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East Dallas High School Tries to Plant, Nurture College Dreams

On the first day of a new school year, Bryan Adams High School teacher Krystal Morrow greeted the next crop of students she will try to help overcome the financial and confidence hurdles that keep many of the school's students from attending college.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Coach Krystal Morrow works at her desk at Bryan Adams High School in Dallas, Texas.

DALLAS — With just more than an hour to go before Krystal Morrow's bright, colorful classroom filled on Monday with fresh-faced kids ready to start the new school year, the 13-year teaching veteran was furiously texting students who left months ago. 

Nearly 60 students Morrow guided to graduation at Bryan Adams High School left in the spring with plans to attend four-year colleges this fall, and Morrow wanted to make sure they're following through. 

Sitting at her desk, she sent off a flurry of messages to former students: "Are you going to school? Are you going to school? What's going on?" As of Monday, Aug. 22, the first day of the new school year at Bryan Adams, about 15 had sent Morrow pictures of themselves on their new campuses or in dorm rooms.

At least six, though, canceled at the last minute. They had to change their plans because of money — a common issue at this East Dallas high school, where more than 80 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch or are on some form of public assistance.

One student needed just $2,100 more to attend Tarleton State University but couldn't pull it together. Another didn't have the funds to go to Texas A&M in College Station, one of the state's top public universities. 

"It breaks my heart," said Morrow, who has coached volleyball and directed a college preparatory program here for the past four years. But she hopes those students who had to put off college will come back and speak to her new seniors, so they can send the message: "You need to save money now." 

In March, The Texas Tribune profiled Morrow and a graduating senior at Bryan Adams in a series of stories about the fight over admission to the state's flagship universities. A decades-old state law known as the Top 10 Percent Rule guarantees many students a chance to go to one of the state’s two flagship universities — Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin — if their grades place them near the top of their class. 

But even though more than 20 graduating seniors at Bryan Adams should automatically get into UT-Austin and A&M each year under the rule, very few attend, as is typical of poor and mostly minority high schools the Top 10 Percent Rule is meant to benefit. (An overwhelming majority of Bryan Adams students are Hispanic). 

Interviewed by the Tribune last year, students who were eligible for automatic admission to UT-Austin or A&M cited lack of financial resources, but also a lack of confidence. Some said they didn’t belong at a top-tier college like UT-Austin because their standardized test scores were too low.

A lack of exposure also causes top students at schools like Bryan Adams to limit their choices. On Monday, when Morrow asked her class of 32 seniors if any had one parent who finished a four-year college, only two stood up. Most of the students said their parents did not graduate high school.

But Morrow said change is underway to boost her students’ confidence. This year, for the first time, Bryan Adams juniors and seniors will get instruction on the all-important SAT and ACT college admissions tests during the regular school year. 

There’s also a lot more interest in the college preparatory program that Morrow directs, called AVID (Advanced Via Individual Determination), which is aimed at first-generation college hopefuls who need help navigating the process.

To be a senior in AVID, students technically should have participated in the program during their junior year as well — but Morrow let 30 new seniors into the program this year because of the level of interest. 

One of the new seniors is Crystal Pierce, whose counselor told her about AVID last year when she learned that her grades put her in the Top 10 percent of her class.

“It means I gain opportunities that I guess others don’t really have,” Pierce said of her class rank, but it’s no guarantee she will go to one of Texas’ flagships. “I’m just trying to see what scholarships I can get first, before actually deciding on a school.”

Chris Torres is another senior near the top of his class who joined AVID this year. He said he’s aiming for UT-Austin because of his interest in architecture, a subject matter the school ranks highly in.

Pierce and Torres are the last Bryan Adams seniors who will have to wait until their junior year to learn about their class rank. From now on, all students in the Dallas Independent School District will be informed of their rank starting in the middle of their freshman year, which Morrow said will help top students start thinking about college earlier.

Still, convincing top students to go to a top-tier university is just one part of Morrow's challenge; the larger one is convincing all her students that they can even afford a four-year college, and trying to make sure they start the process early enough.

“They’re just way behind, so we’ve just got to get them where they need to be,” Morrow said of the seniors who are new to AVID. “But at least they know they’re going to go to college. I love it!”

Meanwhile, she had already told another teacher about the six former students who'd had to cancel their college plans — and that teacher was calling them up to talk about potential backups. 

Check out some of the Tribune's recent public education coverage:

  • After five years of landing on the state’s list of low-performing schools, a tiny South Texas district that drew national headlines for cutting its sports program to ward off closure is now meeting state academic standards.
  • The strained relationship between the state’s higher and public education leaders were on full display when Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes told the State Board of Education it isn't doing enough to prepare students for college.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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