October 29, 2012
By Matthew Haag
The Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge is bringing interest and attention to West Dallas. Investors and developers have been buying land, betting on opportunity and beginning to change the look of an aging industrial area only minutes from downtown.
For those who live there, the challenges continue — education, persistent poverty and limited opportunities. Many parents work low-wage jobs. As happens elsewhere, they often don’t participate in their children’s education. Of the students who graduate from the only high school in West Dallas, Pinkston, few are prepared for college.
But while some people target investment returns in West Dallas, a new partnership involving schools and social-service agencies is taking a new approach to investing in people’s lives there, starting with children.
Southern Methodist University, the Dallas school district and 20 nonprofits want to collaborate in sharing information, providing support services and studying the impact on students and families.
“If we could get the social sector together in a really strong network, then we could lose fewer children,” said Regina Nippert, executive director of SMU’s Center on Communities and Education. “By the time they get to high school, they are ill-prepared in many ways, and their poverty is inhibiting them.”
Called the School Zone, the initiative will support families and students in a variety of ways — from after-school tutoring, mentoring and arts programs to food donations, parenting classes and therapy.
And a team at SMU will compare those efforts with academic achievement to see what methods work best — or not — for students.
The West Dallas program was inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, an effort involving charter schools and social services for 10,000 children. It has won praise from education reformers but also has been criticized as ineffective in increasing student achievement.
After years of neglect, West Dallas has shown signs of recovery. The decrepit Dallas Housing Authority complex was replaced. A slew of church and nonprofit groups have offered services and hope. Drug houses have been bulldozed, crime watch groups organized.
Community leader Randy Skinner said many of the 26,000 people there still have basic needs: affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, a quality education and more.
“There are all these nutritional challenges and financial challenges that the families face. These families are the working poor, working two to three jobs,” said Skinner, who runs the nonprofit Strategic Justice Initiative, which is not part of the School Zone. “You need systems in place to come in and help their parents succeed.”
Jessica Saurez, who has lived in West Dallas for nine years, said she believes the School Zone could address families’ needs by alerting parents to the community services available to them and their children.
“We want to make sure that kids aren’t just coming to school but going home to running lights, running water and have been fed,” said Saurez, who serves on the School Zone advisory board. “We want to be able to build that resource to help the families in real poverty and to help raise a healthy child.”
Nippert came up with the idea for the School Zone while leading the Dallas Faith Communities Coalition, a nonprofit whose primary objectives are social justice and affordable housing.
Last year, she approached SMU about merging the faith coalition with the university. It made sense, she said, because the research and volunteering efforts in West Dallas by her group and SMU began to overlap. Nippert, who started volunteering in West Dallas with Habitat for Humanity in the 1980s, is now an SMU employee.
In January, the SMU team will begin a seven-year study of 300 prekindergartners and sixth-graders in West Dallas. Researchers will analyze which academic and social programs best keep the younger students on track to graduate and which help prevent the sixth-graders from dropping out.
The SMU team has begun analyzing student achievement this fall and will share the information with nonprofits, to help them “target their resources,” Nippert said.
“If a resource isn’t applied to a child’s specific needs,” she said, “then the resource doesn’t do all the good it could.”
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