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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Parents choose 'diverse by design' schools

"Diverse by design" schools are catching on, writes Kate Rix on the Hechinger Report.

In Dallas, "50/50" schools try enroll an even mix of students from middle-class and lower-income areas. Race and ethnicity are not used as factors. Instead, "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." Students may live outside district boundaries.

Students at Solar Prep for Girls in Dallas

Last year, Dallas Independent School District (DISD) received 25,000 applications for 5,800 seats in the 13 50/50 schools, Rix reports. Students are admitted by lottery. Two more schools will open next week, and nine more over the next three years.

Lauren McKinnon, who's White and grew up in a lower-income family, feels "lucky" her two daughters were able to enroll at Solar Prep for Girls, an all-girls school that specializes in science and technology.

Martha Castro, whose youngest daughter Sofia is in second grade at Solar Prep for Girls, said the school culture has made her daughter more confident. “She stands up for herself and speaks out when she doesn’t like something,” said Castro, a Hispanic single parent who works as a housekeeper.

Solar Prep for Girls' demographic breakdown is 20 percent White, 17 percent Black and 52 percent Hispanic.

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," writes Rix. Dallas is 41 percent Hispanic, about 29 percent White and 24 percent Black.

DISD is losing students, like many other urban districts, Rix writes. "Residential segregation, concentrated poverty and competition from charter schools pushed the district to innovate."

In 2014, DISD surveyed parents to see what kind of schools they want.

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.

Solar Prep for Girls has no trouble filling seats for students from advantaged families, but works to recruit disadvantaged students. “Moms need to meet me and feel a connection with the principal,” co-founder Nancy 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.”

Last year, "students in grades 3-8 at 50/50 schools largely outperformed their peers in other DISD schools on reading, writing and science tests," Rix writes.

Low-income students who attend socioeconomically diverse schools tend to do better academically, she writes. "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."

Aschanti Williams, a regional project manager for T-Mobile, chose Solar Prep for Boys for his son because of the Solar Six values: 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.”

Other districts also are trying a “diversity by design” approach, Rix writes. Louisville "places schools in geographic clusters of diverse neighborhoods based on census block characteristics, including household income and adult educational attainment."

Cambridge, Massachusetts uses a “controlled choice” socioeconomic school assignment model.

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