Three proposed plans by Dallas ISD gave Thursday evening’s school board meeting a packed gallery — and a full slate of speakers that took more than an hour and a half to complete. But only one of those plans was actually on the agenda.
A proposed course in African-American studies was on the agenda, and brought out several speakers. The course would teach district students about important historical figures in African-American history. Many of the speakers discussed the need for the course — and some even vowed to work with the district to supplement and enhance what would be taught.
“My heart is happy that there are so many here,” Justin Henry interjected — something that doesn’t usually happen during the portion of the school board meetings allotted for public comment.
Henry added that he knew more speakers were there to talk about another agenda item — a proposed policy that would allow the district for partnerships with nonprofit entities to operate some district schools — but that he wished more people would be passionate about “this issue of racial equity, and that he wished they knew that when it comes to reading, African American students are frequently at the bottom of readiness.
He also pointed out that all the people who spoke out — with the exception of one speaker — for the African American studies program were black, showing more people needed to understand the impact inequity has on schools.
Several parents and advocates spoke about district plans to potentially change the Woodrow Wilson High School feeder pattern — specifically regarding a proposal to turn Geneva Heights Elementary into a fifth through sixth-grade school to alleviate some overcrowding issues at Long Middle School.
Parents told the board that they chose Geneva Heights specifically, and resented the idea that they would lose their neighborhood school. Many spoke to the school’s diverse student body, as well as the time and effort its teachers and staff had taken to go through the rigorous process to become an International Baccalaureate school.
“This school is a gem,” said one speaker.
“I chose Geneva Heights Elementary because of its low-class sizes and because it’s a neighborhood school,” Geneva Heights parent Joanna Cattanach said in a quick interview after the public comment portion of the school board meeting was complete. Cattanach was also one of several speakers.
Cattanach said her first-grade son receives special education services there, and is thriving because of the supports he gets at Geneva Heights.
“My concern is that of a lot of parents, changing the school from a traditional elementary to a fifth and sixth-grade campus would change the school too much,” she said. “There isn’t even room to accommodate all of the fifth and sixth graders across the Woodrow feeder that would potentially come to Geneva.”
Cattanach said she knows there are several proposals before the board, but that for her Geneva Heights community, the uncertainty around the fate of the school may cause some parents to leave the district.
“I want to see the school remain a traditional elementary with the potential of an upper-grade specialized option,” she said. “I want to participate in the discussion and help bring new ideas and present a parent perspective the board needs to hear.”
“We have a good problem at Geneva — a growing school where students are thriving and parents want to send their children — and the Geneva community needs to play a pivotal role in the decisions made about our campus and the Woodrow feeder pattern as a whole. It’s a collective effort.”
Trustee Dustin Marshall, who represents the district the Woodrow feeder pattern is in, has put out a call for participants in an advisory committee.
Several more speakers signed up to address a proposed policy that would set up the framework for the district to take advantage of a state law — SB 1882 — that was passed in the last legislative session. That policy would permit the district to partner with specific nonprofits to run certain schools.
The law incentivized partnerships between school districts and charter schools by offering about $1,800 per student in additional funding for campuses that are in a partnership. It also was a third option for improvement required schools that were facing closure, and provided a bit of reprieve from that.
It also allowed for districts to partner with other entities that were not current charters, which is what the proposed Dallas ISD policy aimed for.
But the proposal, which seemed to hit peak dissemination on social media after it appeared on the agenda, drew reactions that largely ranged from immediate ire to puzzled concern. By Wednesday, the proposed policy was pulled from the agenda.
The board was divided as well, it seemed, if social media was any indicator. Some board members had expressed reluctance to hand so much control over to outside partners (and also expressed some displeasure that the district had already contacted a lengthy list of potential partners). Any partner would answer to the board of trustees ultimately.
The policy would allow the district to create its own charter campuses, overseen by governing boards. The partnerships would be limited to nonprofits, government entities, and higher education institutions. It’s worth noting that the district already has some partnerships with entities like Dallas County Community College, which enables programs like the collegiate prep academies to exist.
Charter operators were excluded in the policy, meaning they were not eligible to partner with the district.
Every speaker at Thursday’s public comment portion of the school board meeting was against the policy.
Former State Board of Education board member Mavis Knight said she didn’t think the district needed the partnerships — it was doing well on its own.
“Believe in yourself and your leadership skills,” she beseeched the board, adding that by considering this policy, the district was signaling it didn’t have the faith in the work it was doing.
Former trustee candidate Lori Kirkpatrick said the proposed policy violated the idea of no taxation without representation, and “it would be a dereliction of duty to vote for it.”
Both Dallas city council member Philip Kingston and his wife, Melissa, signed up to speak. Melissa Kingston registered her opposition to the charter partnership policy, but also long-range plans for Geneva Heights, her neighborhood school.
“Let me say first, I’m proud of you,” said Philip Kingston, speaking of the upward trajectory Dallas ISD has achieved. “I’m here to chide you very gently for an idea that I think was half-baked.”
Kingston wondered why the district would turn to these partnerships in light of its successes. “Why would you give that away?” he asked, adding that the district’s proposal sent mixed messages since the district campaigned for the recent Tax Ratification Election on the strength of those gains.
“I live in Oak Cliff, we have a proliferation of charter schools,” said one speaker, reciting a litany of locations where charter school sat in his neighborhood.
“You ask why we’re not here fighting for black history, it’s because we’re fighting for black existence,” the speaker said, referring to Henry’s comments earlier, adding that they’re here to fight against policies that impact their community.
“We’re making Black History,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing.”
Another speaker was irritated that the first she heard of the policy was on social media. “I am concerned that parental involvement was not engaged there,” she said.
“You’re gonna bring someone in to wash the dishes we’ve already washed,” another speaker said, saying that the district is making improvements, and doesn’t need to partner with charters.
“This sets up little kids as investment vehicles for profit,” said Richardson ISD parent Lynn Davenport, who cautioned against the partnerships.
After an hour-long executive session, the board came back and made its way through a list of agenda items, ending their marathon meeting with the proposed African-American studies program.
“I’m glad we’re doing this, it’s long overdue,” said trustee Dan Micciche.
Trustee Miguel Solis said he would like it to be mandatory for all students to take the course, and Blackburn agreed that he would like it to be at least strongly encouraged.
Before the board passed it, 8-0, trustee Joyce Foreman spoke about the need for the district to do more.
“I agree that it would be good for not just African Americans to take this, the only way we do better, is we do better,” she said. “The only way to come together is to recognize that we’re closer than we think — and we do that through a historical perspective.”
“I get so tired of lip service. We need action. I would like to see us do better.”