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Making Dallas Even Better

Leading Off (4/29/16)

Cowboys Select Ezekiel Elliott. With the fourth pick in this year’s NFL draft, Dallas took the Ohio State running back. Reviews of the decision are mixed, with some suggesting they should have gone with Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey instead. The Cowboys also tried — and failed — to trade up to get another first-round pick with which to select Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch as Tony Romo’s heir.

Dallas ISD Votes to Buy New Headquarters. The $46.5 million purchase was approved by board trustees in the earliest hour of Friday morning. The building, at 9400 N. Central Expressway, will consolidate the district’s headquarters and 15 other offices in one place. DISD anticipates the change will produce tens of millions of dollars in savings by 2021. Trustees were divided on the matter, which got the go-ahead on a 5-3 vote. Trustees Bernadette Nutall, Joyce Foreman, and Lew Blackburn opposed the purchase, expressing concerns about how it’s being funded and about the district headquarters moving six miles north of its current relatively central location. Some employees could be relocated to what’s being called the Dallas ISD Education by the end of the year, with the entire moving process taking about four years.

Blackie Sherrod, RIP. Sherrod, who died of natural causes at age 96 on Thursday afternoon, is being remembered as “the greatest Texas sportswriter of his generation.”

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The Oak Cliff DISD Trustee Race Has Turned Ugly

Early voting has begun for the May 7 joint elections, which feature many ISD races. As I wrote about in my May column in D Magazine, this is an especially crucial vote for Dallas ISD, with four seats up for grabs. I point out that, contrary to popular opinion, the school board has overcome status quo efforts to maintain the status quo, putting in place important reforms that will help poor kids throughout the district. (Which, in turn, will help the city at large.)

Since I wrote that column about six weeks ago, one race has become awash in nastiness. Which happens, right? It’s local politics.

Except this time, that nastiness includes not just political operatives but also City Council members. In fact, the council members have become political operatives in these ISD races in ways that make me very queasy, in part because the folks doing this include people I admire and consider friends. Which means this is not going to be fun. Let’s do a little FAQ to get you caught up:

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Let’s Talk About How to Fix Dallas Schools

Next Tuesday evening here at D Magazine World Headquarters, we’re hosting a happy hour/panel discussion on education in North Texas: More specifically, the question of how schools can find, reward, and retain the best teachers. Eric Celeste will moderate a talk among Dallas ISD trustee Miguel Solis, Stacy Hodge of education advocacy nonprofit Stand For Children, and Todd Williams of overly-punctuated education nonprofit Commit!

If you’re interested in attending, mosey on over this way.

As for myself, I was too excited about the issues to wait all the way until next week. So I asked John Hill, who writes and podcasts about education in Dallas on his blog Turn and Talks, to have a little chat with me (via instant messages) to further whet my appetite. Hill is a former DISD teacher and is now teaching 10th-grade world history at his alma mater, Jesuit Dallas.

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Leading Off (4/22/16)

Ex-DISD Executive Sues District. Tonya Sadler Grayson, who was fired last July, claims in a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court that she was wrongfully terminated, sexually harassed by trustee Lew Blackburn, and discriminated against because of her race. Grayson’s dismissal from her job came after an internal DISD audit determined she had taken part in a deception, lied about her criminal history, and bullied another employee.

Johnny Manziel Likely Indicted. The Dallas County district attorney’s office will announce indictments by the grand jury that was hearing the domestic violence charges against the former Texas A&M and Cleveland Browns quarterback on Monday. Prosecutors had previously said a decision not to indict Manziel would be announced on Thursday but a formal indictment would come Monday. So it’s not looking good for Johnny Football. (Are we still calling him that?)

Frisco Mother’s Death Ruled Suicide. Christine Woo was found dead — and her three young children alive — in an SUV in a Target parking lot earlier this month. She and her kids had apparently been in the vehicle a few days. Yesterday the medical examiner revealed that Woo had killed herself via a drug overdose. Furthermore, Frisco Police say their investigation determined that Woo had “no deliberate plan” to harm her own children with what she did. Deliberate or not, let’s hope there are no long-term repercussions for these kids.

Mavs Lose Game 3. A contingent of D Magazine staffers was on hand to witness the Mavericks’ 131-102 loss to Oklahoma City, which gave the Thunder a 2-1 lead in the first-round NBA playoff series. It was my first time attending a Mavs game in about 25 years. If they had to lose, I’m glad it was in a blowout because that led Tim (my ride) to leave the game early, which got me back to D Magazine World Headquarters in time to watch the bottom of the ninth as former Plano East Senior High School and TCU baseball player Jake Arrieta (now the ace of the Chicago Cubs) finished a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds. My apologies to the poor maintenance guy I frightened when I hooted and hollered in what he had assumed was an empty office.

