Part Two: Parents and community members fight to preserve historic schools and attendance zones
By DIANE XAVIER
The Dallas Examiner
On April 21, the Dallas Independent School District announced that J.J. Rhoads Elementary School would become an all-day early learning center. The school would continue to serve K-5 students and begin providing services for Pre-K3 and Pre-K4 when students return to the classroom in 2020-2021.
But what Dallas ISD touted as good news for the future of South Dallas has become more of a controversial subject on the treatment of South Dallas students. Some members of the community that oppose the transition have expressed that the district is essentially closing down the school because it will no longer serve first through sixth grade students. Those students will begin attending H.S. Thompson STEAM Academy next school year.
“DISD needs to look at things from a community basis and not just from a top of a building,” said Rev. Todd Atkins, the association’s president and pastor of Salem Institutional Baptist Church. “If you continue to have a bird’s eye view of South Dallas, then you usually make one change without positively or negatively impacting the community. I think DISD needs to be more focused on keeping communities and putting in needed resources.”
He was not alone in his sentiment.
“I am adamantly against closing the school and have worked with several members of the community in what is transpiring,” said DISD District 6 Trustee Joyce Foreman. “In 2011, there were about 12 schools that were closed and a majority of schools were in South Dallas. And now we are in the process of closing down another school. I am a firm believer that our elementary school children should not be bussed. They should be going to neighborhood schools.”
Foreman said after schools were closed in South Dallas, she took a personal offense to it and challenged Trustee Bernadette Nutall on closing the schools.
“Then, she and I ended up on the board together and found a way to figure out that it was bigger than both of us. It should be about the children and she admitted that she had made a mistake in regards to closing the schools,” she continued. “What we did was to rectify H.S. Thompson, which was a school that was closed. And she and I worked together along with Trustee Lew Blackburn to try to get H.S. Thompson reopened. We got it that back on the calendar in 2017 or 2018 for them to build a new school at H.S. Thompson. There was never any conversation about closing additional schools in the Dallas area.”
A Long Range Facilities Master Plan was presented during a Dallas ISD Board of Trustees meeting, September 2018. The plan was a 10-year plan for its 221 campuses, which did include building a new school for H.S. Thompson and for J.J. Rhodes.
During the Jan. 23 meeting, the board discussed H.S. Thompson Elementary schools new state-of-the-art building, but this time it included transitioning J.J. Rhoads into a PreK-3 through K-5 early learning center. The board agreed that they needed more feedback from the community and agreed to postpone changes, according to Dallas ISD documentation.
District 9 Trustee Justin Henry, president of the board, stated that the district conducted several community meetings to inform the community and gather input. The Dallas ISD announcement regarding the transition also stated that another meeting was planned for April.
Foreman said the decision regarding the schools’ transition was made at a recent school board meeting, which took her by surprise.
“Three months ago, Trustee Henry indicated to us that the boundary decision would not be made this year. It would be made next February,” Foreman said. “But to our surprise, when all of this terrible COVID-19 happened, we found that Trustee Henry put it back on the agenda after telling many community people that he was not going to do that. We are upset about that. He is closing schools in African American communities. And we have several schools under 300 children and we are not closing those schools. To say that you are going to close J.J. Rhoads to have more students at H.S. Thompson is not an acceptable way to do this. You have many people in the community that are upset about this, including myself.”
“You told us you weren’t going to do this but you did this anyway. So you are going to be held accountable,” Foreman directed toward Henry.
LeNona Shields, PTA vice president at J.J. Rhoads, started an online petition to keep the school open to first through fifth grades, which Foreman signed.
“When they bring it and present it for us they are telling us one thing, but in reality, there is no transparency” Shields said. “They are not telling us everything that is supposed to go on. So when they open up H.S. Thompson they are really basically going to close down J.J. Rhoads as they have been with other schools rather than restoring it. It is not right for our community. We want to keep our historic schools in the neighborhoods and continue to be able to utilize them. I started the petition to get people to sign the petition, to send it back to the board to let them know we are against them closing J.J. Rhoads down or making it a 3- or 4-year-old school.”
Shields expressed that the district has historically not been fair to the schools in Southern Dallas.
“It has been going on in our community for years, because they have been closing down schools and rewriting and rewording proposals and bonds and not doing right by the community. And so now in this time of our need, we really see what is going on, and I think this will start a protest,” Shields said. “Justin Henry has the power to do away with this and come up with a better plan.”
Those opposed to the transition want both schools to have their own attendance boundaries, so that the young students are going to school in their own neighborhoods. The two schools are 1.3 miles apart, including crossing C.F. Hawn Freeway/Highway 175.
“It also creates a second set of problems when you have these 5-year-old children, they can’t walk to school because it’s not a safe walking distance. They have to catch the bus,” Foreman insisted. “So what does that mean for those young children? That means they are going to have to get up early to get ready to catch a bus to go to school, which is unfair. They should be able to go to their neighborhood schools. And it will also dilute parental involvement, because the parents won’t have access to the school that lives on that side.”
