DALLAS — Before Shavante Birdow attended Wilmer-Hutchins High School, she heard from family members tales of roaches infesting the high school cafeteria — just one obvious sign of the school district’s struggles. But the gleaming new building she sits in now barely resembles the one that was closed in 2006 along with the rest of the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District, which the Texas Education Agency shuttered for dismal academics and finances.
Shavante, a senior who was preceded at the school by much of her family, will be part of the first graduating class of the new Wilmer-Hutchins High School — which is now run by the Dallas Independent School District.
“This is the first time I’ve been in a spanking brand new school,” she said. “I’m the first to touch this desk. I’m the first to sit in this chair.”
When the state closed Wilmer-Hutchins ISD six years ago, the district was like the region’s unwanted stepchild — few of the neighboring districts wanted to absorb students from its low-performing schools. Now, the area appears to be on the verge of academic transformation, with three new Dallas ISD campuses, including a high school that is attracting students from all over the area. (Students from outside of the school and district's geographic boundaries can apply for a waiver to attend the school in certain situations.)
By the time Wilmer-Hutchins ISD closed, it served roughly 3,000 students from primarily low-income families — about 80 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic.
For at least half of the eight decades that it stood independently, Wilmer-Hutchins was a troubled district. The state first threatened to revoke its accreditation in the 1970s for academic problems. In the 1980s, the education agency again threatened closure, this time for fraudulent board elections and misuse of district money. The agency took over the district for two years in the 1990s.
In the 2000s, Wilmer-Hutchins ISD repeatedly failed to make payroll. In 2004, auditors found a superintendent had received $16,000 in salary he shouldn’t have. A hole in the high school’s roof brought mold and roach outbreaks that same year and delayed the start of school in August. A Dallas Morning News investigation revealed systematic cheating on state tests. Students attended Dallas ISD schools in 2005 when the state worked on shuttering the district. In July 2006, its doors closed for good — and its students were officially absorbed into the Dallas district.
“The organization of the district is in chaos,” reads a 2002 report from the state comptroller’s office.
The same report detailed the district’s miserable performance on state standardized tests: In 2001, just 58 percent passed the exams compared with the statewide average of 82 percent. No students in the class of 2000 got above the average score on the SAT — the mean score was 721, compared with the state average of 990.
Shirley Neeley, the commissioner of the education agency at the time, said the “stars aligned” for the agency to finally shut down the district after years of second chances.
The chronic bungling of finances and academics didn’t ease the community’s heartache over losing its schools. But in 2011, it regained a few campuses: DISD opened a new elementary, middle and high school in the Wilmer-Hutchins area — offering hope for economic and social rebirth.
The renovations were financed as a part of a 2008 bond initiative, said DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander. He said the school openings helped to keep local students from having to travel 30 to 45 minutes a day to get to school.
“Everything that we've heard is that those schools are doing very, very well,” he said. “It took time, six years in which to return those students back to their home community, but we did it.”
When Dallas ISD took over, the Wilmer-Hutchins High School building was too dilapidated to keep open. Instead, students in the neighborhood rode buses as far as 14 miles to get to a different Dallas ISD high school. Now, the situation is reversed. According to principal Marion Brooks, students from 22 other campuses, including some outside of Dallas ISD, are traveling to attend school at Wilmer-Hutchins’ new facility.
Brooks said Wilmer-Hutchins alumni still have a lot of pride in the old district but are coming around as they see the benefits of being a part of Dallas ISD.
But he said that he also was careful to “temper folks' spirit a lot” — reminding them that although the new facilities are impressive, there is still much work to do to with the students.
“People tend to get overwhelmed by the brick and the mortar and the new glass and the shine and the gleam,” he said, “and lose focus on the true intent of this which is to make students academically successful.”
Wilmer-Hutchins is one of just four districts the state has closed in the past 15 years, and the success of the new schools that Dallas has just reopened in the community may offer the first evidence of a district closure’s effect on student achievement.
So far, it seems, so good. Preliminary midyear scores are promising, Brooks said — and the community’s enthusiasm is robust.
“Right now the community has rallied around those schools. They are very impressive,” said Cedric Davis, who served as the district’s police chief for three years before it closed, and is now running for the Texas House. “They are going in a much better direction.”
Kenneth Searle, a senior on the Wilmer-Hutchins High School basketball team, said his games had been overflowing with excited alumni who wanted to see their old high school again.
“It’s like whenever they make a remake of Star Wars, everyone wants to go see it to see if it as good as it was before,” he said.
Kenneth and Shavante, who were crowned Mr. and Ms. Wilmer-Hutchins this year, both said they were disappointed that they did not have more years to enjoy the new school. But Kenneth said he took comfort in what he saw as the school’s bright future.
“Whenever we hear the success that they are having,” he said, “we are going to know that we started it."
"We restarted the tradition,” Shavante added. “We brought it back alive."
This is the fourth installment in a five-part series in which The Texas Tribune explores the struggles of failing school districts — and what's at stake for those who want them to survive. Part one looks at whether closing a district ends up benefiting students. Part two profiles Houston's North Forest ISD and its efforts to avoid closure. Part three reports on the progress that Premont ISD has made after cutting sports to focus on academics and boost finances. Part five is a video report looking at whether the state system is helping failing districts.