DALLAS — On a muggy afternoon in mid-April, an animated 18-year-old bounced through the air-conditioned corridors of her South Dallas high school.
“Excuse the mess,” she said, brushing away a small scrap of paper in an otherwise spotless stairwell, giggling as she added, “I’m acting like this is my house.”
Mary Ruiz is a senior at the Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center’s School of Health Professions, a magnet in the Dallas Independent School District. The Townview Center, named for the panorama of the downtown Dallas skyline visible from its north windows, houses six magnets, including programs for law, business and science.
Her school is at the heart of an identity crisis that has sent fissures through the state’s second-largest district, pitting parents of magnet school students against an administration they view as unfriendly — and sparking emotional debates about how scarce financing should be spent during a time of financial reckoning throughout the state.
Dallas ISD is a portrait of inner-city districts across the country. It is overwhelmingly minority — 67 percent of its students are Hispanic; 26 percent are black. It is overwhelmingly poor — 86 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced meal plans. And it serves some of the most difficult-to-reach children — the state considers 65 percent of its students at risk for dropping out.
But its magnets are regarded as the nation’s best public high schools. Townview’s Talented and Gifted and Science and Engineering high schools have consistently ranked in Newsweek’s top five public schools in the country since 2006. The Talented and Gifted school has been first every year except one since then. All of the Townview schools are rated as “exemplary” by the Texas Education Agency — something achieved by only 10 percent of public high schools in the state. Alumni of the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, an exemplary-rated magnet not on the Townview campus, include Erykah Badu, Edie Brickell and Norah Jones.
Despite its renown, in Dallas ISD’s most recent budget projections, Townview stands to lose 27 percent of its full-time teachers. Booker T. Washington faces a 25 percent reduction. By contrast, the district’s comprehensive high schools are losing an average of 12 percent. On Tuesday, Michael Hinojosa, the district’s superintendent, announced that in addition to the teacher cuts, Townview would also lose five of its seven principals to reduce administrative overheard.
For Townview parents, the disproportionate reductions show that Hinojosa has used the financing budget crunch to pare down the schools he has never supported. But the superintendent and the parents of children at comprehensive high schools argue that it is high time the district practiced a more equitable distribution of its resources.
Hinojosa said the cuts were about fairness — and that the district has long given more resources to its magnet schools.
“I’m not anti-magnet. Our magnet schools are great, and we’re very proud of them,” he said. “But what keeps me awake at night are the students at the 22 other comprehensive high schools.”
Liz Velasquez, who has twin sons who are juniors at Townview’s law magnet, said Hinojosa’s decision to cut staffing there only confirmed what she had long suspected all along. “Many of us parents always knew he’s not a fan of the magnet programs, especially Townview,” she said. “The budget crisis gives him the opportunity to chip away at the magnet program and have a good reason to do so.”
Magnet schools — so named because they are intended to attract students, regardless of where they live in a district — came about in the 1960s as a method of curbing the de facto geographic segregation that occurred after Brown v. Board of Education. More recently, proponents of school reform have advanced the schools as a way to lure whites and middle-class blacks to urban districts.
Dallas ISD’s magnets originated in a court-ordered desegregation plan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The court order was not lifted until 2003, and the schools still struggle with their racially charged provenance.
“Some people think this is the elite place where white people in Dallas send their kids,” said James Kipp, who has sons at Townview’s Science and Engineering and Talented and Gifted magnets and is the president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at the School of Science and Engineering. He added, “But these are primarily low-income, urban kids that are being given an extraordinary opportunity, and that’s going to go away.”
The problem is that the district is filled with primarily low-income, urban children — the vast majority of whom are not among the roughly 2,300 who attend Townview, whose demographics vary from the rest of the district. While economically disadvantaged students are still a majority at Townview, at about 60 percent, that is 16 percent less than the district as a whole. Ten percent are white, compared to 5 percent district-wide.
Mike Morath, who is running unopposed for a vacant seat on the district’s board of trustees, said that magnet schools are taking the brunt of the budget cuts for a reason — because they have more to cut.
“It is quite evident that Townview is getting more money per kid than similarly sized comprehensive schools,” he said. He noted that magnet school parents are typically more engaged than those at traditional high schools — but that should not mean, he said, that their children should get more resources. “To the extent that we are essentially robbing from the poor to give to the more politically organized, that doesn’t strike me as all that right,” he said.
But Morath said that if the administration weakened the schools, it risked losing the last remnant of middle-class confidence in the district.
“We’ve seen middle-class parents leave DISD in droves,” he said, adding that the economically disadvantaged population in the district has grown to 86 percent from 75 percent in the past 10 years. “To the extent you damage the magnets, you accelerate that trend, and you’ve got a real problem.”
When she realized the budget cuts could mean the loss of programs like debate and mock trial at the Townview law magnet, Velasquez said she started to looking at whether she could afford private schools or to rent an apartment in Coppell, a Northwest Dallas suburb, during her sons’ senior year. Even with the outcry from magnet parents, she said, she was not hopeful for a positive response from the school board or the superintendent.
“I still may have to rent that apartment in Coppell,” she said.
Like Velasquez, Jill Cochran has twin sons who are juniors — but they are at Woodrow Wilson, a comprehensive high school of about 1,600 students. She said Hinojosa was correctly looking at the “big picture” of cuts. But as president of the PTA there, Cochran has organized parents to protest the staff reductions at schools across the districts, not just magnets.
“I don’t want it to be us against them,” she said. “But I guess when it comes down to it, everybody’s going to fight for their own campus. You’re going to see everybody fight for what’s going to affect their children.”