Adding to the list of concerns is the business that it would take away from neighborhood childcare centers that offer Pre-K3 and Pre-K4 programs.
“We have daycare providers that the district is partnered with in the South Dallas area and that will now affect their business when we take the 3- and 4-year-olds,” Foreman expressed.
On behalf of the South Dallas Fair Park Faith Coalition, Atkins supported the petition’s argument that J.J. Rhoads remain a neighborhood school and return to the original boundaries that existed before H.S. Thompson was closed.
“I believe those are anchors in our communities,” he said. “And I am also concerned about DISD having an early learning center in an area that already has very established early child centers that have partnerships with DISD and how can this affect those childcare centers and which could close down some of our businesses. I am concerned about multiple aspects.”
“I would like for DISD to plug in the needed resources for that school. I don’t see the need to have a celebration and a funeral at the same time. Celebrating a new school being built while having a funeral for another school being closed. So I prefer that they go back to the original attendance boundaries and at least have time for study for a year to see if J.J. Rhoads remain public.”
Dallas ISD officials denied the allegation, stating that they would most likely cap out at a maximum number of students and refer 3- and 4-year-olds to their partnering childcare centers if they run out of space – and vice versa. Furthermore, they would not be taking students from their private childcare centers, but will be working with them to ensure all 3- and 4-year-olds are receiving services.
Atkins went on to say that the new houses that are being built would bring new families to South Dallas, which would mean increased attendance at J.J. Rhoads.
Foreman, who also addressed the new houses, stated focuses more on the gentrification that she said was taking place.
“People are coming back to South Dallas. It is not the poor people that live over there now. They are trying to get another group of people over there and we know that. We understand that. But why are you going to pull down young children to ride the bus? That makes no sense,” she stated.
Shirley Ison-Newsome, a retired DISD administrator who supervised the schools in South Dallas for many years, said she understands the emotional impact of the transition, but believed it’s a good thing.
“I know having gone through some school closures due to severe drops in populations, that it is an emotional response as well as response of uncertainty that often accompanies such changes,” Ison-Newsome said. “Fortunately, J.J. Rhoads is not closing but is being repurposed in what I consider a very thoughtful and productive manner that brings needed educational services to the community, maintains this educational institution in the community, and can serve as a model as to how to repurpose school sites when populations do not warrant keeping a building open in its traditional manner.”
“I happen to have a strong emotional tie to J.J. Rhoads as it was the first learning center to become a ‘Recognized School’ while I was area superintendent and Cora Johns was principal. Subsequent to that every learning center and early childhood center in South Dallas became some of the highest performing schools in DISD as recognized by state and national assessments.”
H.S. Thompson is due to be complete for the 2021-22 school year. In the meantime, all students will continue to attend J.J. Rhoads. Also new next school year, J.J. Rhoads will have two principals.
Chaundra Macklin will be over the early childhood department and Pre-K through first grade on the first floor and Crystal Owens will be over the second through fifth grades on the second floor – which Dallas ISD officials have stated is safe, adding, “The safety and security of our children is our utmost priority.”
“We are super excited about the homecoming celebration of H.S. Thompson returning to the neighborhood,” Owens said. “And not only are we returning to the neighborhood we are bringing our students from J.J. Rhoads K-5 along with us. This is a celebration. Our focus is going to be with science, technology, engineering, arts, math and education. In addition to the core curriculum that we are already going to have, we are super excited about taking our kids and meeting them into the 21st century.”
Macklin said she and Owens have already begun working together to get the year started right and will continue to collaborate on a plan to get the children to school safely.
“We call our upcoming year our ‘Fall Premiere,’” Macklin said. “I’m sure with all of us working collaboratively with all our staff in DISD all our students can get to school safely. That’s our main concern. I believe those transportation concerns will be alleviated. We will make sure all students will be able to get there safely.”
Furthermore, Dallas ISD officials have stated that the district does provide transportation to students who live in hazardous traffic or high-risk-of-violence areas, regardless of the distance.
But words have been less than reassuring to petitioning parents and community members.
“There are a lot of different barriers going on with these two schools alone. We just want answers,” Shields insisted, adding that there was no real collaboration with parents by Dallas ISD that would help ensure the success of the children. “They are just pushing them along.”
“We will take action. We will be doing protests and we will be speaking at every board meeting until we are heard.”
Forman also plans to continue to fight the planned changes.
“We just have to keep pushing this issue to make sure that people in Southern Dallas get the same thing,” she stated. “We are trying to fight to preserve whatever we can for the community.”
Dallas ISD said the construction plans for H.S. Thompson is on schedule and it plans to break ground in late spring. The project was estimated to take 12 months – with an opening date of August 2021.
The next board meeting will be livestreamed May 14 from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.dallasisd.org.
Editor’s note: Part One stated that the petition had 400 signatures. It should have stated that it has 367 signatures.