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Updated: More on the Arts Magnet’s Troubles

by Jerome Weeks 7 May 2009 10:28 AM

Yesterday, the Dallas Morning News ran a story about how DISD feels it must make significant cuts in the number of employment positions at the city’s vanguard and magnet schools — including 13 positions at the Booker T Washington Arts Magnet alone and even more at the TAG magnet. But relatively little follow-up has happened […]


nancy-hamon-arts-magnet-signYesterday, the Dallas Morning News ran a story about how DISD feels it must make significant cuts in the number of employment positions at the city’s vanguard and magnet schools — including 13 positions at the Booker T Washington Arts Magnet alone and even more at the TAG magnet. But relatively little follow-up has happened — partly because a lot of media attention right now is on the controversy over trustees trying to extend their terms and the factions on the board represented in the current election.

But the PTAs for those schools are frantic and despairing. The reason DISD gives for these cuts is that if the district doesn’t equalize the money spent per-pupil in each school, they will lose $105 million in Title 1 federal funding, which goes toward programs for low-income students. The federal government requires that the schools’ per-pupil budgets be within 10 percent of each other across the district.

This entire setup would seem to be perversely designed to gut specialized programs. The purpose of an Arts Magnet campus like Booker T is to have teachers and facilities beyond the core curriculum to serve students with a talent and a drive in these areas — teachers in the arts equipped with musical instruments, dance studios, ceramic kilns, etc. Needless to say, without such teachers and equipment, there is relatively little reason for parents to send their children to TAG or Booker T.

DISD’s response to this latest lurch into a budget crisis is a classic case of hand-washing: We had nothing to do with it, it’s a federal issue. But there are a number of factors that clearly make this very much a DISD issue.

The Dallas public has the impression that TAG and Booker T are the universally beloved “jewels” of DISD: They’re the schools that often win national honors and produce the academic and artistic stars, they’re some of the precious few successes that DISD can point to. Even so, many people in the school administration and throughout the many neighborhood schools dislike them intensely. The magnet and vanguard schools, by their nature, are not “equitable.” Not just any student can get into them.

What’s more, their programs don’t serve any particular neighborhood; they serve the city at large, which means their parental and alumni constituency is watered down, and they’re much, much smaller in number than the many PTA groups at the local schools. Finally, as I noted yesterday in a comment, the arts add nothing to a school’s TAKS scores. They’re not tested. So the arts don’t help a principal or a superintendent advance his students’ “improvement” scores — and, incidentally, advance his own career. So these programs are worse than burdensome ‘extras.’ You can read one parent’s understandable bitterness over Booker T and the other special programs getting the attention and money while her child’s school doesn’t on Frontburner.

Although the district insists this isn’t about layoffs because the teachers will be re-assigned to other, needier DISD schools, many of the magnet/vanguard/learning center teachers were hired to fill very specific job descriptions. Where will a teacher, certified in high school dance or sculpture or elementary school computer ed, find another position in DISD? And if he or she does find such a job, how effective can the teacher be in a school with no previous dance program, no painting/sculpting studio, insufficient musical instruments, no real computer center? If the plan is to upgrade all the schools who will now be getting these specialized teachers, where will all the facilities and equipment come from — in a district already facing $64 million in budget cuts?

The way the re-assignment formula has come down to the teachers is that each school will get a music teacher and an art teacher. After that, who knows? This seems to mean drama and dance pretty much go out the window all across the district. It’s true that some of these specialized teachers are also certified to teach core subjects for elementary or high school, and so they can move into TAKS-related positions — if they want to, if they absolutely need the salary and benefits (which is more than likely, of course). That means this way — ta-dah — we lose an experienced music teacher but gain an unhappy science teacher in a neighborhood school.

All of this can be seen, not as yet another DISD mess, but as a calculated, backdoor shift in theory, policy and power. Big-city public schools are governed by what has been called the “iron triangle.” What everyone wants from public schools are 1) quality education, 2) equal access to quality education for all families and 3) low taxes. And the fact is you can get only two of those three, never all three. It’s not possible.

Which two you’re going to get depends on a district’s targeted goals and the political forces that shape them. (Actually, what we mostly get is a muddle, a push this way, a pull that way as the forces face off and administrators slip in their own ideals or pragmatism.) Thus, the magnets and vanguards are a classic case of offering quality education — but not equal access. Students have to earn their place in them.

