When Miguel Solis discusses the demographics of the Dallas Independent School District (at 30 years old, he is its youngest trustee), he’s really discussing the city’s future workforce. Nearly 72 percent of its students are Latino, a chunk that accounts for about 111,000 kids from early childhood through 12th grade. That’s 111,000 kids with unique challenges—there’s a language barrier (42 percent speak English as a second language), cultural impediments (“We don’t have a hard number on this, but we do have a good idea that we serve a pretty large undocumented population,” Solis says), and economic hurdles (a majority of children who live in poverty in Dallas are Hispanic).
“The only way to curb this poverty trait is to ensure that our students are both educated and ready for a job,” Solis says. “If we want to really turn the page, or take the next step in being an even better Dallas, then we’ve got to take these Latino issues seriously.”
Toward that goal, the district has teamed with community organizations and corporations to help develop programs and curriculum to set the students up for success. In 2013, the district began pouring money and resources into its early education program, resulting in a 10-point uptick in kindergarten preparedness in just two years. Dallas ISD isn’t alone on this: State lawmakers last year OK’d another $130 million into funding pre-K programs.
Angela Farley, the Dallas Regional Chamber’s senior vice president for education and workforce, says this is the start of a child’s educational pipeline. “We’ve been able to see great return on investment by getting kids engaged early,” Farley says. “There’s a direct link between (pre-K) with kindergarten readiness and third grade reading levels and on down the pipeline.”
Dallas ISD has also paired with Texas Tech University and UNT Dallas to identify the school’s Spanish speakers and train them to be the next bilingual educators, helping ease the challenge of cold-recruiting these teachers. Meanwhile, the chamber has pored over active labor data to help advise the district on its curriculum and strategic partnerships. For instance, Seagoville High School has the district’s first P-TECH program (Pathways to Technology Early College High School), which includes pathways for careers in business administration, information technology, and software programming. Students earn up to 60 college credit hours from Eastfield College—essentially an associate’s degree. AT&T then provides students with mentors and internships.
Additionally, the district holds after-school seminars for parents and students to navigate the paperwork maze of federal and state immigrant assistance programs, like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals law, which helps immigrants who entered the country ahead of their 16th birthday get a two-year work permit and deportation exemption, as long as they arrived before June 2007.
Combined, these efforts show a district that’s willing to engage with the business community and the realties of its demographics. “It’s the future workforce,” Solis says. “We’ve identified what our businesses need locally to ensure that our DISD students can fill those jobs.”