Part One: New Dallas ISD initiative to convert two elementaries into an early learning center and a STEAM academy met with conflict
By DIANE XAVIER
The Dallas Examiner
The Dallas Independent School District Board voted to turn J.J. Rhoads Elementary school into an all day learning center, adding Pre-K3 and Pre-K4 as part of its South Dallas Proud initiative that looks to improve schools in South Dallas, at its March 26 school board meeting.
The rezoning will move first through fifth grade students from J.J. Rhoads to the new H.S. Thompson Elementary school that is being constructed. But the move is met with mixed responses; while many express excitement regarding the changes, many others are upset and concerned.
Justin Henry, district 9 trustee and president of the board, explained that J.J. Rhoads would continue to serve its K-5 students, but would transform its services to become an all-day early learning center for 3- and 4-year-old students in 2020-21.
“With extended hours of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. to accommodate working parents, J.J. Rhoads will offer music and art as part of its after-school programming. Renovations are planned for the building, but J.J. Rhoads will remain open and will continue to serve its students,” he explained.
Henry added that South Dallas will have a STEAM academy.
“In the 2021-22 school year, the community is gaining a new state-of-the-art STEAM academy to serve 675 students when the rebuilt H.S. Thompson Elementary reopens,” Henry explained “The new school will be large enough to accommodate all the students who are currently at J.J. Rhoads as well, and will focus on science, technology, engineering, art and math, aimed at preparing students for success in the 21st century.
Henry said the attendance rate for J.J. Rhoads for the 2017-2018 school year was at 95.5%.
“Starting now, J.J. Rhoads will have two principals – one for the early learning center and one for the K-5. In addition, it will receive some additional resources including much needed facility updates,” he stated.
Chaundra Macklin and Crystal Owens will be the principals. The purpose of having two is to help with the transitioning of both programs that are going to be established at J.J. Rhoads, according to Robyn Harris, Director of News and Information for Dallas ISD.
“Ms. Macklin and her administrative team will lead our early childhood department and PreK through first grade and they will have their students on the first floor,” said Owens, principal of H.S. Thompson Elementary STEAM Academy. “My administrative team, we will have the second through fifth grade students on the second floor. We are super excited about the upcoming school year.
After being out of the classroom for about five months, the students will have to trasition back to a more formal setting, as well as the new format of an early learning center or STEAM academy.
“I think that the transition to an early learning childhood center is going to be fabulous just due to the number of children in our area that need that early learning support,” said Macklin, principal of J.J. Rhoads Early Learning Center. “We do have other childhood early learning centers in our area but we have so many children that we just are not able to support all of our families. I am really, really excited about the new step that we are having with our Joseph J. Rhoads learning center. We are going to be open and ready for business starting in August of 2020.”
This will not be the first transistion for the two elementaries, which has shared students for eight years, when H.S. Thompson was closed due to a declining population and budgetary cuts.
“Since H.S. Thompson was closed in June of 2012, all of the students that were in the old J.J. Rhoads attendance zone and old H.S. Thompson attendance have been at J.J. Rhoads,” Henry further explained. “All of these students will remain together and benefit from the state-of-the-art facilities at H.S. Thompson when it opens in Fall of 2021. The early learning center will provide the community with another all-day early learning center … Research shows that students that are in high-quality early learning programs are better prepared for kindergarten and beyond.”
Harris reiterated that research revealed the long-term benefits of quality early learning opportunities and the need for more facilities.
“There are not enough childcare centers or facilities to pick up the demand for the number of children,” Harris explained. “Our Trustees had quite a bit of engagement with community members in that community. Based on feedback, this was something very supported . It wasn’t just a limited pool of people as well.”
A parent survey was conducted at J.J. Rhoads, which consisted of 357 responses from 253 family members. The school has a student population of 614 and 448 families. The survey showed that 72% of the parents supported the transition. It also showed that 72.3% were against keeping the original boundaries of the attendance zone, according to Henry.
DISD has partnerships with certain private early learning centers in the area from which it is trying to enroll 3- and 4-year-olds. The district is also working on enrolling 3- and 4-year-olds in the community that are not currently enrolled in an early learning program, according to Henry.
“If you are looking at the perspective of having more seats available for students who live in the South Dallas community than it is nothing more than a win win and hopefully others can see that as well,” he said. “The focus is on having high quality education for every student.”
After hearing about the district’s transition plan, LeNona Shields, a parent of a student who attends J.J. Rhoads, started an online petition to keep the school open to first through fifth grades. According to Shields, she’s not alone in her concerns.
“I started the petition to save J.J. Rhoads elementary school,” Shields said. “My child goes to J.J. Rhoads and she is in the fourth grade. And I also had a kindergartener going there, but I took him out due to a lot of things that were happening at the school from last year.”
Shields is currently the PTA vice president and last year’s president.
“I heard about them closing the school down or trying to last year,” Shields said. “We kept asking them after they were having the meetings to take it out of the docket. We are asking Justin Henry, who is the president of DISD board – he has the power to take it out of docket – but they put it on during this pandemic. Basically catching us with our backs turned and putting this back on the docket for them to turn J.J. Rhoads into a 3- and 4-year-old school, which is not mandated by the state to deal with 3- and 4-year-olds.”
“The 3- and 4-year-olds have to be confined to the first floor of the school and it is a safety hazard for them to use the second floor. We would have a second floor that is empty and it is not working … H.S. Thompson is scheduled to be open in 2021. And now they are pushing it back because they haven’t started the production of it.”
Shields said she believes the changes the board voted on would cause many problems and hopes the petition will make the community aware of what is going on. So far the petition has 400 signatures.
“They are not being truthful with us. It would cause a lot of problems because the school they were going to send all the kids to, the new school H.S. Thompson, they haven’t broken any dirt on it,” she said. “So we are going to be waiting for a school for our kids to go to because they are looking to turn our school into a 3- and 4-year-old school that shouldn’t be done so we will be left without a school. And yes, they would have to take buses, a lot of our kids will be walking further than they are already walking. It is either over 2 miles in order to be provided bus transportation – and since it is not they would have to walk through dangerous intersections just to get there because a lot of the parents might not have transportation. So, it would put our kids at risk.”
The two schools are 1.3 miles appart, which would take approximately 29 minutes for an adult to walk, including crossing C.F. Hawn Freeway. With over 95% of the students living below the poverty line, some parents are concerned that many students would have to walk over 30 minutes to cross the freeway and get to school – the same treck H.S. Thompson students have been making since 2013.
DISD District 6 Trustee Joyce Foreman is also against the changes taking place.
“I joined in on the petition to try to get more people in the process. Many people from South Dallas understand that there is a move to gentrification and taking over and shutting down schools over there.They decided at last board meeting that they were going to consolidate the boundaries which in fact would take J.J. Rhoads out. But we are saying it can be changed and we know it can be changed. I am working with the community to try to get what they need in regards that they get this right.”
Next week in part two, J.J. Rhoads principals and community leaders discuss the transformation further – with supporters leading the way, as those opposed prepare for a fight.