Dallas Schools See Black Flight

The number of African-American students attending Dallas public schools is approaching an historic low. Many parents of black children accuse the Dallas Independent School District of putting too much focus on Latino students, who now make up the majority of pupils. Tawnell Hobbs, education reporter with the Dallas Morning News, discusses the school system’s changing demographic and how the Dallas community is responding.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we'd like to shift gears and talk about education. Education is one of the top domestic policy concerns of this administration, as it was the previous one led by George W. Bush. Tomorrow we're going to hear more about how the Obama administration is trying to put its stamp on how educators handle their business around the country and how those policy initiatives are playing out into two communities that we've been following over the course of the school year.

Now we want to go to Dallas, though, where an historic shift is underway. The number of African-American children attending public schools there has shrunk to levels not seen since the civil rights movement. Where black students once comprised the majority in the Dallas Independent School District, they now make up 26 percent of the school population. Latino children now represent 68 percent of the school population, whereas white children are five percent.

The question is why and what that means. Dallas News education reporter Tawnell Hobbs has been covering this change, which some are calling flight. And she's with us now from Dallas. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. TAWNELL HOBBS (Education Reporter, Dallas News): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Just tell me a little bit of the parameters of the change there over the last 10 years.

Ms. HOBBS: Well, just in the, you know, in the last 10 years, we had 60-something thousand. And now we're at 41,000. And the 41,000 black students in the Dallas school district today is actually lower than in the late '60s when, you know, right before there was a federal order to desegregate Dallas schools. So that's how much it has shrunk.

But there's, you know, thousands of students in Dallas that are looking at alternative measures for education. When you look at the decrease in the Dallas public schools, there's been big increases in the charter schools. There's been charter schools popping up all over. You can barely drive several blocks without running into one.

Then also we noticed in our suburban school districts, their black enrollment has really been going up. There's this one school we profiled and it was majority white, just like a decade ago, and now it's majority black. So it's been amazing, but that's where we found the growth in the suburban school districts and then in the charter schools. That's where the black growth is.

MARTIN: When you have talked to black parents about why they've moved their children to these other schools, what have they said?

Ms. HOBBS: Basically the perception that smaller is better. You know, the charter schools are smaller. The suburban districts are smaller than in the inner city. Then also, some parents felt that there's more of a focus now on bilingual education and programs to help Hispanic students and that the black students were being forgotten. So that's been an issue.

And then there are some parents that just they felt the American dream was in the suburbs, where they could go get a bigger house and a yard, smaller school system, and they went for that reason.

MARTIN: In your reporting, did you detect any ambivalence on the part of black parents about leaving, particularly those who were part of those desegregation battles years before?

Ms. HOBBS: Yeah. I mean, that was the surprise - one of them, anyway - going to into this, was that one of the members of the group that I interviewed, the Black Coalition to Maximize Education, some of their leaders just said, oh yeah, we're telling parents to consider other options because the Dallas school district no longer is looking out for black students.

MARTIN: What does that mean they're not looking out for the black students? What do they say? They're saying that the focus is on non-primary English speakers who have to...

Ms. HOBBS: Right.

MARTIN: ...be brought to English fluency? And why do they think that?

Ms. HOBBS: Well, you know, they cite a number of reasons. For years, under the desegregation order that the Dallas school district was under, that lasted from, like, 1971 to 2003. And under that order, you had a lot of programs created. You had these magnet schools. You had these learning centers. So over the last few years the black leaders had felt that they'd been really fighting to hold onto to some of those initiatives, like the learning centers.

Learning centers here are basically specialized schools. They typically, you know, they had longer school days, more resources pumped into them. And that was to have quality schools in those predominantly minority neighborhoods.

MARTIN: Do any of the Latino parents feel now the way some black parents did years ago? Do they feel rejected, in essence? Did they feel just some of the black parents just don't want their kids going to school with their kids?

Ms. HOBBS: Good question. You know, it's weird, because as I talked to some of the Hispanic leaders, I kind of expected that. You know, I've read about years ago when we had white flight, you know, after the desegregation order, you know, to make the school system equal. And you know, I sense then that blacks were, like, oh, they don't want to be with us, they're fleeing. I didn't get that from a lot of the Hispanic leaders that I talked to.

Their concern, really, was, like, they didn't like it because they didn't want to lose that black voice, 'cause there has been a strong black voice in Dallas to ensure that minority kids get, you know, what they deserve.

Now, there was one of the civil rights leaders, Hispanic civil rights leaders said he felt that some black parents didn't feel comfortable with their children attending school with, you know, Spanish speaking students.

MARTIN: And what about conversely - did any of the black parents say it's not a matter of policy, it's that we feel our children are not well treated or we feel that there's racial tension, we don't want this kind of mix?

Ms. HOBBS: I did get that from some of the black parents and I got it from a lot of the black activists.

MARTIN: Interesting. I just want to mention that we invited Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa to join us for this conversation. He declined for today. We still hope that we will hear from him at some point. But his office provided a statement saying, quote, "that we are confident that students of every ethnicity, including African-American students, have access to top flight academic programs. To say that the district is losing focus on any ethnic group is a flat-out falsehood."

And it goes on to say that while the decline of African-American students in Dallas mirrors that of other urban centers throughout the country, urban districts, particularly in the southern half of the U.S., are facing the same thing, in large part because of the exponential growth of Hispanic students. And we'll have that statement on our Web site. So Tawnell, is that true?

Ms. HOBBS: Here's the thing, and I talked to the superintendent for this story. He really was not too concerned about it because he felt that this is a trend being seen nationwide. But as I told him, statewide Dallas is way ahead of all the other large urban districts when it comes to decreases in black enrollment. And even on a national scale, we are second after Detroit. So the change is happening faster in Dallas. The decrease is a lot faster, and it's a lot more prominent.

MARTIN: Tawnell Hobbs is an education reporter for the Dallas Morning News. She was kind enough to join us from member station KERA in Dallas. If you want to read the pieces that she reported - reporting on this phenomenon, we will link to them on our Web site. Just go to NPR.org. Click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Tawnell, thank you so much for speaking to us.

Ms. HOBBS: Thank you for having me.

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