With its improved magnet schools and learning centers, DISD has tried to woo back a middle-class, white populace. But the programs were actually forced on the district by the desegregation order. Now that the order is gone, now that the same political forces aren’t in play, now that the district is facing a budget crisis — we get a wrenching turn toward enforced “equitable access.” And, of course, that has a very big, “zero-sum” racial and social class component: One side’s gain must entail another side’s loss. Equitable access means turning away from focused, high-quality, specialized programs and supposedly toward serving the much larger, poorer Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods — who, honestly, need whatever extra attention they can get (now they may get the double bonus of that Title 1 money and the dribble of under-equipped teachers sent their way).

But this change can also seem like the perfect formula for watering-down some of the district’s most effective programs. And getting what in return, precisely? Scattering some extra teachers around is not exactly a plan for lifting all boats.

UPDATE: Eric Celeste on Frontburner has posted the flyer that his daughter, a student at Booker T, was given. Check it out. It answers a number of the questions posed here (but not all) and offers a number of recommendations for action.

Regardless of where you might stand on these issues, the questions about all this that haven’t been answered are:

1. Once again, how could this latest DISD budget crisis not have been foreseen? Whatever happened in previous years with Title 1 funding — when these specialized programs already existed? The Title 1 money wasn’t in danger then, it seems, so why now? And whose job is it in the administration to track such things, prepare the Title 1 requests? We are talking about 31 positions and $105 million in federal money, and the district didn’t know? It looks an awful lot like something that was allowed to occur — because people in the administration don’t want the magnets to continue.

2. If they honestly do wish the magnets and vanguards will continue, what does DISD seriously think is going to happen to them? Why should they be called vanguards or magnets any more? What will DISD say to the parents of students who’ve already gotten into those schools for next year? They were admitted to specialized programs that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exist.

3. Why isn’t funding for sports factored into this? Are we to believe that athletics receives the same funding per pupil per school throughout DISD?

For much, much more discussion on all of this, you can check out the Dallas Morning News DISD blog or its education news section.

  • Nrgy

    You said it like it is. Well done.

  • frank

    Leave the Arts and TAG Magnets alone. They happen to be two of the highest scoring public schools DISD has to offer to our nation. Any kid who lives in this district can apply to attend and if they apply themselves at school they will. It’s a way out of ‘prisoner in training / gang bang BS schools’ that they are supposed to get an education in.. Both of these schools have no sports programs nor income / budgets from this angle but they have consistently put forth excellent, well educated, young adults into the world as ambassadors from our city. Since these schools are not broken why fix ’em? Next thing ya know these goofy equalizers will want to mess w/ city owned WRR again as well, because it pays for itself and doesn’t play what every one wants to listen to.

  • Hildy

    I’m not sure where to begin.
    A few points for sure:
    It was my understanding at the trustee meeting that title 1 funds aren’t even dispersed the way people would think. The magnet kids money doesn’t necessarily go to that magnet school. Rather, the kid’s home school. Is that fair? the ‘exceptional’ kids (as FB called them) are being exploited so that another school can get its fed money.
    Also, my daughter, a Booker T freshman, worked her tail off to get into that school. And rest assured, I LOATHE DISD, as illustrated by years of private school for her. I took a chance on an AWESOME DISD program. Make no mistake, if those brilliant teachers were removed from that amazing school we will ‘flee’ back to a private high school in a heartbeat.
    And to point out the obvious, my daughter attends school with students of ALL class, economic standing, Dallas neighborhoods, ethnicities, etc. From pleasant grove to downtown lofts–they’re all included. So I don’t buy the inequity argument.

    Be the best, and you’ll get the best.

  • JM

    I support the magnets , my son attends one. But this article contains a lot of misinformation , inflammatory rhetoric even. No one said Booker T would be allowed ONE music and ONE art teacher. They were told to cut 13 POSITIONS, they can be any position, clerk, AP, etc. and no, not everyone that didn’t get in to a magnet “hates them intensely”.
    I am sure there are some bitter disappointed parents, but don’t be so free with your generalizations. You only reinforce those very perceptions you so vehemently deny.

    • Sorry, I wasn’t clear: My point about the formula wasn’t about Booker T — it was about the other schools that would now be receiving the specialty teachers. That was my understanding of how they’d be apportioned.