The Texas Rangers saluted musical artist Prince, who died Thursday, on the video board at Globe Life Park as the team completed a sweep of the Houston Astros.

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Dallas ISD Isn’t Home to the Most Challenging High School in the U.S.

Following on yesterday’s post about Dallas ISD’s Talented and Gifted magnet school continuing to dominate the U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of the best high schools in the country, I received a note from Sara Ortega, a spokeswoman for charter school operator Uplift Education. (Side note: I once had breakfast with Uplift’s CEO. Impressive lady.)

Uplift has 15 North Texas campuses (mostly in Dallas). Ortega took issue with my lumping together charters like the Uplift schools with selective magnet schools:

Uplift Summit International Preparatory is an Uplift Education school, which as you may know, is often criticized as a network (along with all public charters) for cherry picking the best students–the exact thing that magnets do.  So, when you say that, “…it does say something that DISD is able to out-compete schools of a similar type,” I would have to politely disagree in that open-enrollment public charters like Uplift Summit are not similar to magnets in that they do not have the ability to only choose elite students.

She then pointed me to the Washington Post’s ranking of the “America’s most challenging high schools,” which was released on Monday. The Post uses a different methodology than U.S. News, even if a bunch of the schools near the top of their respective lists end up the same.

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Dallas ISD Once Again Boasts Best High School in the Nation

I’m not sure whether to make too much or too little out of the fact that Dallas ISD’s School for the Talented and Gifted has once again topped U.S. News & World Report‘s Best High Schools list, which was released today. It was the fifth year in a row TAG took the honor.

On the one hand, the notion that DISD operates the absolute top secondary school in all of these United States is impressive. Almost as impressive is that DISD has the fourth-best too, the School of Science and Engineering, which is on the same campus as TAG.

On the other hand, these are magnet schools, with the ability to select an elite cross-section of students from across the entirety of the district. Does it tell us really that much about DISD that, when it’s able to select only students with top-notch academic potential and educate them together in one place, it’s able to operate a top-notch school? As opposed to a school that makes the most of what it’s given via its attendance boundaries?

At the least, I suppose what it tells us is better than the alternative: collecting the best students and not getting great performances on standardized tests from them. And since the U.S. News list is dominated by magnet and charter schools, it does say something that DISD is able to out-compete schools of similar type.

So today I’m going with the positive spin. Two other North Texas schools made the nationwide top 100: Arlington’s Summit International Preparatory, at No. 22 and DISD’s Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School (No. 97.)

Click here for the full Texas portion of the rankings.

How Its Limitations Have Helped UT-Dallas Gain Attention

The Texas Tribune had a piece over the weekend about how the University of Texas at Dallas (in Richardson) has garnered a growing national reputation. It’s now ranked as the third-best public university in the state, behind only UT-Austin and Texas A&M.

In addition to not pursuing a foolhardy strategy to gain prominence via football — UTD grants scholarships to its top-ranked chess team instead  — it’s actually been restrictions imposed upon the school that have helped it become what it is today. For one, the campus is hemmed in by development around it, meaning that staying relatively small was an imperative. Secondly, so that UTD wouldn’t draw students away from the local community colleges, the state legislature required it to use the same higher admission standards as does UT-Austin:

That created a big challenge. UT-Austin, a highly popular and well-established public university, could impose high standards because so many people wanted to enroll. UT-Dallas was just starting off, and those top students needed a lot of convincing to come study in Richardson. The first freshman classes had fewer than 200 enrollees. “And retention was abysmal,” Wildenthal said.

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Correction: Allen ISD Is Way Better Than We Were Told

The April issue of D Magazine featured a cover story titled “The Ultimate Newcomer’s Guide to Dallas.” For one of the items, we ranked select North Texas school districts using data from Children at Risk, a nonprofit, non-partisan research and advocacy institution. We used CAR’s rankings of high schools to create an average ranking for each district. You can learn more about CAR’s ranking methodology here (warning: PDF). Allen ISD fell near the bottom of our list, which prompted us to write: “Given that its one high school is ranked 90th in North Texas, it might be smarter to buy a house a few miles north in McKinney or west in Plano or Frisco.”

We hereby retract that statement and apologize to the folks in Allen for printing it. CAR used bad data for the school’s graduate rate to rank Allen ISD’s high school. Using an accurate measure of Allen’s graduate rate would put the district someplace right at the top of the list that we published. This correction will also appear in our May issue.

