessori and international baccalaureate programs. The district added single-gender and STEM schools to that list to create a portfolio of new, thematically appealing schools that use a 50/50 socioeconomic diversity enrollment formula.
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. What she saw was that putting a diverse group of children together in a classroom isn’t enough on its own to change outcomes.
“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 day care 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. There weren’t enough to fill half of available seats, 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 4-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.”
This year, 45 percent of students at Solar Prep for Girls are from economically disadvantaged families. Bernardino said the school is “intentional with every practice” while creating an equitable culture that values all students.
“We wanted to set the tone for how much inclusion we wanted to see in the classroom,” she said. The founders worked with teachers to develop language and activities to make race and ethnicity explicit subjects of conversation in classrooms. “We had girls coming from all sides of Dallas and all the sudden they were expected to socialize around people they never normally socialized with. We wanted them to know they can bring their whole selves here.”
The commitment to inclusion extends to the parent community. Parents formed a PTO, instead of a PTA, so there wouldn’t be any membership dues. A nonprofit foundation, created to support Solar Prep for Girls and Solar Prep for Boys, which opened in 2018, does all the fundraising for the schools and pays for all “extras,” including field trip fees, uniforms and $200 per student for classroom STEM supplies.
“The city of Dallas is so segregated that, by using the 50/50 model, we can easily achieve racially diverse schools,”Nancy Bernardino, co-founder of Solar Prep for Girls.
“Half of our families are below the poverty line. That’s a huge barrier when you say everybody has to buy a $10 T-shirt,” said McKinnon, the parent with two daughters attending the school. “At every parent meeting, when somebody has an idea like a pizza night, we talk through how every family can access it. Does this event interfere with bus schedules or second shifts?”
The variety of schools is also attracting families whose children have struggled in traditional public schools. Monica Sosa gave up her job teaching at a community college so she could homeschool her daughter Emma, who is autistic and has ADHD. Then she read about Hybrid Prep, another 50/50 school, on the DISD website. Students attend school from home three days a week and spend two days on campus, just south of wealthy Highland Park.
Each student gets a MacBook Air, an iPad, an Apple Pencil, and a hot spot so that on remote days they can work on simulations in a gamified learning metaverse. The school attracts students who do better when they can work remotely part of the time.
“It’s the best fit so far,” Sosa said. Emma started fourth grade at Hybrid Prep this year. “All the kids are a little quirky, so a kid like mine makes sense.”
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.”
Nonetheless, academic achievement is the end game. Students in grades 3-8 at 50/50 schools largely outperformed their peers in other DISD schools on reading, writing and science tests last year.
The Dallas Intermediate School District currently operates 13 “50/50” schools that enroll an equal share of students from affluent and low-income. The district plans to open 11 more of these economically diverse schools in the next three years.
Whether students in 50/50 schools will continue to achieve at higher rates remains to be seen, but data shows that students in general perform better when they attend socioeconomically diverse schools. Academically, this may benefit low-income students the most. In a National Assessment of Educational Progress math test administered in 2017, low-income fourth graders in more affluent schools scored about two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools. According to research by Reardon, at Stanford, segregation is one of the most potent contributors to ethnic achievement gaps.
Other research suggests that school choice programs, like the one in DISD, can influence segregation in either direction, depending on how they’re implemented. For example, choice programs that don’t factor in students’ socioeconomic status can actually make segregation worse, according to a research brief by the National Coalition on School Diversity. That’s because well-connected and wealthier parents are able to work the system to their advantage. However, school choice programs that do take socioeconomic factors into consideration are often more successful at achieving integration.
When kids of different socioeconomic backgrounds go to school together, said Casey Cobb, a professor at the University of Connecticut’s School of Education and author of the research brief, the class-based differences are predictive of better student outcomes, including graduation rates and attendance.
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 percent are black and 44 percent 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.”
Wesley is Williams’ fifth and youngest child. He and his wife chose Solar Prep for Boys because of the values the school instills, the Solar Six: curiosity, self-awareness, empathy, humility, leadership and grit. He admired the way the principal talked about the school as a community that holds all boys accountable for their actions and never gives up on any of them.
“Diversity is more than just race,” said Williams, who is Black. “It’s income. It’s culture. It’s everything.”
Williams’ home in Oak Cliff, an older neighborhood near downtown Dallas, is about a 30-minute ride from Solar Boys. When he drives his son to school some mornings, he has him practice the school pledge in the car: “I control my destiny through the ability to acquire knowledge. I believe success is determined by effort and perseverance and not by chance.”
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.”
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.