      Nowhere did I say that “everyone” hates the magnets intensely. I did say, however, that there are many more schools in DISD that are NOT magnets then are, and as a result, despite their glowing public image, the arts and TAG are at a disadvantage in many ways when it comes to the competitions and calculations that go on in any school district — over budgeting and resources, over test scores. Resentments build up — and those are perfectly understandable, as I tried to make clear, particularly when we’re talking about under-served, Hispanic and African-American neighborhood schools.

  • Blanca

    Would you help us to keep our teachers in Booker T. Washington? BTW high school has a large number of honored students because of the teachers. It is a very famous talented school for the students and it’s thanks to our teachers we have a very good and recognized school. Plus every year we have lot more students at the school, so we need more teachers at BTW. Please do not take them away. Please DO NOT TAKE AWAY THE TEACHERS FROM BTW.
    God Bless you to make better decisions every day.

  • Elaine

    As a Dallas native and mother of a junior at Booker T. Washington, and a sixth grader at Dallas Environmental Science Academy, I am utterly appalled and chagrined by the news that anyone responsible for the health of DISD would even consider eliminating teaching positions in our city’s very best schools. We should be pouring money into these schools and positioning them as institutions of aspiration for the full DISD student body.

    I completely disagree with the plan – and wonder why these crippling pronouncements keep coming out of nowhere regarding DISD financial management? The $64 million shortfall for starters? Then, a sudden realization we will lose $105 million in funding. These things just don’t startle an administrator with a sudden 3 a.m. phone call out of the blue. Or they should not! Our hired administrators must be held accountable – for the sake of our children. Don’t we want a place for bright kids can be challenged in public school? Isn’t that the moral imperative of public education? To reach higher, not settle for mediocrity?

    My son at Booker T. just received a letter indicating he will receive National Merit recognition. Isn’t that enough to justify the value of a school like Booker T.? Then again, he could always abandon public education altogether and attend a private school.

  • Jac Alder

    Keep on this story, Jerome

    Though I have been on the advisory board since the school’s inception, I learned about this appalling DISD course of action through a parent of a student at the school. DISD did well in accepting private support for the renovated building and the new additions. By that, I mean they did many things to make the rebuilding go smoothly and reach a desired result — an excellent physical facility. But buildings aren’t educators. Failing to support the programming that the building is built to contain, DISD shows itself to be without honor. The substantial money donors gave was premised on the continuation of the school’s strong arts instruction in Music, Drama, Dance and Art. A special school for special hard working, able students.

    Honor. DISD. Is it expecting too much to see both those words in one sentence. Smarts. DISD. Is it too much for these words, too?

    Your discouraged friend, JAC

  • BTWstudent

    I think we are so misunderstood at Booker T. People like to sit around and talk about us a lot, but do they really ask us? How we feel? I can answer that, No. At Arts we recognize the importance of not just Art in itself, but the combination of Arts and Academics make us who we are. We have very high test scores, and I feel comfortable saying that I go to school with many intelligent people. We help the district to shine, why take this away from us? The difference between Booker T. and the rest of the DISD schools is that we love where we go to school. We love waking up in the dark and getting on a bus in the morning to go across town. We wouldn’t do that everyday if we didn’t love it. What I love though, is that my teachers love their jobs. They love teaching me, and I see the difference because I’ve had teachers for many years that it’s obvious that they hate what they are doing. Don’t take away people’s jobs that love what they do, because there are so few people out there that do, but they love their job at Arts, I promise.

  • patricia

    What do the generous and gracious donors in the private sector have to say about the “gutting’ of BTW ? Private citizens and businesses contribute to BTW and other Dallasisd schools for many reasons; among them the belief that successful schools benefit everyone in our community. Allowing continued mismanagement by the leadership in our school district (and it is ours) touches all of Dallas.
    This most recent DISD debacle should cause our community to pull together to protect our collective interest in our most precious resource…
    our children. (and they are ours, ALL of them)

  • worldclasseducation

    City leaders in areas of politics,business,arts,education,law enforcement and spiritual matters all have a vested interest in the fate of the DISD Magnet,Academy,and Vanguard schools. Please step up and help protect these outstanding PUBLIC schools. We all have a vested interest in our most important resource…our students. Please use your considerable wisdom, influence,wealth and experience to save these successful Dallas schools from being gutted by Dallas school administrators and board members with their own agendas and issues. Innovative,successful and safe schools should be the norm not the exception. How can Dallas be a world class city when we place so little importance on Education?
    We have amazing public attractions and buildings…
    Performing art spaces, museums,stadiums and prisons…
    Education is the ticket in or out of all of these.