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Highland Park Has a New Academic Rival: DISD’s Solar Prep School for Girls

But that's just part of the story.
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Courtesy Dallas ISD

Out of the gate, Solar Preparatory School for Girls was a gamble. It was 2016, just a year since Michael Hinojosa returned as the superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District. He was rolling out a single-gender desegregation pilot school, the brainchild of the reform team assembled by the previous superintendent, Mike Miles. Miles’ tenure had been so contentious some might say executing on his legacy was an act of courage. Hinojosa was undeterred.

The single gender approach was not altogether new. Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School launched in 2004 and the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy opened in 2011. Both had built solid track records. But the economic integration model, instituted by Miles’ Office of Transformation and Innovation (OTI), had not been tested in Dallas.

Solar Prep would serve a split of students: 50 percent of low-income families in the district, and 50 percent from middle-to-high income families. It was desegregation not by race, but disparate socio-economic experiences. One of the DISD’s “choice” pilots, Solar was designed to lift opportunities for the district’s low-income and socially disadvantaged students and, as a secondary benefit, bring middle class families back into the public school system. Another fundamental element: admission would be impossible to game. Aside from engineering a mix of socio-economic circumstances, enrollment would be based on a lottery system.

Co-founders Dr. Nancy Bernadino and the late Jennifer Turner were optimistic. Bernadino was raised in Pleasant Grove and attended The Hockaday School on scholarship. She wanted to replicate that experience in a STEM* program for public school girls. The all-female launch team had personally experienced gender bias in different academic settings. This resonated with the data produced by the Girl Scouts of the USA, showing that most girls in co-ed schools “lose their voice” by 5th grade. At the same time, the Socio-Economic Status (SES) model advanced by the OTI had been tried in a handful of the 14,000 public school districts across the country, and in each case both disadvantaged kids and those from the middle class experienced a win.

Still, no one was betting, three years down the road, that Solar’s academic achievement among third and fourth graders would approach those attending Highland Park ISD, the richest, and arguably most privileged, district in Texas. Which is why Solar’s 2019 STAAR Achievement Test scores are on the high side of remarkable.

Take a look.

NOTE: The first two charts compare all of Solar’s third and fourth grade students to HPISD students. The second two charts compare Solar’s third and fourth grade White students (21 percent of student population) to HPISD students, the vast majority of whom are White. The data were compiled and provided by the nonprofit Commit Partnership. 

STAAR Scores

% of Students Proficient at “MEETS” Level

% of Students Proficient at “MASTERS” Level

% of White Students Proficient at “MEETS” Level
(21% of Solar Prep)

% of White Students Proficient at “MASTERS” Level (21% of Solar Prep)

Solar for Girls launched with Pre-K through 2nd grades. It has since added a new grade every year, and will do so up to 8th grade. The school has 611 students, with more than 500 on the waiting list. And while Solar’s enrollment is not race-based, the school is more diverse than DISD overall: 50 percent are Hispanic, 21 percent are White, 18 percent are Black and 11 percent identify as Other.

The launch team had done its homework, studying schools that were “diverse by design” across the country before opening Solar’s doors in the historic James Burnham Elementary School on Henderson Avenue, which had been closed for lack of student enrollment. Bucking the tide, they were the ones who insisted on enrollment by lottery, not academics. They hired a team of teachers who reflected the race and backgrounds of those of the student population. They screened heavily to find and train anti-biased and anti-racist educators.

“The hiring process is intense,” Bernadino says. “We’re not just looking for proficiency in content areas but the right mental mindset.”

Olivia Santos, the current principal, says the intensive two-week session during the summer is just part of the training for Solar teachers.

“We have high expectations for our staff,” Santos says. “We promise families that whatever level their child is when they come in, we will provide an additional year of growth. That’s a lot to put on our teachers, but the model is holding up.”

Solar’s encouraging results have supported the launch of a variety of choice schools, in many cases using the SES model. These include City Lab High School, Solar Prep for Boys, PL Prep Elementary, Hernandez Montessori, Ignite Middle School, IDEA High School (which transitioned into an SES), and Ida B. Wells Montessori. There are more SES schools in the works: the Paul Quinn Baccalaureate campus, as well as schools planned for the Valley View neighborhood and in the Medical District.

How’s it going?

Dallas’ social-economic path to student achievement through desegregation has established DISD as one of the most transformative — and watched — public school districts in the country.

“I just submitted a plan for a replica of the Solar school today,” Bernadino said.

*Solar Prep is now a STEAM school, adding arts to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

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