Now then, Lance Hindt, Allen’s superintendent, took a lot of time to get to the bottom of this matter with CAR. And the district’s chief information officer, Tim Carroll, took even more time to explain it to me. The short version is that Allen High is a grades 10-12 campus, which CAR didn’t account for when it figured the school’s graduation rate. But here’s the longer explanation from Carroll and Hindt:

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Leading Off (3/24/16)

Richardson high school grad injured in Brussels terror attack. Sophie Wauters and her mother were in the Brussels airport when the explosions hit. Both survived but suffered injuries from pieces of falling ceiling and broken glass. The Wauters family is from Belgium; after graduating from Richardson, Sophie moved there for school.

Hail and strong winds move through North Texas last night. Apparently there were piles of quarter-sized hail in Plano, and even larger hail in Flower Mound. And a lightning storm in Southlake. Even a tornado warning for northern Tarrant County. For now, the storms seem to have passed but could resurface later this weekend. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was kept awake by the ridiculously loud wind.

DISD janitor is top 10 finalist in contest. J. L. Long Middle School’s Enrique Mendez is considered one of the top 10 janitors in the nation right now. The Janitor of the Year contest, hosted by Cintas Corp., provides $5,000 cash and a $5,000 school makeover to the winner. You can vote through April 15.

Real estate firm is suing 93-year-old with Alzheimer’s. Dallas real estate firm Henry S. Miller Brokerage has sued Ruth Sanders, 93, over a failed deal to construct a 7-Eleven where her house currently sits in Uptown—one of the last historic black homes in the area and one that has been in her family since the early 1900s. Sanders also has Alzheimer’s disease, so that makes it difficult for her to keep track of the situation. It would be a shame to see this piece of history be removed, but it would not be surprising.

UNT Funnels Millions Into Money-Losing Sports

The Texas Tribune offers a look at the money being spent on athletics by Texas public universities. Aside perennial big-time programs at Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and the University of Texas at Austin, whose teams each generate nearly $200 million in annual revenue, these schools are heavily subsidizing their quest for glory on the playing field.

The University of North Texas brings in more than $11 million in revenue but also runs up expenses totaling more than $31 million. Its students are asked to subsidize the difference in the form of additional dedicated fees ($165 per semester):

Making dramatic cuts wasn’t much of an option if the athletic departments wanted to remain competitive. So that left two choices: They could ask their universities for “direct institutional transfers,” which are dollars sent from the university to athletics. Or they could take more money in student fees.

In most cases, the schools did both.

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Leading Off (3/18/16)

Van Cliburn Winner’s Daughters Killed. A 5-year-old girl and 1-year-old girl were found dead, and their mother found stabbed several times, at a home in Benbrook on Thursday. The children’s father is Vadym Kholodenko, who won the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2013. As of late last night, police were still waiting to speak with the mother, who was taken to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, where she underwent surgery. Kholodenko and wife Sofia Tsygankova were in the process of divorcing and had not lived together as a couple since August. Kholodenko was scheduled to perform three shows with the Fort Worth Symphony this weekend. Police said they have not yet determined a suspect and that there were no signs of forced entry to the home.

McKinney to Vote on 12,000-Seat Stadium. The McKinney ISD board approved a $220 million bond proposition that will appear on the ballot May 7. The big-ticket item ($50.3 million) is a new football venue and events center near Central Expressway and State Highway 121.

Phil Romano, Emmitt Smith Lose Money in Bankrupt Company. The Dallas restaurateur and Dallas Cowboys legend are reportedly among the investors holding soon-to-be worthless shares of medical device company Palmaz Scientific, which hasn’t commercialized any of its technology.

Hail Kills 8 Birds at Fort Worth Zoo. Thursday morning’s storms claimed the lives of five flamingos, a pelican, an ibis and a swan chick.

Q&A With an Entomologist: Attack of the Mosquito Hawks!

They are everywhere in North Texas. Are they here to suck your blood? Do they mean us harm? What’s the deal with mosquito hawks? I called an entomologist to find out. Mike Merchant is a professor and extension urban entomologist with Texas A&M. He lives here. He knows a thing or two about bugs, and he runs a bug blog that you might enjoy. Here’s the deal:

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New York Times Publishes Damning Look at SMU Basketball Program

It’s difficult to read today’s New York Times piece about the shenanigans surrounding the basketball programs at Dallas’ Kimball High School and at SMU and still feel sorry for the Mustangs being banned from postseason play despite their 25-4 record this season.

At the heart of this story is Keith Frazier, the SMU player who dropped out in January and who had previously had grades changed and academic work done on his behalf. It’s pretty clear that he never should have been admitted to the school in the first place, and SMU officials knew it:

The university has a faculty committee that examines athletic applications. Its charge is to balance leniency with pragmatism: Can an athlete survive at this academically rigorous school?

That committee turned down Frazier.

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